Weeks after Maria Sandomenico’s Chihuahua, Luigi, died in August, she shared a lengthy post in her New York City neighborhood Facebook group about how she was struggling with the death of her adopted rescue dog.
In an interview last month, Sandomenico said that in the seven years she had been with Luigi, he had become her “north star”, walking around with her in a variety of custom-made clothes that she made. had bought A pink and black pompom hat was his signature look, although he was also known to wear cashmere.
Sandomenico said she turned to Facebook after Luigi died because she didn’t want to burden her friends with her feelings, and because she wanted to connect with others who had pets. What was the death experience? She was surprised by how many people responded to her post saying they too were grieving the loss of an animal companion and didn’t know where to find help.
Not long after she posted to the Facebook group, Sandomenico, 53, who runs a dog-walking and training business, met several of its members at a local bar. He had invited them there for an informal grief processing session.
“Within 20 minutes, everyone was cracking up in front of everyone,” she said. “They all have these really different experiences, except we all had the same, you know, feelings like no one understands.”
He described the meeting as cathartic. He “made me feel like I wasn’t crazy,” said Sandomenico, who has a silver necklace with a picture of Luigi. She has since hosted another gathering and plans to host them regularly.
Celeste Jones, an interior designer in Palm Beach, Fla., also struggled to cope with the death of her 12-year-old Maltese, ZsaZsa, in 2020.
“The more I searched and the more I looked,” she said, “the more frustrated I became.” Jones, 45, eventually paid for an online program that she said gave her the tools she needed to process her emotions. She has since started hosting free online sessions for others dealing with pet loss.
Those sessions and Sandomenico’s informal meetings are among the growing number of resources available to grieving pet owners. Some providers said demand for their assistance services has increased since the start of the pandemic, as many people get new pets and others develop stronger relationships with pets due to restrictions. Due to which they spend more time at home.
About 62 percent of Americans own pets, according to a 2023 study by the Pew Research Center, and nearly 1 in 5 American households adopted a dog or cat between March 2020 and May 2021, according to an ASPCA survey. But dogs and cats, the most popular pets in the United States, have much shorter average lifespans than humans — as do many other animals kept as pets.
The majority die in front of their owners, many of whom are left with complex feelings of grief that they are ill-equipped to handle on their own, said Colleen Rowland, 67, president of the Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement. .
“People sometimes think they’re going crazy because of what they’re feeling and how bad they feel,” Roland said. His organization, founded by a psychologist in Brooklyn in 1997, offers a free online chat service that attracted more users in 2023 than in 2022, he said.
Jill Goodfriend, a nurse and social worker in the San Francisco Bay Area who works with grieving pet owners, said she’s seen more interest in her services recently, which include free counseling.
Goodfriend, 79, who began counseling pet owners in 2005, credited the boom to the pandemic, which she said made people “more aware of grief and its more inclined to express.”
At Schwarzman Animal Medical Center, which has been operating since 1910 in Manhattan, New York City, a free pet loss group has been available to clients since 1983. Susan Cohen, 79, a veterinary social worker, came up with the idea. For the group, said it started with about five people attending each in-person meeting. By the time he stopped working at the center in 2011, that number had doubled.
The demand for such gatherings has led the center to expand its offerings: there are now several grief groups that meet over video calls a few times a month.
One is for people whose animals have died within the past three months, while the other caters to owners who are still grieving for pets that have died within the past year. Judith Harbor, 40, a veterinary social worker at the center who leads grief groups, recently started a third for owners of dogs with serious health problems. Each group has 20 participants from around the country, and some have waiting lists.
Participants come from a variety of backgrounds, and range in age from 18 to 85, Harbor said. The pets they mourn aren’t just cats and dogs—turtles, cockatiels, parrots, lizards, horses, and rabbits have been raised. Sessions, too, he said.
Harbor, whose work at the center includes daily counseling for individual clients and veterinarians, said many group participants have asked to share their grief over a dying pet with loved ones. are unable to Some people have felt justified in grieving their pets, while others have felt rejected by loved ones who have told them to get another pet and move on, she said.
She said the pain of a pet’s death often goes unrecognized by an individual’s community and society. “When you go through something like this, you really feel the unseen and you’re kind of on your own,” she said.
Victoria Villarreal attended Schwarzman Animal Medical Center grief group sessions for a year after her 13-year-old gray tabby cat Einstein died in 2022. Villarreal, 55, a nurse from Seattle, named the cat for its intelligence and intelligence. described him as a constant companion at home and on trips, including one to New York where he said he delighted housekeepers at a pet-friendly hotel.
She said her grief over Einstein’s death was no different from the grief she felt when her father and her husband died. A 2023 study by the Pew Research Center shows that nearly half of pet owners consider pets as much a part of their family as they do humans.
“I’m not sure I would have gotten through that first year without AMC,” Villarreal said, using the acronym to refer to the medical center. “Your pain is valid. You don’t have to explain why you’re sad. You just have to show it.”
Hamilton Funeral Home in Des Moines, Iowa, runs a free virtual grief group for pet owners 18 and older. Like the Schwarzman Animal Medical Center group, it has drawn people from all over the United States, said Buffy Peters, who oversees bereavement services at the funeral home.
“We know they bring so much light and love into our lives,” Peters said of pets. “Yeah, you might be mad at them, because they messed up or whatever. But you also love them more than that sometimes feels possible.