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Are you mourning the loss of a pet?

spca-flyer.pdf - Adobe Acrobat Pro DCAre you mourning the loss of a pet?
Do you need someone to talk to about it?
Someone who understands?
Someone who mourns the loss of their pet, too?

The SPCA Pet Loss Support Group may help. The Pet Loss Support Group (PLSG) welcomes anyone grieving the loss of a pet, regardless of when your pet passed away or where you are in your healing journey. The PLSG is a place where you can share with others who are grieving the loss of a beloved pet. The group is open to the public and offered as a free service to the community. Registration is not required but encouraged. Go to spcawake.org/services/pet-loss-support-group/

When: 3rd Sunday of each month, 3:30 – 5:30 p.m. Check the meeting schedule on the SPCA calendar for exceptions to the schedule during the holiday season.

Where:  SPCA Curtis Dail Pet Adoption Center
200 Petfinder Lane
Raleigh, NC 27603

Support Group Facilitator
Rob Gierka, Ed.D., is President of the Association for Veterinary Pastoral Education, Inc., a North Carolina non-profit that provides veterinary pastoral care and education. Rob has served as hospital chaplain for Rex Healthcare and the North Carolina School of Veterinary Medicine Veterinary Teaching Hospital.

Contact Maria Hernandez at 919-532-2082 or mhernandez@spcawake.org

Download the spca-flyer, here.


“I won’t eat animals!”: One child’s perspective.

I’m posting this video because it demonstrates a child finding a concrete way of expressing her sympathy for animals by refusing to eat them. The girl is quite young and her conviction remarkable. My guess is that she is a budding vegan, that is, that she would probably not even eat eggs or drink milk if she thought doing so would force an animal into a situation that would make them unhappy. Way to go, girl!

Three Continuing Human-Animal Bonds

The following stories are true. I am posting them here because they demonstrate some of the ways that people find to maintain a continuing human-animal bond. Doubtless, there are many others.

Taking Timmy Home

One day while doing chaplaincy rounds in a veterinary hospital, I noticed a woman sitting in the waiting room. She was staring into space, deep in thought. I introduced myself as the hospital chaplain. She seemed surprised and said, “I didn’t know they had chaplains for pets.”

“I’m waiting for Timmy, my son’s cat,” she continued. “He’s not well. The doctor said he’s got esophageal cancer and recommends euthanasia.” She told me that her son and the cat were very close. Both were ten years old, and they were like brothers. The euthanasia was set for tomorrow, and she was going to take Timmy home today so they could say goodbye.

She had many questions. “Should I bring my son to the euthanasia? What do I tell him? He prayed to God for a healing. How do I tell him that God didn’t answer his prayer?”

The woman’s concerns were all too familiar to me. In my work as a veterinary chaplain, I frequently encountered pet owners who struggled on their own with these difficult questions. Should children attend euthanasias? Does God love pets as much as people love their pets? Is God even aware that my pet is dying? Do pets have souls? And do pets go to Heaven?

I asked the woman if she had talked with other family members or clergy about her concerns and questions. She had not. She didn’t know anyone who she could talk to about Timmy and her son, and her husband had dismissed the issue as trivial. “It’s just a cat,” he had said. She was clearly looking for support, but had not found anyone to help.

These questions are not easy to answer. I told her that I thought it was a good idea to give her son the opportunity to say goodbye to Timmy, but that attending the euthanasia may be difficult for someone his age, especially if you don’t know how the vet is going to handle the procedure. I told her God loves all creatures, including Timmy. God hears your prayers, but God doesn’t always give us what we pray for. I couldn’t tell her whether Timmy would go to Heaven because that’s not for me to know, but the Bible does tell us love never ceases, so I told her the love she and her son share for Timmy will always be with them.

The woman asked me to attend Timmy’s euthanasia. Her son was not there — she had been worried that it would be too difficult for him. We prayed together as Timmy was euthanized. Later, I conducted a memorial service for Timmy when they buried him in their back yard. She thanked me for being there and helping them through this difficult loss.

Ashes in the Closet

I ran into Dr. Jim, Professor Emeritus, on campus one evening. We talked briefly. As we spoke Dr. Jim told me a story about a friend who lost his dog ten years ago and has kept the dog’s ashes ever since in an urn in a closet. Dr. Jim said the man later lost his mother and put her cremains in the closet along with the dog’s ashes. The man recently took his mother’s ashes to West Virginia, where she had grown up, and buried them in the family cemetery. But the man couldn’t bear to part with his dog’s ashes, and the urn remains in the closet.

