By Sharon Heiber

Many people consider their pet to be a member of their family. And when that pet passes away, many find the loss almost too hard to bear.

Bruce Friend was one of those people. When Bruce lost his 16-year-old cat Richie, his friends were sympathetic at first. But long after others stopped asking about Richie, his grief remained. “I guess I was being a typical male, trying to deny my feelings. But it got to the point that I didn’t know if it was ever going to end,” Bruce said. Finally Bruce called a crisis line, which referred him to the Seattle Animal Shelter Pet Loss Support Group.

Founded by volunteer Connie Starr as part of her master’s degree project in counseling psychology, the support group has been giving pet owners a place to find unconditional support and understanding for more than nine years. Connie was inspired to start the group after the loss of her dog Ruby, who died at age 4 1/2 of lymphoma. At weekly sessions facilitated by trained volunteers, owners pets of all types of animals—birds, rabbits, hamsters, along with dogs and cats—share their stories.

“Often people are kind of shell shocked, still reeling from the loss of their best friend. Coming to the shelter, finding the support of our volunteers and others in the group, helps them to realize their feelings are totally normal,” Connie said.

While the average support group participant attends one or two sessions, some, like Bruce Friend, find a lasting connection. After attending a several sessions as a participant, Bruce became a volunteer facilitator. He led sessions for four years, until moving from Seattle to care for his father. “I was so impressed with the group as a client and with the work of the animal shelter, it made me want to get involved as a volunteer,” Bruce said.

The group’s volunteers also write condolence cards to Seattle pet owners that have recently lost their pets. The Shelter finds out about the deaths when people return licensing renewal notices, and the cards contain information about the support group.

The pet loss support group meets every Thursday night from 6 to 7:30 pm in the Seattle Animal Shelter conference room, which is accessed directly off of 15th Avenue (attendees can park in the shelter lot and walk up the stairs to 15th Avenue). A team of three volunteers facilitate each session. Nearly 10 years after founding the program, Connie Starr still volunteers each month, even though doing so now means driving in from her home in Cle Elum.“There are very few things that you can do in life that make people feel better. It is rewarding to know that you are a part of helping people heal,” Connie said.

Photo: Connie with her dog Ruby, who was the inspiration for the support group.. When Connie isn’t volunteering for the Seattle Animal Shelter, she runs NW Snowdog Rescue, Inc., a northern breed rescue group. More information about the group can be found at https://www.facebook.com/NWSnowdogRescue.