Veterinary grief counselor at Penn helps pet owners cope with loss

Michele Pich and Cleopatra, who, despite intensive treatment, died of lymphoma. Afterward, Pich became the full-time veterinary grief counselor at Penn's Ryan Veterinary Hospital.
Michele Pich and Cleopatra, who, despite intensive treatment, died of lymphoma. Afterward, Pich became the full-time veterinary grief counselor at Penn's Ryan Veterinary Hospital.
Posted: September 11, 2012

When Michele Pich first walked into the University of Pennsylvania's Ryan Veterinary Hospital, she had no idea it would drastically change her life. Her only concern five years ago was the declining health of her Staffordshire terrier mix, Cleopatra, who had recently been diagnosed with a form of lymphoma.

After the grim prognosis, Pich was relentless in her effort to improve her dog's quality of life.

"I could have let her die peacefully without attempting any treatment," said Pich, who at the time was a counselor and researcher in forensic studies. "But I felt I owed it to her to give chemo a shot."

After two years of rigorous chemotherapy treatments, Cleopatra was in remission and seemingly on the mend. Unfortunately, 23 months later, Cleo's lymphoma had returned, and that time, Pich made the difficult decision to let her go.

If there can be a silver lining to such a traumatic experience, taking Cleo to Penn helped land Pich what she calls her "dream job" as the veterinary hospital's full-time grief counselor. Now she spends her days counseling those who have lost beloved pets. She also holds a free monthly support group at Ryan.

"Every day I come into work is a reminder that this is the place that saved her for two more years," said Pich, 30, who gave a lecture Saturday at Ryan, on University Avenue. "When I'm here talking to grieving pet owners, Cleopatra's legacy lives on. I'm just following the path that she laid out for me."

As a grief counselor, Pich shares her story with countless people seeking support. Her passion for her work and compassion for her clients are evident.

"I first started out volunteering as a way of giving back, and then the position opened up and became full-time," she said.

Pet owners from all walks of life visit Penn's campus to hear Pich's lectures on the grieving process. Janeen Nichels, 48, who lost her dog, Bear, came from Baltimore on Saturday to hear Pich.

"I had looked up Penn Vet online before to get various health information for my dog," Nichels said. "But then I found the grief-counseling page, and I was drawn to it."

Also there was Adam Denish, 44, a graduate of Penn's School of Veterinary Medicine, with his wife and their 12-year-old twins. The family recently lost their dog, Darwin, to a combination of old age and kidney failure. Denish, a veterinarian in private practice, decided to euthanize Darwin in front of the entire family.

"Both of the kids were there when I put him to sleep," he said. "It was very peaceful, and I felt it was important for them to be there to help their process of moving forward."

Pich believes the best way to let a child begin grieving is to be as honest as possible from the start. She urges parents to avoid euphemisms like "putting Fluffy to sleep" so young children do not become frightened when it's time to go to bed at night. If children are an appropriate age, Pich supports the idea of making them participants in deciding what to do with a sick pet, as the Denish twins were.

Through her talks, Pich lets it be known that not everyone grieves the same way.

"You don't ever get over someone that you love," she said. "But as time goes on, waves of grief become less intense and eventually fewer and farther in between."

Cleopatra has been gone for more than a year, but memories of her serve as a constant reminder of the joy she brought Pich.

"Cleo gave me a reason to love unconditionally, and she taught me that it wasn't all about myself. I will never forget her."


Contact Joe Trinacria at 215-854-2771 or jtrinacria@phillynews.com.

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