Farewell, Sweet Pet WSU Hotline Offers Counseling For Those Grieving The Loss Of A Special Friend

When a special friend dies, some people call a counselor at Washington State University for help.

Especially if the friend meowed, barked, chirped or squeaked.

Charlene Douglas helps people deal with the grief much of society overlooks.

“Society is OK with a display of grief when a person dies, but many people do not understand the human-animal bond,” said Douglas, counselor for the Pet Loss Partnership Program. “I let them know it’s OK for people to feel sad, to cry and to grieve over the loss of a pet.”

Douglas is the program’s only counselor, available 24 hours a day at the office or at home.

The program, sponsored by People-Pet Partnership of the college of veterinary medicine, began in January 1991.

People-Pet Partnership originally was designed to be an educational program for college students. It has expanded to include two educational programs, a program to bring well-behaved pets into area nursing homes and the Pullman Memorial Hospital, and the pet loss program. All are non-profit programs funded through donations and grants.

Leo Bustad, director of People-Pet Partnership, had been receiving many calls about the lack of someone to talk to about the loss of a “closely bonded animal.”

“For many, their pet animal is a member of their family, and to lose a child is the ultimate in tragedy,” Bustad said.

Douglas started the Pet Loss Partnership Program to meet this need.

Douglas, who has a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s in counseling, first used the program’s counseling position as a Ph.D. internship for Oklahoma State University.

Then she got hooked.

“The program was such a success and so utilized the first year that there was no way we could ethically close the doors on it,” Douglas said.

She now has a part-time faculty position and is paid $1,000 a month for her work, basically a token salary so she doesn’t leave.

Douglas counsels most people over the phone, through letters or through electronic mail on the Internet, rather than in person.

“It’s more of a hotline than face-to-face counseling,” she said.

The program’s telephone number - (509) 335-4569 on weekdays, (509) 335-1303 on weekends - was included in a brochure placed in veterinary offices throughout the country, so Douglas fields one or two calls a day from people nationwide.

As the program turns 4 years old this month, it has had nearly 550 clients.

“Not every psychologist or counselor understands the attachment of person to animal,” she said.

“Death is a funny subject, anyhow; sort of a taboo issue. Mostly what I do is normalize what they’re going through.

“People are such individuals; they grieve for different periods of time,” Douglas said.

“I never, ever suggest that they get another pet. That’s a personal choice.”

Douglas maintains that a pet can never be replaced.

“You can start a relationship with a new pet, but you can’t replace one, any more than you could replace a person,” she said.

Having lost two pets herself, Douglas knows the pain her clients are experiencing.

“It’s interesting that these people form the immediate trust in me; they tell me everything,” Douglas said.

She communicates with some of her clients once, some weekly, and some have kept in contact since the clinic opened.

A woman in Colorado who lost a pet called every other day until she got her phone bill, Douglas said. Now she writes once in awhile.

“Many of these people just want to verify that it’s OK to feel sad,” Douglas said. “I let them know it’s OK if they spend a half-hour crying on the phone.”

As part of the free service, each client receives a sympathy card and a big packet of information.

Many of Douglas’ clients are grieving over the losses of cats and dogs, but some pets have been reptiles. She received calls about a horse and a pig.

“Length of time having the animal seems to make no difference (in the amount of grief experienced), nor does size of animal,” Douglas said.

Euthanasia is a common topic among callers, Douglas said. Many feel guilty about having their pets euthanized, and some want to lash out at a family member or the veterinarian out of frustration over the decision.

Two people were so convinced they were responsible for their pets’ deaths that they threatened to commit suicide, Douglas said.

Douglas tries to use the term “euthanized” instead of “put to sleep” to avoid possible confusion and trauma for children.

“Some may not understand the difference between their parents putting them to sleep at night and having to part with a cherished pet forever,” Douglas said.

Parents and teachers occasionally call for advice if children are involved, so Douglas doesn’t deal directly with them.

Many people write to thank Douglas for her help. “It’s a very gratifying job, but it can get depressing,” she said.

“Every once in awhile I have to just sit in here and cry.”

Douglas’ other duties and the animals around the office help her keep the sad stories she hears in perspective.

“I do the job because it has to be done. These people have to have someone to talk to, and I truly enjoy helping them.”

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