Anyone who is a pet owner will at some point experience grief. Earlier this week, I posted a review of Grieving the Death of a Pet. The book’s author Betty Carmack also graciously took time for an interview about pet loss.
ALLISON: What is your first memory of a pet?
BETTY: Even though I grew up with pets, they stayed outside so I really didn’t have much of a connection with them. Contrast that to my life since I’ve been able to have my own pets who fully share my life and are one of the heartbeats of my life–fully living inside and sharing my life in many rich and deep ways. My first full memory of a pet came, perhaps, when I was in the 5th or 6th grade when Pudgy, one of our dogs, got distemper (I think it was) and we nursed him back to health. The veterinarian wasn’t optimistic, but we tried, and we succeeded. I don’t remember all we did for him but I do know he was down in the basement and I/we took care of him–his physical needs and his medical needs. That’s the first time I remember actually taking care of another living being who needed my ongoing care. I imagine in some way that powerful experience impacted my decision to go into nursing, a caring profession.
ALLISON: What is your first experience with grief?
BETTY: My first real experience with grief was when Rocky, my dachshund, died in the rafting accident in 1978. I was devastated. And because this was my first experience with grief, I had no way of knowing how I would even get through this grief. I did get some support, but back then there were no pet loss support groups, no books about pet loss, and certainly no individual counselors who worked with those grieving the death of a loved animal companion. I would have given anything for a pet loss support group or a counselor who specialized in pet loss. I tell that story in my book, Grieving the Death of a Pet, and share how that experience of grief was the impetus for my beginning work as a pet loss counselor. It was important to me that Rocky’s death not be in vain, and I can say with gratification that something positive did come from his death.
ALLISON: Growing up, what was your idea of a dream job?
BETTY:I don’t remember having a dream job as a child although I did play “doctor’s office” and “FBI” — talk about an interesting contrasting pair of games. As I got more into high school I knew I wanted to do something in the way of helping others–I looked into social work, physical therapy, psychology, psychiatry, nursing–each of those would involve caring for others. It was truly my good fortune that I ended up in nursing as that has been a most gratifying profession all these years. I feel truly fortunate that I became a nurse and could care for patients and their families. I became a teacher of nurses which was exceedingly gratifying. I’ve done research in different aspects and I’ve given presentations. My nursing colleagues have enriched my life. Nursing opened many doors for me.
ALLISON: Why did you become a pet loss counselor?
BETTY: One day about 1981 I had my TV on to the Today Show. In the background I heard an interview with Jamie Quackenbush, a social worker at the School of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Pennsylvania. He was talking about the work he did with clients struggling with the decision of euthanasia as well as providing grief support to those whose animals had died. I thought to myself, “I could do that. I have the academic background for that and I have the clinical experience of having worked with those in grief.” In the three or so years since Rocky had died, I had talked with others whose animals had died, and there was no place for them to go, no one to talk with other than family and friends. I made contact with Jamie Quackenbush, and he was most helpful to me. In 1982 I approached the SF SPCA and asked if they would support my leading a pet loss support group. They said, “yes,” and for the past 30 years I have offered a pet loss support group every month. What a privilege this has been to my life. To have people trust me with their most precious and private grief is a true gift. Bottom line, I became a pet loss counselor to help people, to not have Rocky’s death be in vain, and to meet a need.
ALLISON: What training was involved?
BETTY: I had both my Masters in Psychiatric Nursing and my doctorate in Educational Psychology, with a focus on Guidance and Counseling. I had 20 years in nursing practice, during which I had worked with people–patients and their families–in grief. I regularly kept up with ongoing education through conferences and continuing education courses.
ALLISON: What obstacles did you encounter to being accepted as a pet loss counselor?
BETTY: I had more support than obstacles as people for the most part recognized there was a need for such a service. Because this was new, I got several articles published in Bay Area newspapers about me and my work. A couple of television reporters wanted to do stories on me and my group. However, I did have some skeptical responses from people, “only in California” and “is this a joke?” I knew, though, that this was important work, and I knew there was a real need for it. I believed in it, and I continued it in spite of the obstacles and skepticism. Today pet loss is recognized as a significant and very real loss. There are multiple resources today to help those in grief. I feel like my early efforts have been validated.
ALLISON: You maintained a clinical practice through your work at an acute psychiatric hospital AND had a private practice in which you help those who grieve the death of an animal companion. How did you balance those two commitments?
BETTY: And I was teaching full time also. I am a great believer in self-care, and I regularly taught that to students. I did research in balancing engagement and detachment in caregiving, and what I learned in that research I practiced on a daily basis. Today I teach about compassion fatigue to others. So, all of this self-care knowledge I try to put into practice in my own life. I feel like I do a pretty good job of it. Since I retired from both my professorship and my inpatient acute nursing position, I don’t have the same degree of stress that I did. However, I still have to balance professional activities in my life. I feel I consciously do so with an over-riding practice of self-care.
ALLISON: What interests do you have outside of animal welfare?
BETTY: Many–opera, baseball, traveling, politics, deep rich conversations in which I get my thinking stretched. I’m a student at the Fromm Institute which is a center for life-long learning at the University of San Francisco. I’ve been enrolled as a student for seven years, and I’ve taken many courses in a variety of subjects. I love to keep learning.
ALLISON: What changes would you still like to see happen in this field?
BETTY: Increasing acceptance of pet loss as a significant loss. Too often pet loss has been a disenfranchised grief wherein the loss isn’t recognized as equal to other more recognized losses. We have made great strides in decreasing the disenfranchised aspect of pet loss, but we still have a long way to go. I still hear people say how they have gotten responses such as, “It’s just a dog, for Heaven’s sake–go get another one.” Or, people will be told, “it’s been three weeks already, are you still crying?” T.S. Elliot wrote, “we shall not cease from exploration and the end of all our exploring will be to arrive at the place where we started and know the place for the first time.” I knew the importance of pet loss counseling 30 years ago when I approached the SFSPCA. Now I know it even more so. I hope my commitment and efforts will continue to pave the way to let others “…to arrive at the place where we started and know the place for the first time.”
ALLISON: What’s on your bucket list?
BETTY: Great question! I have many things I’d like to do but there is really nothing on a bucket list that I feel like I must do. I try to live each day with appreciation and gratitude for what I have and for what I’m able to do. I’m trying not to “put off” things but to genuinely live each day with a heart full of gratitude. Thank you for that question as well as all these others. I appreciate being given the opportunity to go back and think through what you have asked. Reflecting on the past 30 years and what they have meant to my life….
I originally wrote this article in 2015. At that time, I had just begun to volunteer to work with cats. Now our family has three cats and we regularly foster kittens. I also run my own cat behavior consulting and training business, more of which you can find out about at Allison Helps Cats. You can also find Allison Helps Cats on most major social media platforms.