The Whale Watcher

I attended a work-related conference at the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey. While taking an early morning walk on Fisherman’s Wharf, I introduced myself to Ben, who was a guide for a whale watching service. He and his brother lead tours out of the wharf. Ben was a strong man with large, rough hands who spoke in a brogue. As he described his whale-watching tours to me and some early-morning customers waiting in his shop, Ben told us stories about the whales and other animals we might see on the tour. As he spoke, he wove in stories about his pets, including three dogs that had died and that he had cremated. He still remembered and loved all his deceased animals, and for many years he kept their cremains in three urns on his mantle. He even mentioned a fourth urn, which contained the remains of his pet goldfish. While he spoke about his pets, Ben paused and wiped a tear from his eye. He finished his speech with the following words: “When I go over the side, me pets’ ashes are goin’ wit’ me.” This was a powerful moment for me, to witness this big burly man publicly demonstrating his enduring love for his deceased dogs and his goldfish!


In reflecting on these stories, what comes to mind is the dilemma that many people face when they love and lose a pet. On the one hand we are supported and encouraged when we attach to a new pet. Neighbors and friends welcome our new pet and treat the pet as a member of our family. The media is full of images of happy families with their pets. It’s almost part of the quintessential American Dream: two kids, a house and a dog. The pet industry encourages us to spend money on our pets, from expensive pet toys, clothing and bedding to food specially formulated for puppies and kittens, overweight or aging animals.

Pet illness and death is a particularly thorny issue and is not widely discussed or understood. When pets are sick, people are often faced with expensive treatment options and difficult choices — the same options and choices we face when a human loved one is sick. But euthanasia is a unique and particularly difficult dilemma that pet owners face. When is it time? How can I possibly choose to end the life of a pet I love like a child? Am I killing my pet? Many pet owners struggle to deal with their intense feelings of loss — I can’t possibly let my pet go — and feelings of intense guilt at the same time.

To make a difficult situation even worse, however, pet owners grappling with these perplexing choices and difficult feelings have little emotional support. Researchers call this lack of support “disenfranchised grief.” In the pet loss support group that I founded at the SPCA more than eight years ago, we have a saying: “Grief lasts longer than sympathy.” A pet owner can typically expect two or three weeks of sympathy. Sometimes they get no support or worse, they hear comments like, “It’s just a pet,” or “You can get a new pet.”

Pet Chaplain was established in an effort to respond to this lack of social support. Some veterinary hospitals now offer psychological counseling to their clients. None, to my knowledge, are offering pastoral care. This is a serious problem for many people who may have spiritual or theological questions when a pet dies. The situation has created an entire underclass of people who are denied a very common form of social support that only chaplains can offer. As a result, their questions are forced into a clinical box, treated psychologically rather than spiritually. Their grief is medicalized and treated as a personal mental health issue, when it should be humanized and treated as a social issue.

Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka

The Brickyard Preacher

In 2004 I founded Pet Chaplain, a non-profit veterinary pastoral care service. I began working with people who had lost pets, providing grief support and pastoral care.

When I reflect on this work,  the image of the whale comes to mind. I often recall the story about Keiko, the killer whale, that was the inspiration for the movie “Free Willie.” When Keiko died, a chaplain named Thomas Chatterton performed a memorial service for nearly 700 people. Chatterton said, “Keiko was not one of our kind, but nonetheless he was still one of us.”

The connection between whales and my work as Pet Chaplain first appeared to me in an impromptu conversation with one of the “brickyard preachers” at North Carolina State University. At the time I was a doctoral candidate studying pet loss and bereavement. The NC State brickyard is a large common area outside the university library. Students gather there for various activities, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, celebrating Earth Day, or just hanging out and talking with friends. Itinerate preachers also harangue students there, some preaching “hell-fire and damnation” others arguing about the meaning of passages in the Bible. One preacher, Jonathan, reads from the Bible. You can see him pacing or standing beneath oak trees with his thick black beard and prayer shawl, reading aloud from Isaiah, Ecclesiastes or another part of the Bible in his signature, piercing voice, which can be heard from all corners of the courtyard and beyond.

In 2005, I met Jonathan as I was returning from my Pilates class in the university gymnasium. Unlike most of the preachers who frequent the Brickyard, Jonathan is less interested in preaching his interpretation of the Gospel to the passers-by than just reading the Bible. I saw him and paused to chat. We had talked before on several occasions. I would sometimes stop to listen to part of the passage he was reading and ask a question, as many students did.

In our conversation that evening I mentioned that I was providing pastoral care online and in person to people who have lost a pet and that I called my ministry Pet Chaplain. His brow furrowed, and he began to stroke his beard and looked searchingly into my eyes.

I mused that Jonathan was either concerned, intrigued or inspired. I never know what to expect when I tell people that I provide pastoral care to those who have lost a pet. He querried, “Do you mean to say that you believe animals have souls?” I had a three-mile bicycle ride ahead of me and the sky was quickly darkening, so I tried to dispatch the topic. I told Jonathan that I could not say for sure, but that the question often comes up in conversation with people who have to euthanize a pet. They want to know if it’s OK, and they want to know if their pet will go to Heaven. They want to hold on to some hope that they will see their pet again.

