The animal-human bond is strong. Receiving unconditional love is a singular experience.
Many people consider their pet a member of the family. Time spent with a companion animal may have been the highlight of every day. Losing the love offered by animals can be heartbreaking. The house never seemed so quiet. The days never seemed so empty. Pets are so dependent on people, that just the disruption of the daily routine of caring for them can leave a hole not just in the schedule, but a hole in one’s life.
And sadness may linger. There is no timetable for mourning a loss, but MU’s College of Veterinary Medicine (CVM) has a program that can help bereaved pet owners move through the grieving process, help them cope, and help them heal.
The offices and treatment rooms in the Veterinary Health Center teem with clinicians, residents and interns, students and staff who are dedicated to healing animals, from pets to livestock.
Francesca Tocco’s job is different. Tocco, who holds a master’s degree in social work, attends to human needs in a veterinary setting. She is there to help people who shared their lives with pets, and those pets have now lost their lives. She helps people move through the grieving process.
Tocco wears many hats, and their common fashion is compassion. She’s a veterinary social worker, a grief counselor, and coordinator for the TIGER program: Together In Grief, Easing Recovery.
She hosts Pet Loss Support and Grief Group meetings, from 6 to 8 p.m. every other Monday, in the CVM’s Adams Conference Center. And, for the past five years, she has presented an annual Companion Animal Memorial Event on behalf of the VHC and the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction. This year’s memorial will be held from 11 a.m. to 1 p.m. on March 18 in the Adams Conference Center, 1600 E. Rollins St., Columbia.
“The grief program helps to normalize the loss of a companion animal,” Tocco says. “For pet guardians whose animal is not just a pet but a friend, a companion, a family member, a loved one, it’s very difficult when that companion passes away.”
Frequently, these bereaved guardians have a sense of surprise and even shame at the stinging grief they feel for their pet. And, those feelings can often be difficult to fathom for those around them.
“With the range of personalities in society, not everybody understands that deep sense of loss,” Tocco offers. “The people in your life — at your place of employment, or where you go to school, or even within your circle of friends and family members— they’re only human, so they may not always understand. And so, trying to find a safe space where it’s OK to talk about it can be a struggle.
“In our support group, or at our memorial event, we help to normalize or validate their feelings, to support them, and to be there for them,” she said.
Many of those grieving guardians find that sharing their suffering with others who grieve helps to ease the burden they carry.
Talking about a loss can give reality to something so seemingly unexplainable, so unacceptable. The bereaved can gain perspective on their own pain as they console and commiserate with other souls who understand. The fellowship can help stem an overwhelming flood of emotions by giving them meaning.
“Sometimes, it’s just about having someone to share the stories with, or to look at the pictures with,” Tocco stated. “It’s remembering when you adopted them, how you picked their name, what their favorite activity was, and having someone who actually wants to hear that, someone that doesn’t feel it’s a burden.”
“At the memorial event, we ask people to bring mementos if they feel comfortable, and it’s fascinating to see the range of items that people bring, the pieces of those lives that come out,” Tocco says.
“Usually at the end, there’s some time built in so that people can go to the memento table, and look through those items and sort of interact with one another,” she continues. “You hear, ‘Where did you take that picture,’ ‘Why did you bring her collar,’ or ‘Why is there a squeaky rubber chicken up here?’
“People may be sad, because it’s a memorial event and they are allowed to openly grieve, but you see them smile as they tell the story about the squeaky rubber chicken,” Tocco said. “It’s really amazing.
Before time writes tragedy, it pens many happy memories, and a community built on sorrow can begin to understand that memories are not about the past, but about the future.
“People arrive as strangers, but leave as friends, or as acquaintances who share a common experience,” Tocco ventures. “That doesn’t really happen in humanity every day at such a non-surface level, and so it’s really amazing to watch people who may think they have nothing in common leave a shared space after a couple of hours thinking, ‘I’m not alone.’”