PLEASANT HILL -- Vicki Smith will never forget the time she and her family suffered what she described as a devastating loss -- the death of their family dog.
"Junkie," a border collie and Labrador mix, was a 1-year-old stray who was found at a junkyard before Smith took him home.
"My son had been asking for a dog and there he was. He was such a wonderful dog with the children," Smith said. "My children treated him as though he was a sibling."
So when Junkie died at 16, it was a sad day for Smith and her family.
"It was a horrendous loss because he was part of the family," she said. "I'd never had an attachment with a dog so strongly."
As a licensed marriage and family therapist and bereavement counselor for Hospice of the East Bay, Smith is familiar with dealing with loss. Yet, she said, pet loss is often considered a disenfranchised grief -- loss that isn't socially acceptable.
"It's very similar to people loss," Smith said. "We can't believe it's happening."
Because Smith believes that pet loss is legitimate and one that deserves attention, she has formed a Pet Loss Support Group through a partnership with Hospice of the East Bay and Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation.
The ongoing group meets from noon to 1:30 p.m. at ARF in Walnut Creek. Anyone in need of support to process natural feelings of grief resulting from the death of a beloved animal companion can attend, Smith said.
The group includes pet parents, animal caregivers, and animal foster parents and volunteers who are all encouraged to attend the free service, she said.
During bereavement counseling sessions, Smith said many widows and widowers have emphasized the importance of a having a pet in their lives.
"They would often talk about intense grief over the loss of a spouse and how their cat or dog saved their lives," Smith said.
Many of the elderly clients have mentioned that having a pet keeps them going, she said.
"They say their animals give them a reason to get up in the morning to take care of their companion," Smith said.
Many people have heard others say, "You can always get another dog or cat," and don't seem to realize that everyone grieves differently. This is where a support group may help people who think their feelings are not natural or understood, she said.
There's even the grief and guilt that goes with euthanizing a pet, Smith said.
In our culture, some people don't consider the death of a pet as significant as that of a human companion, said Joseph Lumello, Hospice bereavement services manager.
"Then people start to think, 'Maybe there is something wrong with me'" he said. "We're entitled to have that grief. The love the animals give us is unconditional," Lumello said. "Grief is as unique as each person. There's no right or wrong way to grieve."
Smith said that talking about grief and receiving support normalizes a person's experience.
"It helps people understand their grief is normal. We'll talk about attachments with animals, how they're feeling, the importance of feeling their feelings with people who get it, people who understand."
Lumello said he's grateful for ARF's support and providing the venue for the monthly meetings that also helps to increase awareness that there are a lot of animals in need of a good home.
Who: Hospice of the East Bay and Tony LaRussa's Animal Rescue Foundation (ARF)
What: Pet Loss Support Group
When: noon-1:30 p.m. first Tuesday of the month
Where: ARF, 2890 Mitchell Drive, Walnut Creek
Information: Vicki Smith at 925-887-5678 ext. 1075, or firstname.lastname@example.org