By VERONICA GORLEY
VINDICATOR STAFF WRITER
HERMITAGE, Pa. -- A group of mourners, some with tissues in their hands, shared favorite stories of their dear-departeds as well as painful memories. Everyone in the room had at one time experienced the same feelings, and they were all there for each other.
The Pet Loss Support Group was in session.
"It's an opportunity for people who have lost pets to be with people in the same boat and to go through the grieving process," said Mary VanSickles. She's accustomed to dealing with mourners: She's a grief services coordinator for Hillcrest Memorial Park and John Flynn Funeral Home.
"There's a grieving process when you lose anything, and eventually you must go through it. The problem with our society is that most of the time it doesn't think that people should be grieving for a pet," she said.
Grieving together: The new Pet Loss Support Group gives sympathetic animal lovers a chance to grieve together. Meetings take place at 7 p.m. on the third Monday of each month at Whispering Oaks, 260 South Buhl Farm Drive in Hermitage.
"We're here to help people who need the help," said Tom Flynn, owner of Hillcrest Memorial Park. "We're just a voluntary organization whose sole purpose is to assist people who are grieving over the loss of a pet."
The idea to begin a pet loss support group in the area originated with Flynn and a trip to the vet.
As Flynn was sitting in the veterinarian's office in January, a woman entered in tears. Upset because her dog was put to sleep, she asked the receptionist when she would be able to pick up the ashes. After she left, Flynn asked the receptionist if there was a place in the area to go for people experiencing the loss of a pet, but she didn't know of any.
Five months and four organizational meetings later, the Pet Loss Support Group held its first official meeting June 18.
Terri Sherbondy, 35, of Greenville accompanied her mother, Mary Ellen King, 59, of Jamestown to the meeting. King lost her pet of 91/2 years -- a springer spaniel named J.J. Butch -- to kidney failure. J. J. was put to sleep the day before Mother's Day this year.
"With freckles on his nose, a fluffy tail and a Dairy Queen curly-que on the top of his head, he was break-your-heart cute," Sherbondy said fondly of her mother's pet.
Went along: Sherbondy wasn't sure her mother would be willing to attend the meeting, so she told King that she'd accompany her if she wanted to go. Her mother consented.
"I wasn't sure how she would deal with it and what would help her," Sherbondy said. "I think it's good for her to share with others. It helps to see her healing."
King said she misses her pet the most at night while she's watching television because J.J. used to lie on the couch with her.
"He just wrapped himself around my heart, and a part of my heart's gone now," King said through watery eyes.
Both Sherbondy and King think the support group is beneficial.
"The loss is great to us, but other people go through it too," Sherbondy said. "It's nice to have a place to share your grief, your tears and your stories."
Faithful attendance: Derek, a grief therapy golden retriever from Canine Companions for Independence, faithfully attends each meeting. CCI is a national nonprofit organization that provides trained assistance dogs to enhance the lives of people with disabilities.
Flynn thinks having Derek at the meetings is helpful.
"The presence of an animal gets them talking about their animals, the animals they lost," he said.
Derek wasn't the only canine at the meeting. Roberta Knauf, 50, of Transfer brought her dog Nico, a yellow Labrador retriever released from the CCI program. Knauf owns Robert's Boarding Kennel and Rob's Pets in Hermitage. She lost her 7-year-old black Labrador retriever, McKenzie, in January after a yearlong struggle with cancer.
"There is a definite need for people to get together and share like this with a counselor," Knauf said.
VanSickles said that at the meetings people can verbalize how they're feeling.
"There's a lot of empathy in the group," VanSickles said. "I think that it's easier sometimes to go to a group session than to try talking to families or friends. If you are an animal person, it's easier for you to relate to other animal people."
The meetings are open to the public. At the meetings, people can pet Derek and listen to others; there's no pressure to participate or talk, said Flynn. Most of the people interested in the meetings are middle-aged adults, but he said that people of any age can join the group.
VanSickles suggests that if young children are interested in the meetings, their parents should accompany them. She added that older people dealing with a loss may help a younger person who has never experienced a loss to get through the grieving process.
Fills a need: Flynn thinks the group serves a purpose. "For many people, all they had were their pets, and losing that is hard," he said.
"There's a need almost in everyone," Flynn added, explaining that many people have experienced a loss of a pet sometime during their lives. "Its success will depend on people coming to us and getting help, and then telling others about how we helped them."