Pet Grief Counselor Kevin Ringstaff joins Melissa to talk about the inevitable, and how to find support when it happens.
Melissa Breau: This is Melissa Breau and you're listening to the Fenzi Dog Sports Podcast brought to you by the Fenzi Dog Sports Academy, an online school dedicated to providing high-quality instruction for competitive dog sports using only the most current and progressive training methods.
Today we have Kevin Ringstaff here on the podcast. Kevin is a Grief Recovery Specialist, certified pet loss and bereavement counselor, registered pet chaplain, and a grief coach with PetCloud (www.petcloud.pet). He spends his time talking and educating people about grief.
Welcome to the podcast, Kevin!
Kevin Ringstaff: Hi Melissa. Thank you so much for having me on.
Melissa Breau: I'm excited to talk today. To start us out with this serious topic, I'd love to have you tell us a bit about your own pets.
Kevin Ringstaff: Oh, there's nothing I like more than talking about my own pets. My life is currently graced by three pets. I have my old Old English Sheepdog, Sir William Broderick, Brody, he's 12 going on 13 this year, and I have my cat, Ponce de Leon, Ponce, and then I have a tarantula that I accidentally came into possession of, that I call Lucy, short for Lucifer, because she's terrifying.
Melissa Breau: How did you accidentally come into possession of a tarantula?
Kevin Ringstaff: It was for a Halloween party that I was going to. It was something that we had that was there. When the party was over, nobody wanted to take care of it, so I took care of it.
Melissa Breau: So you just ended up with it by default.
Kevin Ringstaff: Yeah. She is going to be 7 years old this year.
Melissa Breau: Wow. Wow. I have no idea what's typical for a tarantula. Are they long-lived because they're small?
Kevin Ringstaff: The males only live about five years, but the females a good twenty years or more.
Melissa Breau: Wow!
Kevin Ringstaff: She'll outlive us all.
Melissa Breau: Do you want to get us started a little more about what you do and who you are?
Kevin Ringstaff: I'd love to. Again, my company is called PetCloud, and what I do is grief counseling for pet loss.
The loss of a pet is one of those losses that's very disenfranchising. So many people have a hard time finding a good support system or someone to talk with about that. This is a place where anybody can come and share and grieve and cry and not feel like they're being judged or looked down upon.
Everyone who is a part of PetCloud, everyone who comes in there, knows
that pain of this loss, and we have that supportive environment around it.
I just like to talk about grief from all over, from many different perspectives. I have another company called GrievingAtWork.com, where I teach management how to deal with grief when it comes into the workplace. What do you do after your employee comes back from bereavement leave? They're still grieving. They're still deep in it. How do you reincorporate them back into the workplace?
Melissa Breau: Such a hard topic in today's world, and in some ways it still feels very taboo. What led you into the field?
Kevin Ringstaff: I got into this field of grief through a loss of my own: my first cat, Henry Fats Rothchild, this fat, orange tabby cat. When he ran away, there was no one in my life that I really felt comfortable with talking about my grief to, and so I just held on to it for months and months, and then years. Generally it's one of those things that I did with all of my grief. If you don't know how to talk about grief, you hold on to it. You carry it with you.
Eventually I found out about the Association of Pet Loss and Bereavement, the APLB.org. They offer certifications to help other people who are going through this kind of loss, and I found out I was really good at it. I was very easy to talk with, and I help people. I'm part of that silent presence that you really need when you're grieving.
Melissa Breau: When we were introduced, you shared a link to your podcast guests profile — which, I have to say, is a neat thing. One of the suggested questions was, "What do our pets mean to us?" That seems like a good place to dig in a little bit, so what DO our pets mean to us?
Kevin Ringstaff: Well, it depends on the person, but for most people, when we have pets, they mean everything to us. They are our constant companions. We have our pets for ten or fifteen years, and every single day, when we come home from work or whatever, no matter what kind of day we had, they're there with us. They're happy to see us. They're a constant companion to us.
When you're with someone or something or an animal for that long, for those many years, it builds up this level of intimacy. We have this intimacy with our animals that we don't even have with other humans, not even children. Eventually your children are going to start growing up. They're going to feed themselves, dress themselves, and go off and do their own thing. But our animals are always 100 percent under our control, from the time we get them until the time we let them go, and it creates this human-animal bond that is very intense. Now let's think about it: Your animals have seen you naked more than anyone else. When you lose that, when you lose that relationship, when you lose that ability to give nurture, it's so hard.
And they mean even more so to us now because of this whole pandemic. Many of us are isolating alone, and our pets are the only other contact that we get.
Melissa Breau: Maybe this is almost too simple of a question, but … what is grief? What is "normal" or "not normal" when dealing with it? Can you talk a little bit about what grief is, and is it all the same or not?
