Kaleel Sakakeeny, an ordained animal chaplain and prominent pet loss counselor, knows the loss of an animal companion can come with some serious emotions

By Kelli Bender
July 26, 2019 05:00 PM
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Kaleel Sakakeeny wants to end the speciesism present in the grieving process.

An ordained animal chaplain and prominent pet loss counselor, Sakakeeny began supporting pet owners through their grieving journeys after he struggled with his own.

After losing his beloved feline soulmate Kyro, Sakakeeny found there were few bereavement resources available where the despair and pain of those suffering the loss of an animal companion was taken seriously. In response, he became a grief counselor and animal chaplain, so could help those who, like him, found themselves overwhelmed with powerful emotions following the death of an animal companion.

PEOPLE asked Sakakeeny about his personal experience with grief, what resources are available to those working through the loss of pet, and why the death of an animal companion can sometimes hurt more than the loss of a human loved one.

How did you start working in the pet bereavement space?

I think like anyone who feels a pull or calling to some kind of activism, it begins with a powerful, personal event. In my case, it was the death of my cat Kyro. He was a big love for me. Some loves are just bigger than others. Kyro and I shared a huge love for each other. He was beautiful, funny and curious. We were soulmates, I guess.

When we had to euthanize him, it was like the sun went out. Not only was the pain bone marrow deep, my wife and I suffered the inevitable guilt that comes from making the decision to kill one of the things you most love in the world. Did I act too soon? Did I act too late? What was he trying to say to me in those last moments? Did he feel abandoned? Did I fail him?

There is no escaping this trauma, and those who have euthanized their beloved animal companion know this deeply. I lost it. I wandered aimlessly, cried, drank too much. Somehow, I stumbled upon the only theological institute in the country that trains people to become animal chaplains: Emerson Theological Institute in California. There are other places that train animal chaplains, but they train more from a technical point of view. Emerson’s approach is deeply heart-centered. Emerson understands that the human-animal bond is profound one. Their approach to chaplaincy and ordination is to develop compassion. Emerson and my ordained animal chaplaincy were the turning point in my life.

I believe totally that my love for Kyro, and his for me, were the guiding forces that led me to become an animal chaplain and minister, and led me into my work as a grief/loss counselor.

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What is an animal chaplain?

It’s such a new and brave calling, and it’s still evolving according to each chaplain’s background, personality, temperament, values, etc.

For some animal chaplains, the shocking conditions of slaughterhouses is their call to action. They may become activists in the push to change the horrific conditions, and stop animal farming altogether.Others may work quietly as co-pastors with faith leaders in their communities, bringing an animal consciousness to worship services and leading the blessing of the animals ceremony around the Feast of St. Francis.

Others still, walk and talk sweetly among the animals in shelters, loving them and easing their fear and loneliness as they sit and wait. And other chaplains, such as myself, are at the call of those who are in distress at the death of their pet.Some chaplains are with those who need help at the moment of euthanasia, and are called upon to say prayers or lead a memorial service. It’s really an honor, being allowed to help the most vulnerable.

As an animal chaplain, I run a monthly support and discussion group, Animal Talks, at a local church. There is a group of animal chaplains who are organizing into the Association of Animal Chaplains, through which we hope to bring a spiritual and moral dimension to the terrific work other organizations are doing.

How do you help others cope with the loss of a pet?

I never position myself as an “expert,” the way, let’s say, a mental health professional may.

The mourner or griever is the “expert” in their own pain and loss. We don’t try to take the pain away. And we don’t treat the deep sadness as a mental health issue.There is no pill for heartache. So, I listen to the story of how they loved their animal companion and can’t live without them. Guilt is always, always part of grieving. I try to help them realize the reality of the death, because unless that reality is acknowledged, forward movement toward reconciling their lives to the loss won’t happen. We talk about life without the beloved pet. They come to see that death does not kill the love or the relationship. We build a new relationship, without our beloved pet — and there is no rush.

I use physical approaches, such as drawing a heart as it was during their period of intense grief. The color choices are interesting, as is the size of the heart. Then we draw grief within the heart. Next, we draw their hearts now, after the grief event, and again draw grief within the heart. The change in sizes, shapes, space give the bereaved a sense of progress. I might ask someone to write a letter to “Grief,” to ask it where it was before it became a constant companion.  I point out that we don’t judge an entire movie by the ending. So, with the lives of our animal companions, the finals days or weeks are not the life you shared.