The preacher began to search through his dogeared Bible. He turned to a passage in the book of Jonah and began reading aloud. He read the part where the king of Ninevah, having heard Jonah’s story, believed in his prophetic message. The king threw off his robes, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. The king ordered all of the people of Ninevah to do the same for themselves and to also put sackcloth and ashes on the animals. After reading, the preacher looked at me and added, “You know, when Jesus comes back he’ll be riding a horse.” I smiled. The passage Jonathan had read confirmed to me that the Book of Jonah included the animals in Ninevah’s ritual of reconciliation with God.

The following week I received an unexpected phone call from the NC School of Veterinary Medicine. The woman who called asked if I would help them develop a grief and loss program for students, faculty, staff and clients. I had never been to the vet school so I was awe-struck when I walked into the lobby for our first meeting and saw a full-size whale skeleton hanging high overhead from the atrium ceiling. It reminded me of my conversation with Jonathan about Jonah’s story. It seemed like a sign, a good omen. As it turned out, the vet school hospital administrators I met with that day agreed  to let me have a go at creating a grief and loss program there.

The connection between my work as a pet chaplain and whales surfaced again the following semester when I attended a work-related conference at the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey. While taking an early morning walk on Fisherman’s Wharf, I introduced myself to Ben, who was a guide for a whale watching service. He and his brother lead tours out of the wharf. Ben was a strong man with large, rough hands who spoke in a brogue. As he described his whale-watching tours to me and some early-morning customers waiting in his shop, Ben told us stories about the whales and other animals we might see on the tour. As he spoke, he wove in stories about his pets, including three dogs that had died and that he had cremated. He still remembered and loved all his deceased animals, and for many years he kept their cremains in three urns on his mantle. He even mentioned a fourth urn, which contained the remains of his pet goldfish. While he spoke about his pets, Ben paused and wiped a tear from his eye. He finished his speech with the following words: “When I go over the side, me pets’ ashes are goin’ wit’ me.” This was a powerful moment for me, to witness this big burly man publicly demonstrating his enduring love for his deceased dogs and his goldfish!

In my work as a pet chaplain, I knew that the experience of a continuing human-animal bond is normal for people who have loved and lost a pet. Many who experienced a special relationship with an animal continue to express that connection after the animal dies. Research confirms my observations, clearly demonstrating that humans who lose a pet maintain the connection long after the animal’s death. This connection is called a continuing human-animal bond.

For me, the deep emotional connection that Ben expressed with his deceased pets is like a whale hidden deep beneath of the surface of the water. Sometimes that connection only becomes apparent when we lose the animal and are surprised by our emotion, often years later, affirming that our love for the animal remains strong. This connection is confirmed by the Book of Jonah and the whale and Ninevah’s insistence that animals are an important and continuing part of our spiritual life and our relationship with God.


Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka

Let us make

A rabbi lamented that some people use the Hebrew scriptures to justify human domination of animals and the earth. She was referring to Genesis 1:26, “And God said, Let us make man in our image, after our likeness: and let them have dominion over the fish of the sea, and over the fowl of the air, and over the cattle, and over all the earth, and over every creeping thing that creepeth upon the earth.” Genesis 1:26, KJV.

I took another look at this scripture. It did seem to be describing a relationship of domination between humans and animals. However, after a closer reading, a very interesting and puzzling thing appeared to me. This is the first time the Bible uses the plural pronouns ‘us’ and ‘our.’ It occurs in Genesis 1:26, “Let us make man in our image…” (italics mine). Who is this ‘us’ and ‘our,’ to which the Bible refers? Although I cannot say for sure, I do have a strong hunch.

Up to this point in the creation story, God has created Heaven, earth, day and night, separated the water from the dry land, created all the animals, everything except Adam and Eve. And up to this point, in creating all of these things, God acts alone. Then the Bible reports that God says, “Let us make man in our image…” This is very interesting. One interpretation, from the Catholic interpretive tradition, is that these plural-pronoun referents, ‘us’ and ‘our,’ refer to the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Another interpretation, from the Jewish commentaries, understands these pronoun referents as referring to the Heavenly Host. I would like to propose a third way that one might properly interpret their meaning.

The Jewish philosopher Martin Buber describes two types of relationships, “I-Thou” and “I-It” relationships, a concept inspired by the work of Christian philosopher Soren Kierkegaard. Buber claims that we properly recognize others as a “Thou” and not as an “It” in relating to the world, to other people, and to God. In this passage of Genesis, when God uses the words “let us make man in our image,” it’s as if God is addressing the animals and creation personally. The Bible seems to show God engaging all of creation as subjects in what Buber would describe as an “I-Thou” relationship.