Kevin Ringstaff: Sure, I'd love to. Grief is simply love with nowhere to go. It's a reaction to having to say goodbye to something. Grief is one of those things that's very hard to describe because every single person grieves differently. It's just our reaction to that loss. When we lose something, we generally want things to be better or different or more. Like, we want more time, we always do, and not having that is part of that grief.
Normal grief is hard to describe, too, because we're not in normal times anymore. But generally, when we first lose something, when we first have a loss, it's called acute grief. It's so painful, it's so raw, and that's generally universal, regardless of the type of loss.
But it gets into abnormal or complicated grief when those acute feelings of loss last for weeks and weeks and months, and they just keep going, and we feel stuck in this rut where when we wake up in the morning, the first thing we think about is our loss. We go to sleep at night and the last thing we think about is our loss. We're on this thought pattern that never ends, and it's so hard.
And now, nothing is normal anymore. With Covid and shelter in place, we have double isolation. Grief is normally isolating. It's hard to feel connected when we're grieving. But now we're isolated and grieving and it makes it worse.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned the idea of acute grief, and you mentioned earlier this idea that with pets we have that control over their whole life. I think those things all weave into it. Especially toward the end of life, we often have hard decisions to make about when it's "time" and whether or not we want to help bring things to a peaceful end. Obviously that decision can be one of the hardest things you have to decide during the entire life of your pet. Do you have any advice, or words of wisdom, or even good ideas of things to say to those who are struggling with that decision?
Kevin Ringstaff: Yeah, Melissa, like you said, that's one of the hardest choices that many people will ever have to make in their life. A lot of people think that they're playing God by making that decision, and that makes it even more uncomfortable.
But in making that decision, I like to look at the quality of life of your pet. When we look at it, we look at a bunch of different metrics, like how well can they breathe, are they in pain, are they constantly in pain, are they eating, sleeping, are they defecating inside the house, how are their bowels doing, do they have energy, are they a part of the family?
Your dog will feel the loss of wellbeing. They know when they're not feeling well. They do a fantastic job of hiding it. These decisions can really sneak up on people because they do a great job of hiding it. But we can look at these metrics, we can see what it looks like when your dog is in pain, what it looks like when they're not eating correctly, or when they're walking slower.
Going back to the idea of euthanasia and making that decision, I don't think that we're playing God when we make this decision. Death is going to happen, no matter what. There's nothing we can do about it. Eventually it is going to happen. What I like to tell people when you're making that decision of euthanasia — this is not something that we're doing to our pets; it's something we do for them. We do it for them. We take them out of their pain. We relieve that suffering from them.
When you're looking at your pet, that boy or girl that you've loved for ten or fifteen years, and you're having to make that decision, we look at are they enjoying life, is it still worth it to them, because out in nature, they would have probably died a long time ago. There are no real old dogs naturally in nature because nature is vicious.
Melissa Breau: Especially with an older or an already sick pet, it can be really easy to begin that process, or begin to feel grief, or begin grieving even while they're still here, in anticipation of that loss. Is there anything we can do to still ensure that we enjoy the time they have left?
Kevin Ringstaff: Yeah. I call that anticipatory bereavement. It's like when you know something bad is going to happen, but you can't do anything about it.
I was thinking about that recently, and one of the best things that we can do is to be grateful, is to practice gratitude. I like to think of an hourglass. The top of that hourglass, with all the sand in it, is the future, and the bottom of that hourglass is the past. And this tiny little narrow section in the middle — that's where we live. We can't do anything about the future and we can't change the past, but we can be present with our pets right now. We can enjoy this time now with them. And we can be grateful, and tell them that we're grateful, every single day.
I do that with my dog now too. He's going to be 13, he's kind of going blind, I can see him struggling to get up a little bit, and I know he's not going to be here forever, but I'm grateful now. He's sitting right here at my feet, panting; you might even be able hear it. But I tell him every single day and I'm present with that every single day. And when we are, it takes the fear of the future away.
Melissa Breau: Once that time does arrive, how do you help pet owners deal with that sense of loss?
Kevin Ringstaff: That's tough, it really is, and it absolutely depends on that person. What kind of support structures do they have? Do they have friends and family in their life that they can talk with about this?
There's no magical thing that I or anyone else can ever say that's going to change this, or bring them back, or make it better. The only thing that we can ever say is, "I'm so sorry for your loss," and just give them space. Especially when it just happens, because you're back in that acute phase, and everything is raw; everything is so intense and so emotional. Just to have someone there who understands this kind of loss and who isn't going to judge you, and that you can just ugly-cry in front of — for someone to hold that space with you is about the best thing that I can do for someone.
