I've been there: Pet grief support comes to Philly | Stu Bykofsky

(From left:) Chris Jennings of Drexel Hill, Cherie Abline of Fishtown, Kris Klufas of Chestnut Hill, and Stephanie Belak of Florence, N.J., participate in first meeting of Day by Day Pet Caregiver Support, in September at the Cat Doctor in Philadelphia.

The tears came, as you knew they would.

It was the first Philadelphia meeting of Day by Day Pet Caregiver Support, a Drexel Hill-based emotional support group for people who are caregivers for sick pets or who have lost their animal friends.

I can see some eye rolls among those who have never given their hearts to an animal, people who don’t understand the actual bond between species.

Kathryn Jennings understands. She founded Day by Day five years ago as severe illnesses were attacking her three pet schnauzers. The dark cloud of smothering sadness sparked an idea for pet grief counseling, “because we knew what we’d be facing,” she says.

During eight months ending in 2012, she lost all three fur babies. She still can’t bear having dogs in the house, but has adopted three cats.

Day by Day “offers an opportunity to mourn publicly with people who are not just sympathetic, but empathetic,” she says. “People say, ‘It was just a dog, it was just a cat.’ ”

Hearing that is painful to the survivors, she says. Day by Day offers a helpful website along with professional licensed counseling, monthly support groups, a Yahoo chat group, and a weekly check-in service — all free.

The Philadelphia meeting was at the Cat Doctor veterinary office in Fairmount last month. Future sessions, at no charge, will be held there on the fourth Thursday of each month at 6 p.m. In addition to Kathryn’s husband, Chris, the first meeting was attended by Cherie Abline of Fishtown, Kris Klufas of Chestnut Hill, and Stephanie Belak of Florence in the waiting room of the vet office. I was there as a journalist observer, but as an animal lover, I was drawn in as a participant.

The Day by Day support circle allows hurting pet people to grieve without fear of mockery.

“Losing a pet takes away a part of your identity,” says Stephanie, “like being a mom or dad.” In many good, caring homes, the caregivers of dogs and cats refer to themselves as Mommy and Daddy because that defines the nature of the relationship with animals who may have the intellect of a toddler.

Kathryn equates the love of her animals with that of children. She and Chris are parents of two boys and a girl, all adopted from overseas.

One of the sad facts of pet ownership is that the pet usually dies before the caregiver, after getting sick.

Cherie says the guardian must ask: “Is it time? Does Fluffy still enjoy being a cat?” When her beloved Ruby was in her final minutes, Cherie went to the vet to keep Ruby alive long enough for her husband, Ryan, to say goodbye.

Camera icon TRACIE VAN AUKEN
Cherie Abline of Fishtown dabs her eyes during first meeting of Day by Day.

Kris remembers the heartbreak of returning home after her cat’s death and not being greeted at the door, a food bowl standing on the floor like a gravestone.

About here, the tissues come out.

Over my life, I have lived with four dogs (and one cat, an aberration), and each has had a distinct personality. All good guardians assume responsibility for an innocent life, a gentle creature who can’t live without your care.

The gifts are many: companionship, unquestioning loyalty, a partner in adventure, a source of laughter, and the satisfaction of providing a home for a friendly, if nonhuman, soul.

When my 10-year-old lithe and athletic cat began to lose his rear legs, he changed. In his green-gold eyes I could see confusion when he no longer could leap to the tabletop, when he lost balance and slipped off the back of the sofa. The answer was no to Cherie’s question, “Does Ashes still enjoy being a cat?” That is when caregiver becomes God, and although you didn’t create life, you know you must end it.

Camera icon Stu Bykofsky
Ashes

I did what had to be done. I took him to our caring vet, but I could not bring myself to witness the end. I returned to an apartment where there was no greeting and where a few toys lay on the floor. I picked up the black-and-white stuffed dog that he slept with as a kitten, before he found my bed. For a very long time I missed him wrapped around my feet.

Each Day by Day meeting ends with the lighting of candles in memory of the pets who have passed on, and here is when Kathryn lifts her pants leg to expose a tattoo of her beloved schnauzer Pookie on her left calf.

Cherie shows a tattoo of her dear Ruby on her left forearm, Kris has a symbol for eternal love on her right ankle, Stephanie’s left wrist (“closest to my heart”) is decorated with a portrait of Kai, her ailing pit bull.

If you’ve ever bonded with an animal, as I have, you understand.