When we externalize grief, it becomes mourning. Mourning moves us further down the road to healing. We talk about ceremonies, like a tree planting or a makeshift “altar” or “shrine,” all of which move the pain out. I pray with them sometimes. Of course, if the grief is stubborn and hardens into depression, then it’s time for intervention by a mental health professional. Over time, a new relationship based on memory and love develops. Then comes, “Should they get a new animal?”

What are the misconceptions about the loss of a pet?

So often, when an animal companion dies and the human partner is bereft, well-meaning people say things such as: “it’s only a dog,” “come on, get over it,” “you can always get another one,” “they’re better off,” “be strong,” “you’re crying too much,” “get a life.” And so the grief-stricken suffer again. The loss of their pet, their animal companion, is deep and profound.

And these kinds of comments “disenfranchise” their grief, their loss, denying the person the validity of their grief. But grief is grief. Loss is loss. The misconception is that the relationship between a person and an animal can’t carry the same value as the relationship between a person and a person. Another big misconception then is that the love between a person and an animal is, at best, cute and fun, but nothing compared to the love between people.

How is losing an animal companion similar to losing a human loved one?

Heartbreak is heartbreak. Of course, the closer we are to a person, then the more deeply we mourn the death of that person. But this is true of the animals we love, too. If there is a difference between losing a human and losing an animal, it has to do with the depth of the love. Species doesn’t matter at all.

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Why do you think some feel more grief over the loss of an animal companion than a human one?

The relationship between us and our animal companions is less complicated and complex than that between us and another person. We seldom argue with our pet. We almost never resent them. We have few, if any, conditions on the love we and our pets share. Our pets depend on us totally, and their needs and personalties are imprinted on us.

Our human relationships are rarely that simple, rich and pure. We judge our human companions. We argue and have expectations of humans. We are hurt by, and we hurt, humans. When a person dies, there are often mountains of regret: things we wish we had said, things we wish we hadn’t said, betrayals for which we are sorry. The grief and mourning that follows can be complex and complicated. This is almost never the case when our beloved pet passes.

What advice do you have for those coping with the loss of an animal companion?

We live in a grief-avoidant society. We do anything to avoid sadness, pain, grief. For those who have lost their pets to death and are trying to come to terms with it, I ask them to move toward the pain. Don’t fight it. Don’t run away from it. If you do, it makes it stronger and more persistent. Go toward the pain to come out on the other side. Next, take good care of yourself. Grief depletes the body. Be sure you stay hydrated and eat well. Try to sleep and get some exercise daily. Good, reliable friends are critical. Tell them you need them.

Take grief breaks. Try to see a funny movie for even ten minutes or have lunch with a friend. Go to an uplifting event, then come back and grieve. Don’t rush the process. Grief uncoils from the heart in its own time. Don’t be afraid to say name or speak to him or her regularly.

Talk to a grief counselor and see if it helps. Memorialize your pet. Expect the pain and grief to ebb and flow and catch you by surprise for years to come. When you’re ready, bring another animal home. There are so many beauties looking for a forever home.

What services are available to those looking for support?

First and foremost, there’s your own support system in your network of friends. There are support groups in almost every mid-size city. Usually, they meet once a month in a church or at the local SPCA shelter. It’s important to be with a group that’s experiencing the same kinds of emotions. I run a few of these, and the tears come uninhibitedly, and so does the laughter. It’s very healing.

Of course, there are animal chaplains such as myself, who also are credentialed pet grief and bereavement counselors. Some are clergy, like me, and are comfortable with prayer and faith questions. If there’s any fee at all, it’s very reasonable, and you can work by phone or whatever you’re comfortable with.

If you feel you’re not making much progress, and are getting worse, or stuck in the grief, it’s possible you’re grieving for much more than your animal companion. You may be grieving for those that passed on before, human or animal, that you never allowed yourself to grieve for. You may be tipping into depression. Not just acute sadness, but real depression. In that case, I’d suggest a mental health worker like a psychologist or psychiatrist, but be sure they “get” the human-animal connection and have grief training. Don’t do this work alone. Your grief journey needs be one where you feel safe and supported.

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