In this passage, God addresses the animals and all created things directly. It is as though God takes a brief pause in this amazing creative act, a moment to reflect upon creation. It’s like a moment of gathering and growing excitement in this dramatic creation story. This is a moment of preparation for the singular event that follows. From this new perspective, I believe we can now propose another explanation for the words, “Let us make man in our image.”

The “us” and “our” refers to all of creation, that is, all things God has created, but also God the creator. At this moment, the Bible suggests, God intends to create man in the image of the creator and also in the image of creation. This is a plausible explanation because it squares with the widely understood nature of humans as being composed of both spirit and flesh, or “Heaven and earth.” Humans are created in the image of the creator – we have the power to create – but we are also created in the image of creation, we have the same characteristics as all created things. These characteristics are named in detail in the Genesis story. All creatures, including humans according to this view, are composed of:

  • things that yield seed
  • things that yield offspring like their own kind
  • creatures that move
  • creatures that multiply.

Therefore, a third way of interpreting Genesis 1:26, might be as one might view the process of any creative act. The artist or creator reflects upon her progress in the act of creating. That is, the creator ponders their creation, reflects and considers how the creation is progressing, and uses their reflexive feedback to inspire, influence and inform the subsequent creation. In this way, all parts of creation, light, dark, earth, moon, stars, land, water, plants, animals and humans are each unique in their own right, but all spring from the same basic physical material of creation.

God’s creation is a unity, inseparable and indivisible. All created things partake of the unity of the whole; the earth, plants, animals, human beings and all things are integral parts of the total work of the creator’s hand. From that we can say that God’s intent is that all are one, and all are intended by their creator to live together on the earth as a unity and holy community. So, what is different, unique about human beings is creativity, the power to create. This gives human beings a special power to envision and imagine the future and build the future they imagine.

This is what we refer to as the creative spirit, a special gift that gives humans great power, but also great responsibility. This responsibility demands that humans periodically pause to ponder their creation, reflect individually and collectively upon our creation, and upon our creative process. We must pause together as a global community and look at what we have created. When we do this, we should address our creation directly and ask these two questions: “What have we created?” “What shall we create?” Are we creating the world we want for ourselves, for our children and grandchildren, for the animals and the planet? One might even say, our unique responsibility and calling is to, “…let us make the world….” We humans, endowed by the creator to be the most creative force on this earth, get to decide to a large degree what this world will be. This may be the greatest insight from this passage in Genesis, that every moment of a human being’s life is a genesis, a new beginning, a decision point where one shall to reflect on the past and present, and decide the future we want. The Bible seems to show God modeling the artist’s way, in creating something good one must decide, must choose the future.

Failing to choose, to deliberately avoid reflecting on our individual and collective action is also a choice. In fact, the very definition of evil, according to Buber, is the inability to choose. He saw that letting human matters take a random course, be dominated by past decisions made in ignorance, chance or through fear, is evil. Not choosing is a choice. Human matters should be coached, guided and led through reason and in love and organized towards the greatest good for all. The greatest good is the common interest, a good in harmony with all earthly creatures, created through reason and especially through sympathy, empathy and care. Therefore, the third way of understanding the tiny phrase “let us make” in the Bible is, “let us together create something really good.”

Now, to add some contrast to this new picture we’re creating of Genesis, let us briefly address the second part of this scripture, “…let them have dominion over….” The English word ‘dominion,’ which is the word used in the King James Bible, springs from the Old English root word ‘dem’ meaning ‘house’ or ‘household.’ The English word ‘dominate,’ which is not the word used in this translation, springs from the Old English root word ‘dam’ meaning ‘tame’ or ‘overcome.’ Would this not lead one to wonder where a reader might get the idea from this scripture that humans should dominate animals and creation? One might rather expect the, thoughtful informed reader to understand that animals, human beings and all of creation dwell together in God’s dominion, should be properly addressed as “Thou,” are original inhabitants of this earthly home, and eternal members of the house of God.

Moreover, the I-Thou relationship continues to exist today between God, humans, animals, and creation. We should understand, therefore, that it is our responsibility to be good keepers of God’s house, and use our power, which God has endowed to us, to create a “dominion over,” that is, a just and wholesome household and spiritual roof over all humans, animals and members of God’s creation.

Whatever one’s particular understanding of the words ‘us’ and ‘our’ in Genesis 1:26, and whether the word ‘dominion’ most closely translates to one as ‘dominate’ or ‘domicile,’ this scripture certainly offers a thoughtful person some deep and important questions to reflect upon in our time.

Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka, Raleigh, April 20, 2008