If you’ve had a pet, you know: The bond can be joyful and strong. The animal becomes a steady companion, a daily presence, a part of the family.
And when that pet is gone, the void can fill up with sadness.
Linda Colletti is director of support services for Madison’s Pet Loss Resource Center, or PLRC, a nonprofit that offers guidance and resources to grieving pet owners. Three times a month, she meets on her own time, either in person or online, with strangers who have gathered with one thing in common: The recent loss of a beloved animal.
A horse, guinea pig, hamster, pot-bellied pig, rabbit or bird.
“Last Saturday we remembered Cujo, Eve, Indy, Jaguar and Twist and all the other beloved pets gone too soon,” Colletti wrote in a follow-up email to those who attended a recent PLRC support group at Pinney Library.
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Her notes are both comforting and comprehensive, filled with soothing quotes and PDF attachments exploring topics that might have come up in that week’s discussion, such as dreams, the afterlife, or how to deal with a remaining pet who is also grieving the loss of a family member.
“I think people who love pets have the biggest hearts in the world,” Colletti explained. “They have a compassion for others that you just don’t always see. So it gives me hope that there are so many people in this world who care and who love.”
Colletti grew up in Watertown, the daughter of a longtime math teacher and a nurse. There were always pets in the house, including a Siamese cat who seemed to share a special bond and secret language with her mother.
Colletti also spent much of her childhood at the Madison home of her grandmother, Dominica Capaci Colletti, who had emigrated from Sicily and lived in the historic Greenbush neighborhood. Her grandmother’s house on Regent near Park Street, she said, was the last one from that era that, just a few weeks ago, was torn down for redevelopment.
After marriage, motherhood and a long career in hospice care, Colletti became more intrigued with helping people cope with the loss of a pet. She became involved in PLRC, which has evolved into a nonprofit organization with an active board of directors. Attending her support group meetings is free. Colletti also provides one-on-one pet grief counseling for a fee. She estimates she has counseled some 800 pet owners since 2016. PLRC also offers workshops on compassion fatigue and self-care to veterinarian groups.
Colletti lives on Madison’s North Side with her husband, Wayne Hammerstrom, and her dog Skylar, a Cavalier King Charles spaniel, who often lies at her feet when she conducts support groups online. She also works for Senior Helpers, providing assistance for a woman with dementia.
How did you get into helping people cope with loss?
(As a young woman) I became an LPN for a while, until I started having babies. I lost four pregnancies. And that spurred me into trying to understand grief and what that was all about, because I was just thrown for a loop.
That propelled me to get into hospice. I worked for a while as an LPN for hospice, but I knew right away that I wanted to get into grief counseling. So I finished up my degree and transitioned into the bereavement department. It sounds weird, but it felt like I was home. It fed my soul in a way, because I watched people at the worst time of their lives find a way through. I realized how resilient we are as humans — that, with support, we can find our way through and live again after the worst thing imaginable has happened.
I would hear people’s story, and I felt I was really honored to be on the journey. It wasn’t like I had any great wisdom or anything — I just helped them get in touch with their own wisdom and find their way through.
When I had people in to talk about the loss of a family member, they often would talk about other losses they’d had. Oftentimes they talked about babies that had died, or pets that had died. I became very interested in pet loss. It felt similar to what I felt when my babies died the intensity of the grief was way beyond, “Oh, it’s just a pet.” And yet (people) didn’t have any outlets to talk about it.
(Eventually) I somewhat retired, and I didn’t like (retirement). I was still doing a support group for young widows, but I still really longed to do counseling for pet parents. A friend of mine saw an ad pop up for Memorial Pet Service, the pet crematorium, looking for someone. Mark Meinholtz, who owned it at the time, was very forward-thinking and had put in place pet-loss grief support, which was pretty innovative for the time.
I worked for them for three years, and then they got bought out. It was a matter of either dissolve PLRC or take it on myself. So last year in January I took it on as my own nonprofit, independent of anybody else. My board, including Mark, has helped me tremendously on the business side. It’s been very satisfying, very fulfilling.
You say that losing a pet can feel like losing a baby. Some people might be startled by that comparison.
I think the relationship with our pets is really quite complicated, and kind of central to our lives in so many ways. They come to us often as rescues or as puppies, and we care for them, they depend on us — and just as much we depend on them. I think our world is so disconnected that our pets become kind of our anchor. They become our emotional attachment, and give us purpose. There’s such an intimacy that forms with pets. We get the tactile, the touching and the petting and all of that. It also allows us to be our best selves — to be nurturing. Babies need us, but they develop walking and start talking, and (grow up and) move away, whereas our pets stay with us and we maintain that sort of closeness.
They’re nonjudgmental and will greet you at the door, even when you’re having a bad day. They’re constant. And I think the need for our pets, especially over COVID when we were so isolated, is great. They also help us play and to laugh, and to be a kid ourselves in some ways. So it’s really complicated.
You add to that that (pet loss grief) isn’t recognized. There aren’t funerals, and people even have to be careful who they say this to. (How many people) can say, “My dog died. I need a week off of work (to grieve)?” So many people are reluctant to say anything about their grief to anyone.
It’s different for everyone, but often the people I see who are having a more complicated time do not have much family. Or don’t have children. Their pets are their family. Or they’re people with multiple losses. I saw somebody the other day whose mother had died, and two months later her dog died. She was even more devastated by the dog dying because the dog was her comfort, and had helped her through the grief of losing her mother.
So it’s just a kind of unrecognized grief that is deeper than most people even imagine. For some, it’s not, but for a large percentage of people, it really is traumatic.
It looks like you put so much time into your follow-up emails after your support-group sessions.
Things come up in group, and it helps me explore what kind of resources are out there, what kind of information I can share. So I’m learning along with everybody else. It isn’t a chore for me to do. And I’ve gotten a lot of feedback from people. I have well over 100 people on my email list, even though a handful come to group. People write me and say, “Please keep me on the list, because I really like reading the handouts you send. They’re really helpful for me.”
Do people ever get over the loss of a pet?
In pet loss, the biggest issue is guilt. We all feel guilty when our loved ones die. But with pets, we’re often making a decision (for euthanasia) for our heart-pet, who cannot tell us if they’re in pain or what they want. So we have to make that decision. And it is the one part of pet loss that people get really, really stuck in, (thinking) “I did it too soon” or “I didn’t do it soon enough.” I don’t think there’s been a support group where we haven’t talked about guilt. Even when there’s a plan, you can still second-guess yourself. …
In the grieving process, we never tell people it’s about “getting over” grief, or forgetting. It’s about incorporating grief into your life so that it doesn’t hurt all the time. But there will be times — years, years down the line — when the grief will pop up. Because when you love, love never really goes away.
So it’s really about learning how to express your grief and your emotions, and letting grief in. So let it be what it’s going to be. It’s part of your journey, and it’s because you love so much.
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