When they are gone, we grieve. But there have been few places to turn to for support in our time of loss.
That is, until Emmy’s Heart, a pet bereavement group, arrived in Harrisburg.
Named for Harrisburg resident Charlotte Kluge’s beloved Yorkie, the group meets monthly in a cozy room above Abrams & Weakley General Store for Animals, just over the city line in Susquehanna Township.
Those who come know they won’t hear “it was just a dog” or “you can get another one.”
“It’s a nice, safe place to share feelings and memories,” said Mandy Rothenhoefer, one of the group’s founders who led the session I recently attended.
Emmy’s death a year ago left Kluge heartbroken.
“It was the first time I realized the loss of a pet is real and nothing to just ‘get over,’” said Kluge, who runs a family-owned insurance business. “She was my heart and everything to me. My grief was entirely real.”
Kluge wanted to offer others similarly finding it difficult to cope with a loss an opportunity to connect and talk about their feelings. So, she teamed up with Rothenhoefer, whose dog Sunny used to play with Emmy, and they started holding meetings in May.
On a recent Thursday evening, six pet lovers showed up, including me.
Rothenhoefer read a brief poem and lit candles in memory of pets who had passed on and one who had been reported missing on the Carlisle Pike.
She offered a theme for the evening, autumn rituals, asking attendees what they recalled about the change of seasons, walks in the woods, adjusting to the shorter days with their pets.
Jackie Hamill, who, with her husband Jim, has lost two dogs in the past three years, remembered how her chow-chow/retriever mix Angel loved to play in the fallen leaves and pulled out an iPhone picture to prove it.
“They are our children,” Jackie said.
Angel died in March at age 13, and the Hamill’s other dog, Clay, a Lab mix, died two years earlier after struggling with cancer and other serious health problems.
Rothenhoefer asked me if I had an autumn memory of Mindy, my childhood border collie, who lived to be 17.
Tears welled up as I told the group about a fall outing the two of us had at Sugarloaf Mountain near Frederick in the mid-1990s. As Mindy sat and watched several white geese paddle on a pond, I snapped a picture from behind, her black fur and the orange beaks of the ducks against a backdrop of dying grass and turning leaves. It was a moment of quiet reflection that occurred 20 years ago, and still I felt the emotions come bubbling to the surface.
Kluge said the sessions usually draw four to seven people. Participants are invited to bring pictures to post on a memory board of those who have “crossed the rainbow bridge,” as the pet people like to put it.
The conversation shifted to the hard choices about what to do with a pet’s body. Sharon Wilson said she hated the idea of having had to cremate her beloved beagle Tanner, but was not able to afford a plot in a pet cemetery.
“I have a hard time looking at pictures,” she said. “I was upset about cremating him.”
The Hamills said they chose to cremate their pets because then they could take them along if they moved. That sparked a discussion about whether there was an ordinance about pet burials in city backyards, something Kluge said she would investigate and post on the group’s Facebook page.
Clearly, Kluge’s idea has struck a chord. Hospice of Pennsylvania and several veterinary hospitals are now handing out cards to clients with information about Emmy’s Heart, Kluge said.
There is a sense of knowing that others love dogs like we do, said Jackie Hamill, who, with her husband, traveled 45 minutes to attend a bereavement group in Red Lion before Emmy’s Heart started. “I can share and talk. The pet people get it.”
The Hamills already “paid it forward” by taking Prince, a schnauzer who belonged to a neighbor who died. “[The family] wanted to get rid of him,” said Jackie. “But he helped Angel come out of depression after we lost Clay.”
Emmy’s Heart also wants to be there for those facing potentially fatal health issues with their pets who may not be able to afford life-saving treatment.
The group has already helped a single mom cover the costs of treatment for a serious skin disease and an elderly man pay for chemo treatment for his cat.
To raise funds, the group is selling commemorative leather bracelets that look like dog collars with a single paw print design.
Said Kluge: “It shows they left a paw print on your heart.”
The Hamills said they recognize that grieving is an ongoing process even as they enjoy their time with Prince and their newest rescue dog, Lexie.
Jackie Hamill gets choked up when she talks about Angel and Clay.
“Not a day goes by when I don’t think of them,” she said.
Emmy’s Heart pet bereavement group meets at 6:30 p.m. on the third Thursday of the month at Abrams & Weakley General Store for Animals, 3963 N. 6th St., Harrisburg. Anyone with a pet that is ill, missing or has died is welcome. For more information, call 717-364-0852, email firstname.lastname@example.org or go to the Facebook page.
In addition, The Humane Society of the Harrisburg Area has a pet grief counselor available for anyone who brings in a pet to be euthanized and offers a monthly support group, Healing Haven, open to members of the public at no charge. Visit www.humanesocietyhbg.org/pet-bereavement.