By the way, anyone listening to this can do these things for any friend or family member in your life who is going through this kind of loss, or any loss, really. It's just like we hold that space. We let them be however they need.
Melissa Breau: What are some of the options? You mentioned it depends on their support structure and what they have. What are some options out there, if listeners want or need additional support beyond their own friends or their own family, or they don't quite have that support structure? What's out there for them after loss?
Kevin Ringstaff: That's a good question. My website, petcloud.pet, every Sunday I have free support groups at 3 p.m. and 6 p.m. every single week, especially on holidays, too, because holidays are really rough for a lot of people.
But I'm not the only one that's out there. I mentioned the APLB — they have support groups. The ones that I do are Zoom, so Brady Bunch style, with everyone talking and supporting one another that way. But we also have the APLB, which does chat rooms, so for people who don't want to be on camera or on a phone, you have that option. And then there are tons of books and articles to read to learn a little bit more about grief. And maybe not so much now, but normally you could go to your local SPCA or Humane Society, and sometimes they have local support groups that are in person. Probably not now, but normally they do.
And I like to recommend that people journal. Write it down. We can do journaling even if we don't have anyone else, because it's just us with our feelings, writing it down and being present with our grief and pain.
Melissa Breau: FDSA listeners are definitely not the type of people who think, It's just a pet, that dismissive attitude. But there are certainly still a lot of people out there who might think or feel that way — and some may even come right out and say it. How would you respond to somebody who makes that type of comment? How do you handle that?
Kevin Ringstaff: That's tough too, because when you're going through this, you're in that acute grief state and people come up, even well-meaning people that honestly look out for the best for you, they can say some horribly tactless things like, "Why don't you just get another one?" or "It was just a dog."
It's hard to respond to that, and I like to tell people that you don't have to. When we're grieving, we have a limited supply of energy, and when we choose to tell other people about our loss, we need to make sure that they're going to be receptive to it, because we're just wasting our energy otherwise.
If you have someone in your life that you know is going to be problematic like that, avoid them. You don't need that in your life. You can come back to them in a couple of months, later on down the road.
We all have friends like that, who turn out to be more like acquaintances. There's an expression, "Grief rewrites your address book." You find out which of your friends are really there for you and which ones are more superficial. I don't say "superficial" in a bad way. Grief is really hard for a lot of people to talk about. But if they're not there for you, it doesn't serve you to have them in your life, and we can just choose ourselves. We choose ourselves and our recovery over them.
Melissa Breau: On the flipside of that, what if we want to make sure we're not that tactless person? We want to make sure we are there for friends or family members who have lost a pet. What are some things that we can we do to support those around us when they're going through this type of loss?
Kevin Ringstaff: The main thing and the best thing that you can do is just be there. You don't even have to say anything, because remember, there's nothing that we can say to bring them back or undo this. So we don't try to fix the problem. Furthermore, I don't think grief is a problem, something to be overcome. It's just a natural reaction to loss and love.
But we don't need to fix them. We don't need to cheer them up. We don't need to try to change anything about them. We just need to be there with them and go through this process with them, because it's going to take time.
If these comments that we'd say were actually helpful, then no one would ever be grieving.
I like to tell people that it's going to last a while, grief is. When you lose a 15-year-old dog and it's been three months, you're not even 1 percent into the timeframe that you've had that dog. One percent of that time hasn't even gone by yet after three months of grieving.
This is going to take time to readjust that into their lives, and being consistent, consistently showing up for your friends week after week, keep checking in on them. Keep doing it. Even if they turn you down every single time, you still do it. We just keep doing it because it's a long haul.
Melissa Breau: To think about your end of things, I'd imagine it can sometimes be hard to always be the one there for people who are going through this stuff. It's a heavy load. How do you handle that? Any advice for others?
Kevin Ringstaff: It's not always easy, and this past week wasn't all that easy for me, either. There are some stories that just get to me. There was a woman who called on Saturday, this past Saturday. She's elderly and she just had to give up her 16-year-old cat because she physically couldn't take care of him anymore. He was a diabetic cat, and she physically couldn't take care of him medically, or financially she couldn't afford it, but she also lost her husband a year ago. This was his cat, and she had to give this cat up. It's like she's giving up her husband again too.
That one in particular got to me, because I'm listening, I'm there with them as they're going through this, and I'm imagining what I would have to go through if I had to give up Ponce or Brody because of finances, a government order, or medical issues that I just can't do. It's so hard.
But one thing that I really love doing is listening to stories. We talk about grief, we talk about months and months after that death and those horrible memories, those last painful memories that are so, so hard to forget. But we don't really talk about all those other years that we had together, years and years and years and years of happiness.
