Jeannine Moga is a clinical counselor at NC State University’s Veterinary Health Complex where she supports owners who may have received challenging news about their animal or who are in the process of making difficult decisions concerning a beloved animal’s life. A full-time counselor working in a veterinary environment is relatively new and NC State’s Veterinary Health Complex is one of some 10 veterinary medical centers in the U.S. offering counseling services. A graduate of University of Minnesota’s School of Social Work, Jeannine joined the College of Veterinary Medicine this past September after creating and managing a clinical counseling program at the University of Minnesota College of Veterinary Medicine.
What is your role as a clinical counselor at the NC State CVM’s Veterinary Health Complex?
I work with clinicians and support clients of all three facilities—the Randall B. Terry, Jr. Companion Animal Veterinary Medical Center, the Equine and Farm Animal Veterinary Center, and the Veterinary Health and Wellness Center. An owner in the Oncology Service, for example, may benefit from my support during a dog’s long cancer treatment. A horse owner facing an expensive colic surgery may need to talk through treatment decisions and troubleshoot finances. A cat owner being seen by the Behavioral Medicine Service may need support through a serious behavior issue that is highly disruptive to the household. Families may need extra support as they work through deep emotional issues. My goal as an adjunct to the medical team is to ensure the client is fully informed of the medical situation, possible treatment options and potential outcomes, and feels fully supported throughout the process.
What is the process for a client to talk with you?
This can happen in several ways. A clinician may say to a client who is facing an agonizing treatment decision, “Look, I know this is difficult. We have a staff counselor here who can talk with you about your situation if you would like.” It’s possible that a clinician may feel it would be beneficial for me to be in the room when a difficult diagnosis is delivered to provide support and perhaps to help translate and ensure the client understands the situation. These conversations can be overwhelming for a client; it’s a great deal of information shared in a short amount of time. I may also engage directly if I see a tearful client in the reception area. I’ll introduce myself and sit and talk with them if they would like. Sometimes folks successfully cope with the demands of veterinary treatment but get stuck when the end of an animal’s life approaches. I can engage at any point in the process—at the beginning of treatment, throughout treatment, or at the end of life.
How much grief is appropriate or normal in these situations?
There is a wide range of “normal” responses to loss—nothing surprises me! What I often I tell folks is that it is normal to find yourself stuck on an aspect of your animal’s illness, injury, or death. It is also quite normal to feel guilty or wonder if you made the right decisions. Many people question themselves after a loved one dies. But if you remain fixated on some element of your animal’s death for a long period of time and these thoughts are dominating and disruptive to your daily life, it might be useful to talk with someone who can help you process the experience differently. This is particularly true if you witnessed the traumatic death of an animal because the combination of trauma and death can be overwhelming.
How can friends and relatives help a person work through the grief process?
They can help by simply talking about the pet. Remember the pet fondly and allow the person as much time as they need to begin to feel better. We tend to minimize death in our Western culture because we do not know what to say to ‘make it better.’ Many people also wonder if there is an acceptable time table for mourning, believing that at a certain point you should move on. It is important to remember that different people process loss differently, and everyone will find peace with loss in their own way. Friends and family are often uncertain if it’s okay to ask how the person is doing but talking is good. Sharing feelings and memories can be healing even months or years after a loss.
How do you explain your grief to someone who has never loved an animal?
People mourning the loss of an animal companion bring this up a lot. It is common to feel hurt and marginalized when others say that they don’t understand why the person is still mourning. They may hear the comment, ‘After all, it was just a dog, or just a cat.’ Obviously, it was not just a dog or just a cat to the person grieving. There is not much social support for animal loss in the U.S. and this makes owners dependent on the veterinary team for support. Those who work with animals every day understand how important these animals are to their people. So when folks hear a dismissive ‘it was just a dog’ comment, even from well-meaning individuals, they can say, ‘That’s not true for me.’
What makes the human-animal bond so special?
The relationships people have with their animals are often deep and enduring. Our pets are incredibly integrated into our daily routines. If we are not with them and caring for them, we are scheduling our days around them and thinking about their needs when we return home. We share an intimacy with our pets that we may not afford the people in our lives. The relationships we have with our animals are not burdened by the expectations we often put upon our relationships with other humans—many people will say that our animals accept us as we are, no strings attached.
How to explain the death of a beloved pet to a young child?
The first inclination of many parents is to protect their child from pain. Parents often fear that a child will be traumatized by death. What I explain to parents is that since the loss of a pet is usually a child’s first experience with death, it is a valuable teaching opportunity that does not have to be scary. I recommend that parents are simple and honest in their explanations and provide an opportunity, whenever possible, to say goodbye. It’s also important to let the child talk about the situation and to take as much time as they need to ask questions. Older children may wish to be present at the time of death or actively memorialize their pet. Handling a pet’s death in a straightforward and honest manner is a perfect opportunity to teach an important lesson about the cycle of life.
How long should a person wait before bringing another pet into the home?
There is no right or wrong answer, but this question is very common. Starting a new relationship with another animal is an intensive commitment and I generally recommend that people wait to start this process until they have the extra energy to devote to that new relationship. Grief is a whole body experience: it’s emotionally, physically, and spiritually taxing. A good rule of thumb is to wait until everyone in the household has enough energy to devote to the development of a new relationship with the “next right animal” they bring home.
How do you, as a clinical counselor, deal with the challenge of helping clients through the very emotional experience of pet loss.
It’s a great privilege to support clients during a very vulnerable part of their day. I derive a great sense of satisfaction from working with people who value and honor their animals and who would do anything in the world to help them. When I first started working in this field, I carried the day’s emotions home with me. I internalized much of the pain I saw every day and that can wear you down pretty quickly. The way I think about it now—and it required a change in my mindset— is that dealing with death is sacred work. To usher a living being out of this world in a loving and supportive way, and then comfort the people who are left behind, is a rare blessing. So if I can help someone deal with what is an awful situation and help them to feel a little better, I have done my work. That does not mean there are not cases that break my heart—that happens. I find most of the time, though that the gratitude for the work outweighs the tragedy I sometimes encounter.