By Christine Galeone, Contributing Writer
Grafton – For many of us, our pets are part of our families. They walk beside us through our joys and pain and sometimes even experience them with us. They are our faithful, loving, caring companions. And losing them can be devastating. Although everyone grieves differently, it sometimes helps to have a compassionate person to talk to. For 20 years, Tufts University’s Pet Loss Support Hotline has endeavored to offer people a listening ear, an understanding mind and a compassionate heart.
The veterinary school at Tufts started the service in 1996 because one of its third-year veterinary students, Tamara Pierce, was inspired to reach out to the community. After reading an article about a pet loss support hotline at Michigan State University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, the student realized how helpful it could be to have a similar service at Tufts. She once worked as a technician in a small-animal hospital and saw how traumatic the loss of a pet can be.
Determined, she sought the assistance of Antony S. Moore, a professor and veterinary oncologist at Tufts until 2003. Because he had also recognized the need for some type of support system, the two worked together with the school to develop the program. Striving to help grieving callers and provide veterinary students with skills to aid their future patients, the program also provided students with grief training from Tufts counselors.
Still staffed by trained student volunteers – under faculty advisement – from Tufts University’s Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine, the hotline has received more than 3,000 calls from people grieving the loss and impending loss of their pets. It has also received calls from people who have been indefinitely separated from their pets. Although the students don’t offer medical advice or counseling, they often help people find the resources they need. Dr. Alicia Karas, assistant professor of anesthesia and pain medicine, is the faculty sponsor of the hotline.
“The community at Cummings School of Veterinary Medicine…values the Pet Loss Support Hotline both as a resource for people grieving the loss of a pet and as an opportunity for its veterinary students to acquire the skills needed for pet loss and grief counseling,” she said.
According to the hotline’s website, http://vet.tufts.edu/petloss/, callers are treated with the dignity and respect that they and their pet companions deserve.
“Volunteering for the hotline gives students an opportunity to learn and practice reflective listening – a skill of enormous importance in their future profession and one from which all humans can benefit,” said Karas. “They learn that individuals vary in their response to grief…and come to understand the benefit that being able to tell the story has on healing. They are able to offer a presence for the callers even with long pauses on the grieving person’s end as they sit with grief. They learn to hear when a caller is having an extraordinary amount of difficulty handling pet loss and to be able to refer them for professional help. They also learn how to ensure that they themselves are able to cope with and not take on too much of the stress of grief…from their clients.”
Karas added that the clinicians also appreciate the service the hotline provides.
“There are many times when clinicians have concern about a specific situation – an elderly person living alone, people dealing with ill or recently deceased family members, or just a feeling that someone is going to have difficulty coping,” shared Karas. “They are grateful to be able to refer clients to a kind listener, as an element of the caring process.”
Although the veterinary students are aware that they can’t take away the pain and emptiness people may feel when they lose a beloved animal companion, the service they offer is invaluable. Tufts University’s Pet Loss Support Hotline continues to strive to offer that listening ear, understanding mind and compassionate heart that can help people through the darkness.
The hotline is available, during the academic year (except holidays), Monday through Friday from 6 to 9 p.m. There is a modified summer schedule. The phone number is 508-839-7966. There is also a 24-hour voicemail. Calls to the voicemail will be returned during the next shift. More information and resources are also available at http://vet.tufts.edu/petloss/.