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MU grief assistance program helps pet owners cope

Tuesday, December 17, 2013 | 4:19 p.m. CST

COLUMBIA — The first time Francesca Tocco meets with a client who has lost a pet, she asks to see pictures of the animal.

Together, they flip through images.

It's difficult at first, but soon they're laughing, remembering the good times and the harder times, Tocco said.

Tocco started the Tigers In Grief, Easing Recovery or TIGER program to help clients of the MU Veterinary Medical Teaching Hospital clients deal with loss and grief after their pets die or go through a tough diagnosis. The program is part of MU's College of Veterinary Medicine and Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction.

The closer pets get to families, the harder it is for family members when they go through an illness or die, said Rebecca Johnson, director of the research center.

"Companion animals used to live outside," Johnson said. "Then they moved into the house and into the families, and they are largely considered part of the family."

The TIGER program exists to both serve clients in difficult times and to teach students who know how to perform the surgery but struggle with helping grieving clients.

Dealing with loss

Tocco, who earned her master's degree in social work and is pursuing a doctorate in nursing at MU, runs TIGER's day-to-day operations as the program's director. She also works as a part-time social worker through the program.

Tocco often stays in the exam room with families while they talk to their pet's doctor. Although she has no medical training, she serves as a sounding board for families to discuss their options.

"Sometimes I get a call later and they say, 'Hi, do you remember me and my family? We don't agree on what to do. Can you help us?'" Tocco said.

Other times, she circulates the waiting room at the veterinary hospital. She asks to pet people's animals to start a conversation with them. Then, she tells them about the program and hands out a business card in case they need to call her later.

Tocco knows how it feels to lose a pet, but she tries not to get into her own experiences when talking with clients. Instead, she lets them direct the conversation.

"Sometimes I can relate so strongly, and my cat died of the exact same thing, but I let them take the conversation where they need to," she said.

She said raising awareness for the program can be challenging. She wants clients to know they can call her, even if it's 10 p.m.

"Grief doesn't sleep," she said. "It doesn't recognize holidays."

Tocco has gone to the emergency room at 11 p.m. on a Saturday before, and she has at times spent more than two hours on the phone with a client.

Learning empathy

The second facet of the program involves teaching veterinary medicine students to help clients when they're in grief.

Students are trained to do surgeries and treat animals, so that part of the job doesn't scare them, Tocco said. Dealing with people who may be upset is difficult for some students.

"They're completely scared for the person who's crying their heart out," Tocco said. "They're terrified for the emotional component – the part that I'm trained for."

Students often ask for concrete steps to console someone because that's the way they are trained in veterinary school: with a process and a step-by-step guide.

"I'll say, I can tell you tricks of the trade, but every time is different," Tocco said.

She said she tells students who are not naturally empathetic to read their environment. If the student is never comfortable talking to people, it's helpful to have supportive staff members who are, she said.

TIGER's support comes from the research center, which was founded in 2005. The center conducts programs and studies about the benefits of human-animal interaction, and it supports several programs in addition to TIGER.

For example, PAWSitive Visits is a program that helps residents in retirement facilities and nursing homes learn about and interact with animals, according to the research center's website.

For TIGER, Tocco hopes the program will have the opportunity to hire a full-time social worker in the future.

The TIGER program can be contacted by email at rechai@missouri.edu or by phone at 882-2266.

Supervising editor is Elizabeth Brixey.


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