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Those who love their pets tend to enjoy all animals. Our animal owners are no different. Check in on News-Herald staffers Robin Palmer and Cheryl Sadler as they share their own animal tales and announce upcoming events in Lake and Geauga counties.

Friday, April 17, 2009

Hi, I'm Sandy, and this is my first support group

Fear almost kept me from my first support group.

I like meeting people, listening and sharing a lot. But a selfish part of me worried that too many heavy pet stories would make my night depressing.

"Oh, that'll be saaadddd," people kept warning me. Plus I still sometimes cry over Sky, the dynamic gray rabbit I lost in February. Was this really what I needed? Could a pet loss support group possibly make it worse?

One quote from my preview story resonated in my head: "It's a loss that sometimes only the people in that room understand."

And so my eagerness to pay tribute to Sky, mixed with the potential to help someone else, conquered my nerves and brought me to Animal Hospital Inc. in Willoughby Hills last night.

I found myself in the basement drinking coffee to the sound of dogs staying overnight in a back room. About 6:30 p.m. I sat down in a folding chair that united me and 10 other people in a circle. Most looked somber, and a couple clutched photo albums. Unsure of the protocol, I forced my eyes to the floor and waited for the meeting to begin.

Animal Hospital's Kelli Sue Kerwin and Dawn Gotliebowski gently laid out the rules: be respectful, don't interrupt, and what is said in the room stays in the room. Kelli suggested we tell our stories one by one. Glancing around the circle, I saw faces just as unsure as mine.

Then it began.

Some losses were just a couple days old, others months. One guest held a funeral today. Another couldn't speak right away, but found her voice to comfort someone else. Another has an old pet and "anticipatory grief." I related to every story, if only for the emotion and fears associated with pet ownership.

By the time my turn came I'd had a lot of time to think about Sky. She was so special, so beautiful, I thought. I have to do her justice.

When I opened my mouth, though, "I'm Sandy and I'm a rabbit owner" came out. Before I knew it I had taken the group back nine years to my first two bunnies: Alani, who lasted only a week, and Sherbert, who I still have today.

I cycled through receiving Sky as a gift and the loss of my third rabbit, Ivy. I talked about how my rabbits lived outside and inside, describing their living conditions at great length.

The group laughed as I continued about how spoiled and destructive they were inside, living under my bed and gnawing at carpet, wiring and woodwork. I lost all my security deposits, I said, and they laughed. And Sherbert still can't stand me - it must be some kind of cruel joke he's the rabbit who's outlasted them all.

As a pet owner it's easy to get carried away, I think, and especially as a storyteller and a writer. There are so many favorite stories about our pets. I'd already heard about so many wonderful things from other people in the circle: sleeping habits, McDonald's burgers, costumes and quirks. Then suddenly I realized that despite all my talking, I'd still not given the group any idea who Sky really was.

I tried to tell them. She loved chewing paper, making nests out of the carpet, eating and playing. She loved me, too. And when she died - I said, finally finding my emotions - a light turned off in my life.

"I have pictures, and I would love to see all of yours," I finished. We all whipped out our photos and started explaining the scene, answering questions and suggesting coping methods we'd used ourselves. Many of the pictures being passed around showed more than one animal - the other either a survivor or another loss meriting another story.

The coming of 8 o'clock surprised me. We'd gotten lost in our sense of belonging. It seemed a success. I considered returning next month to hear more touching stories.

Of course since my loss I've always come up short with words. I've created an online photo album to compensate. My sole regret last night was that words had failed me again. I might never be able to share her story as well as I can feel it.

Perhaps her life is better kept as a feeling in my heart, a memory preserved by never having the words to finish it.

-- Sandra M. Klepach,

For upcoming pet loss support group dates, visit the official Web site for Animal Hospital Inc.


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