This story is dedicated to Kaya. The black Labrador who, after being abandoned by her owners, became a therapy dog for the last six years of her life, healing the world and making it a better place.
Her adoptive parent, psychotherapist Shrinkhla Sahai has continued her legacy. Under her NGO the Swayam Foundation that works in the area of mental health, Sahai has been facilitating free pet grief support sessions, online, once every month since August 2022.
These support sessions give humans a platform to process their grief of losing their furry babies, something that is culturally absent in our country. People who are not pet parents, including close family and friends, don’t usually understand a pet owner's loss.
“People often say things like ‘get over it, it was just a dog’ or ‘just get another dog’. Would you say such a thing to a friend who has lost a human family member?" laments Sahai, in a conversation with Lounge ahead of a session next week. “No, because it’s hurtful.” Even people at work may not empathise with you or think of you as being weird or crazy if you ask for leaves over a pet’s loss.
“But in reality, the loss you feel is no different from grieving for a close family member or friend,” says Sahai. People get depressed, are unable to go to work and feel lost and confused. Yet, they are not provided with the emotional support, a safe grieving space and and time they desperately need to come to terms with it. “I know this because I have lived these experiences,” adds Sahai, who has had to, over the years, bid farewell to four of her dogs.
I can only imagine what it must feel like to lose someone who thinks the world of you, who readily puts yourself in danger to protect you and who waits for you by the door for hours and days until you get back home. I have been dreading the day I’ll have to bid goodbye to my dog, Khal Dogo, ever since he came into our lives. Because that’s what dogs do. They make you fall in love with them so deeply that the fear of losing them never leaves you. As Sahai says, it’s the curse of a pet parent to have to bury their pets, and continue to live on.
After Kaya passed away, Sahai felt invisible and purposeless. “My dog was so attuned to my emotions. She was sad if I was sad and excited if I was happy,” she says. The Labrador was also Sahai’s companion at work, attending all her therapy sessions with clients, and at home, shaking a leg with her mommy while she danced on a silly, Hindi number. “But that was all gone last June,” says Sahai.
Like most parents, it was hard for Sahai to explain to people why she was feeling so invisible and purposeless. Add to that, the agony pet parents go through while taking the tough decision of whether to put their children to sleep or not. "I have had to take that decision for my Golden Shepherd and I still have mixed feelings about it," says Sahai. A lot of people also struggle with the feeling of guilt of taking the decision of ending someone's life.
Sahai's online support group has helped her immensely as well. “This group is my tribute to Kaya,” says Sahai. “The least I could do for her is to create a platform where people could process their grief.”
One of those who had registered for the session had expressed doubts about whether he would be admitted in the group, as he had lost his pet six years ago. He was, of course, welcomed.
"I know so many people who have never gotten a safe space or time to grieve until now," says Shreekavya, a single mother who has four cats, two dogs and a human baby, all adopted. She has been an animal rescue officer, runs an animal organisation and is a co-facilitator of the pet grief support group. "Even while holding the space, the group has helped me, especially in processing anticipatory grief as one of my dogs is 15 years old," she says. "It's helped me find a community of people who relate to me, who let me know that I am not alone even in difficult times, which is so important," she adds.
There are other such pet parents who have not lost their dogs, but join the discussion to support their community and learn from others' experience. The 90-minute sessions usually starts by helping people identify what kind of a griever they are.
A married couple dealing with the loss of the same pet, were, both, processing the loss differently, which ended up impacting their relationship. The husband was an instrumental griever, packing things, wanting to give it to other pets and shelter homes. While the wife, an emotional griever, felt guilty about giving away her pet's things. She felt as if she was betraying her pet and forgetting him too soon. Just by understanding that different people grieve differently helped them.
The session also encourages people to talk about and process their feelings and memorialise their pets. "I have created a memory box of Kaya's things such as her toys, collar and leash," says Sahai. She also got the group to create a memory board on Instagram, posting what they want to tell their dead dogs or cats or birds. "You can never really get over the loss, but these things help reintegrate the absence into our lives and teach us how to live with it," she says.
Sahai has also been conducting one-on-one sessions for grieving pet parents and has also adopted an abandoned, two-year-old Saint Bernard. "I was unsure, but the shelter home owner, a close friend, requested me to foster it for sometime. I agreed and after two weeks, she just adopted me and my partner."
The next session of Pet Loss Grief Support by Swayam Foundation is on 25 March, 7.30 PM (online). To register, head over to the Swayam Foundation's page for Pet Loss Support