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Grieving a Pet: How an Animal Chaplain Can Help You Heal

You don’t have to shoulder your loss alone. 

Kaleel Sakakeeny and a puppy pal

The loss of his beloved cat five years ago left Kaleel Sakakeeny reeling. “When Kyro passed away, my world fell apart,” he says. He stumbled through each day, enveloped in grief. Kaleel sought professional help, but most psychologists, he discovered, don’t specialize in dealing with grief related to losing an animal companion. His search led him to the animal chaplain training program—launched by Rev. Dr. Sandra Passmore Byland in 2003—at Emerson Theological Institute, headquartered in Oakhurst, California. “I realized that my broken heart was not a mental health issue, but a spiritual one,” says Kaleel, who wanted to not only heal from his own loss but also help others do the same. He is now an ordained and certified animal chaplain and pet bereavement counselor.

What do pet chaplains do? How did you become one?

Animal chaplains spread the message of kindness and compassion for all animals—both companion and wild—through spiritual outreach and support. They officiate memorial services for pets and visit animals in veterinary hospitals and shelters, as well as offer counseling and support for families undergoing loss and bereavement.

I live in Boston and studied through distance learning to receive my certification from Emerson Theological. I was ordained in Phoenix, Arizona, in 2019 as a nondenominational pastor and animal chaplain.

What does your work as a pet grief counselor entail?

Those who complete the animal chaplain program follow various paths—some work in homeless shelters, others work with faith-based organizations. I focus on helping people with the loss of beloved animal companions through online ministry support groups, as well as conducting counseling over the phone. Before Covid, I sometimes met clients in person.

How do you help grieving pet owners?

Everyone grieves in different ways, but there are many common denominators, such as feelings of emptiness, the inability to sleep and a desire to disconnect from other people. It’s important not to try to “fix” grieving pet parents by telling them that “everything is okay” and “this will pass.” Instead, I encourage people to accept their feelings. We are a grief-avoidance society, but grief is a natural response to having loved and lost. This is a natural process.

Once a month I hold a Zoom support group where I set a real table (plates and all!) and ask the onscreen participants to invite their feelings to the table. During the exercise I make place cards for their emotions—Mr. Anger, Miss Heartache, for example. As the grieving parents engage in conversation with each other, they realize those emotions are not their enemies and they begin to relax.

What can we do to help ourselves through the grieving process?

Listen to your feelings. Don’t judge yourself. It’s okay if your brain is fuzzy right now; there is nothing wrong with what you are feeling. I also encourage people to participate in active mourning, which includes crying, dancing, painting, journaling and writing a letter to your deceased pet.

What do you want people to know about pet chaplains and bereavement counselors?

We can help! It doesn’t matter how long your pet lived or how much time has passed since they died. The pain is real. Loss is directly related to the power of your love. You’ve loved this animal companion deeply so their absence will be deeply felt. There’s no time limit on grieving a pet and there’s no rule that says you can’t talk to someone about it.

Kaleel Sakakeeny is an ordained animal chaplain and credentialed pet loss and bereavement counselor with B.A., M.A. and M.S. degrees. He is also certified in animal communication. Connect with him at animaltalksinc.com.

For more inspiring animal stories, subscribe to All Creatures magazine.

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