Paws and Effect
The Ohio State University's Honoring the Bond program allows grieving pet guardians to access the services of social workers to help with hard decisions.

The Honoring the Bond program strives to have social workers available in emergency and specialty vet clinics across the country. Photo by JaneA Kelley

The holidays are often a time of joy and celebration, but for many people, it’s an especially painful time, too. If it’s the first holiday without your special cat, or if your cat is sick or dying, it can be sad and lonely–especially if everyone you know is celebrating while you’re grieving. And, of course, the epicenter of much of this grief is veterinary hospitals, particularly emergency vet clinics and veterinary specialty hospitals.

The Ohio State University Veterinary Medical Center recognized this need and started a program called Honoring the Bond. Honoring the Bond provides a specially trained social worker to help pet guardians cope with the loss of their beloved companion or to make difficult decisions for very ill pets.

“Grief is a very real and life-impacting feeling – whether that loss of a loved one is a human or animal,” said Joelle Nielsen, a licensed social worker and Honoring the Bond program coordinator at Ohio State Veterinary Medical Center. “We believe every veterinary medical center should have a social worker available to support pet owners navigating this loss.”

Nielsen developed and coordinates the Hospital-Based Veterinary Social Work Group, which provides support and collaborative opportunities for social workers at veterinary medical centers across the U.S. and Canada.

Right now, Ohio State’s program is one of only about 30 in the U.S. that provide a full-time social worker on staff at veterinary hospitals to help pet guardians face the loss of a beloved animal companion.

I wish the services of a social worker had been available when I had to have my beloved Dahlia euthanized or when my Kissy died as a result of one of those one-in-a-million freak surgical complications. I can’t remember ever feeling more alone in my life than I did when I had to make that solo walk out of the Animal Emergency Clinic with an empty carrier after I’d had Dahlia put to sleep. In fact, losing Dahlia and Kissy plunged me into a deep depression, although I didn’t recognize it at the time. If I’d had some support on-site, I might have been prompted to get into counseling a lot sooner than I did.

And yes, the holidays were very difficult. Kissy died on Veterans’ Day, and every time that day rolls around I remember everything that led up to her death. Years ago, these memories were along the brooding and “shoulda, coulda, woulda” line, but I’m grateful to say that now I remember the good times and how brave that cat was, overcoming a lifetime of trauma and being able to open her heart to the love I had for her. Dahlia died around Easter, and I still think of her a lot in early April. I’m glad neither of them died at Christmas time because even though I’m a pagan, Christmas is my favorite holiday of the year (Hey, it’s OK; just about everything we know as a Christmas tradition here in the U.S. was taken from pagan religions in the first place, right?) I have great compassion for those who are grieving during this season.

A shared photo is one way to honor a beloved pet.

One of Nielsen’s Honor the Bond clients, a woman she has helped through many cat illnesses and losses, shared this photo to honor her beloved cats, Hope, Micah, and Simba.

“The holidays can be especially difficult for owners that have lost a beloved cat. Sometimes, we can gently guide ourselves to more positive thoughts. We can recognize and honor that some memories make us sad, and also realize that those same memories can bring a smile to our face,” said Nielsen. “It is important to give ourselves permission to feel these emotions and remember those we lost. Some may reach out to a trusted friend, advisor or counselor. Others may choose do something creative to honor their cat’s memory, such as a tree ornament or a special holiday picture frame.”

I’ve honored my cats’ memories by keeping their collars and hanging them over a small Buddha statue I have on my altar. You can see my altar in the picture at the top of this story. I also honor their memories by writing their stories and sharing them with you on this blog and on the Paws and Effect Facebook (and Twitter, and Instagram) pages. By the way, if you’re not following us on social, what are you waiting for? I’ve also done rituals, either solo or with one or two friends, where I tell the cats’ stories and send their ashes off to the west.

It would be wonderful if social workers were available at vet specialty and emergency centers across the country. The Honoring the Bond program is a fantastic idea whose time has come. The best way to make this happen is to spread the word about Honoring the Bond and encourage owners of clinics to make this service available to their clients.

What have you done to honor your beloved and gone-before cats? Would you have benefited from having a veterinary social worker available during your cat’s illness and after their death? Please let us know in the comments.

Are you grieving the loss of a beloved cat right now? There are hotlines and websites that can help you process your feelings and honor your cat’s life. You can also share your stories here if you like. You’re in a community of cat lovers here and all of us have experienced what you’re going through right now, so please reach out if you need some support.

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