Pet Loss and the Human-Animal Bond

An interview with Adam Clark, founder of the Pet Loss Education Project.

Posted Feb 12, 2017

Kseniia Perminova/Shutterstock
Source: Kseniia Perminova/Shutterstock

Numerous people who choose to share their home with a companion animal—aka, a "pet"—are, at one time or another, faced with the loss of their good friend(s). Dealing with these losses can be extremely difficult, and so I was thrilled to discover that Adam Clark, an adjunct professor at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, is now writing about these issues for Psychology Today in a blog called "Animal Attachment." You also can learn more about Adam and his important projects at Pet Loss Education & Support. I recently caught up with Adam and was glad he could take the time to answer a few questions about what he does and why. 

How did you get interested in the field of pet loss?

I’m a writer and therapist in Colorado with a passion for the human-animal bond, and I specialize in pet loss education and veterinary wellness. For many years, I was extremely focused on Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy. I actually convinced my undergraduate social work program to allow me independent study that helped me pursue my goal of being an equine-assisted practitioner.

When I enrolled in my master’s program at the University of Denver’s Graduate School of Social Work, I became heavily associated and active in their Institute for Human-Animal Connection, one of the only institutes of its kind. It was here that I discovered the Argus Institute at Colorado State’s Veterinary Teaching Hospital and my focused shifted from equine-based work to what I do today in the field of grief and loss.

Pet loss education is my passion, as I believe it highlights the entirety of the human-animal bond. I teach my students that grief is intrinsically vulnerable, and we cannot be unchanged as we process our loss, whether it is a human or animal. It’s a place of immense change and heavy emotions.

My specialty is more than just pet loss itself. Included is the link between human violence and animal abuse. I’m passionate about animal rights and welfare, and I also focus on the intercorrelated link between mental health (or poor coping strategies) and animal ownership as support. 

What do you hope to accomplish with Pet Loss Education for Professionals?

The world of human-animal interaction is very large. There are many immediate animal professionals, from dog walkers, pet sitters, and animal behaviorists to veterinary technicians, nurses, and veterinarians. Even pet groomers and pet product stores could be considered. All of these people experience personal pet loss and encounter individuals experiencing the loss of their pets on a professional basis and in a day-to-day role.

In addition, when people seek professional help through social workers, psychologists, marriage and family therapists, and licensed counselors, pet loss is a topic that I’ve seen arise again and again. Grief isn’t “within a box,” and one loss experience can trigger reminders of other losses.

My hope is that professional training drawn from direct clinical experiences can help the professionals with their practices. It helps them to know what to say in these situations and to avoid accidentally saying something that is intended to be helpful, but can actually cause pain to a person who may be grieving.

How do you counsel people who seek out help in dealing with the loss of a companion animal?

I’ve seen many well-intended professionals in the counseling field attempt to “counsel” pet loss as they believe it’s the same as your average day-to-day grief. I believe there are concrete differences with pet loss, and it’s important for counselors to be understanding of the intervention and experience they are providing to people who come to them for support. 

In my approach, I draw upon my experience from Argus, as well as my subsequent private practice. I also integrate my experiences in human hospice regarding coping styles, complicated grief, trauma, and guilt

What are your future projects?

Right now I’m in the middle of a project to launch professional development courses for individuals looking to expand their practices and enhance their learning. Also coming down the road is a podcast in which I’ve connected with a group of folks who are passionate about veterinary wellness and animal-oriented professionals.

Is there anything else you'd like to tell readers?

People can visit my Psychology Today column where my focus is mainly animal attachment and pet loss. If there’s something you would like me to write about, please don’t hesitate to let me know. Send me an email at adam@lovelosstransition.com. No question is a silly question. I love collaboration and networking in any form. I love people who are passionate about animals, of all kinds.

Marc Bekoff’s latest books are Jasper’s Story: Saving Moon Bears (with Jill Robinson), Ignoring Nature No More: The Case for Compassionate Conservation, Why Dogs Hump and Bees Get Depressed: The Fascinating Science of Animal Intelligence, Emotions, Friendship, and Conservation, Rewilding Our Hearts: Building Pathways of Compassion and Coexistence, and The Jane Effect: Celebrating Jane Goodall (edited with Dale Peterson). The Animals’ Agenda: Freedom, Compassion, and Coexistence in the Human Age (with Jessica Pierce) will be published in April 2017, and Canine Confidential: An Insider’s Guide to the Best Lives For Dogs and Us will be published in early 2018.

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