I like to ask people to tell me stories of all that time. They always have stories and they're always heartwarming, and I can genuinely get people to smile and laugh and cry and remember more than just pain. And just remembering more is one of the things I like to help people do.
And I guess, personally, it's just self-care, too. I have to take care of myself — meditation, eating, staying sober, exercise, sleep, all that jazz. But most of all it's reminding myself of why it is I do this, and why I want to help, and why I'm here. It is so profound to be with someone as they're going through that and to witness them come through grief, too — to reengage in life, to smile again, to help other PetCloud people through their process too, because we learn from one another. When we're in groups, we see people who have just started and we see people who are just about finished. We see all of that and all those perspectives together.
Melissa Breau: It helps to know that other people have gone through it and are going through it
Kevin Ringstaff: Exactly.
Melissa Breau: Any final words of advice, or things I didn't ask, that you'd want to share?
Kevin Ringstaff: Well, I'd like to remind everyone that there's no finish line in grief. There's no magical point, there no magical spot or a timeframe that when you cross that, you're just going to be done grieving. Some losses we're never going to be done grieving, and that's OK. That doesn't mean we can't reengage in life. That just means we're always going to miss them.
Because we don't have this finish line, supporting someone in your life is just a matter of showing up consistently. In fact, it's some of the greatest gifts that you can give your friends and family, just to demonstrate by your actions that you're interested in their stories and their grief and that you're not going to run away from it.
Don't judge anything that they're going through. It's not "It was just a dog," or "It was just a cat." There's no such thing. Everyone grieves at a hundred percent, and we grieve according to how much that we've lost. There's a great quote that I like that says, "Grief is love's receipt."
Again, I would like to tell people to refrain from giving advice. You don't have to know what to say or do. They're not coming to you for advice. They're just coming to you for support, comfort, encouragement, camaraderie, understanding.
And we can provide practical offers of help. Let's get specific with it. We've all heard, "Let me know if I can do anything." "Call me if I can do anything." That's not helpful, because when you're grieving, you're not going to call someone if you need anything. So let's be more specific, like, "I'll cook dinner for you Friday night and come over and we'll watch Netflix." "I'll come over on Sunday morning and mow your lawn." Send them flowers. Deliver food for them. Take them out. Go over there and bug them, even when they don't want you to. We've talked about there's no finish line for grief. It's over whenever it is, and there's no rushing it.
Melissa Breau: I will say, I think, in the dog sports world especially, so often we have a lot of video content of us and our dog together, and so often we have, perhaps even more than most of our pets out there, we actually have a community that's built around our animals, and so other people have memories of our pets, and other people have thoughts and things they can share.
I've heard a couple of times from folks that it can be really helpful, the things that matter most after loss, was when somebody could say honestly, "Oh, I remember them as such." Those shared memories can really have an impact. I don't know if you want to weigh in on that at all, but I thought it was relevant.
Kevin Ringstaff: Yeah, yeah. I brightened up as you were talking about it, because I forgot about mentioning online memorial ceremonies. When we have a human loss, we have a funeral. We have a memorial. We have societal expectations on what that's going to look like. We have everyone come together to show support and validate your loss. But you don't have that with a pet.
But we can have that. We can bring everyone together who knew that animal, who knew that dog or that cat, and they can all, just like you were saying, get together over Zoom or wherever — it's Zoom now, but wherever — to tell those stories, to share exactly what they meant. And it's very heartwarming, especially for the person grieving, to hear twenty other people say, "That dog touched my life." It's very meaningful. And that's what funerals are for — public support and validation for our grief.
Melissa Breau: You mentioned the idea of an online memorial. Do you have any other thoughts on structure for that or ways to set that up, or is it really such an individual thing?
Kevin Ringstaff: On my website I have a whole page all about it. You set that up essentially just like a human memorial. You can do it however you'd like to. Generally you bring people together, you have someone share a little bit about who it was and why we're all here, you have some music, and you might have an open mic session where anyone can come up and share their stories. You can have a slideshow, you put all the pictures in there to some music, and then maybe a closing message, and then that's it. Maybe an hour, hour-and-a-half, but that hour-and-a-half is going to mean the world to that person.
Melissa Breau: Thank you so much for coming on the podcast to talk about all this, Kevin. It's such an important topic.
Kevin Ringstaff: Thank you, Melissa, so much for having me on. I love talking about grief because it's something that once we learn how to support others in our life, grief becomes less scary, it becomes more manageable, and it becomes more profound, because there is a lot of beauty in it.
Melissa Breau: Thank you again, and thank you to our listeners for tuning in. We'll be back next week. Don't miss it!
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