Grieving the death of a pet can leave people feeling overwhelmed and alone. The Companion Animal Related Emotions (CARE) Pet Loss Helpline was established to provide help coping with those emotions, whether you are grieving or anticipating the loss of your pet.
Gail Wallis Hague, a counseling psychologist with close to 40 years of experience, works as the grief counselor at the University of Illinois Veterinary Teaching Hospital in Urbana, and she may very well be the person who answers your call.
“We have designated hours — 1 to 6 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays — when calls are answered immediately,” said Hague. “Callers at other times will be invited to leave a message, and those calls will be returned as soon as possible.”
Hague has recruited and trained a few volunteers, veterinary technicians or veterinary students associated with the College of Veterinary Medicine, who also staff the helpline.
“The line is open to anyone and everyone, not just clients of the teaching hospital,” she stresses. “Owners are welcome to call anonymously. We promise to lend a compassionate ear and offer advice and support. However, we cannot give medical advice, and will direct you to a veterinarian if this is necessary.”
The mission of the CARE Helpline is to alleviate some of the grief and pain that people experience when they lose a beloved pet. Similar helplines exist throughout the country, often associated with veterinary colleges.
“Grief is trauma. For most people, it comes over them in waves,” says Hague. “We try to stay away from platitudes — time doesn’t heal all wounds — but grief does change all the time.
“With appropriate care and support, people begin to notice that over time the waves of grief get further apart and don’t knock them down with quite as much force. They develop the ability to scramble back onto their feet more quickly. Eventually grief becomes a part of their history, not what defines them. That is the light at the end of the tunnel.”
Pet owners may call the helpline for a variety of pet-related emotional struggles.
“Owners may call in preparation to or as a result of a euthanasia or unexpected death. Others may call to talk out decisions about their pet’s care they have to make, especially if their family isn’t being supportive,” says Hague. “We aim to offer each client a warm, available environment full of understanding.”
The goal of each conversation is for callers to feel a bit better, and more in control of their grief, than they did when they dialed the number.
The telephone line offers an easily accessible way for owners to reach out for help.
“Owners who call in are usually pretty raw with grief and are very willing to open up. Because they are ready to talk about their sorrow, we are able to accomplish a little more in a shorter period of time,” explains Hague.
There is no time restriction on calls, and owners are welcome and encouraged to call back if they need to. Owners are also welcome to make an appointment for an in-person session. Hague and others answering the line can also suggest ways for callers to find a qualified therapist in their area.
If Hague or her volunteers feel that a caller is in danger of self-harm or harm to others, they will encourage the caller to seek immediate help, or even call 911 themselves if necessary. Safety is always the number one concern.
“Oftentimes when pet owners lose a beloved animal companion, they are not supported by those around them as they would be in the case of losing a human loved one,” notes Hague. “Not everyone appreciates the struggle that can accompany grief due to pet loss. We want to be available to provide that support.”
If you have recently lost a pet or are going through a difficult time, call (217) 244-CARE or visit the CARE Helpline website (vetmed.illinois.edu/care/) to learn more about the grief process, how grieving may affect various family members, and print and digital grief resources.