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Preparing for loss and coping with grief: Meet Laurel Lagoni

BearHug_255_4x6_1.jpg Since the early 1980s, Laurel Lagoni has worked and interacted with pets and their owners. Specifically, she works to provide support for families struggling with grief over the death of their pet. Ms. Lagoni worked as the Director of the nationally known Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine at Colorado State University before breaking away to start her own company, World by the Tail, Inc. During her time at Colorado State she recognized a need among grieving families that wished to remember and commemorate their pet with a keepsake. Her company provides keepsakes for pet owners by working with veterinary practices nationwide.

Ms. Lagoni was kind to take time out of her day and share her experiences working with the human-animal bond.

Accepting Grief

Ms. Lagoni graduated with a Master’s degree in marriage and family therapy from Colorado State University. She focused on grief and people, and didn’t imagine, at first, that she would get involved in the human-animal bond. Ms. Lagoni shared how people, at the time, were embarrassed about their feelings for their animals as the existence of a human-animal bond was not widely researched or accepted. This separation between the human and animal made the loss of a pet difficult to cope with because admitting strong emotions for a pet was considered to be an overly sensitive reaction.

During this time, Ms. Lagoni was working at Colorado State University with the Animal Cancer Center at the Veterinary Teaching Hospital. She began as a volunteer, but was continually called in to help families cope with the death of their pet. Her work continued to grow and eventually led to a full-time clinical program at Colorado State University, the Argus Institute for Families and Veterinary Medicine as it is called now. The program provided grief support and allowed families to confront their grief and the bond they had with their pet.

This clinical practice was considered to be part of the teaching hospital’s treatment team where they worked with clients to meet their needs in dealing with the death of a pet. The most significant aspect of her work at Colorado State was that she was able to listen to clients’ needs and make appropriate changes within the discipline. Protocols for end of life relating to both pets and their families were changed and came to be used nationally by veterinarians. Euthanasia procedures were also changed, so that families could be present with their pet to provide a measure of comfort and sense of closure. These new procedures were human-oriented in the sense that comfort rooms were provided for the pets as well as a sedative being used in conjunction with the euthanasia serum. Ms. Lagoni explained that in the past euthanasia practices had been very straightforward and clinical, and the family was unprepared to say goodbye in such a surgical atmosphere.

The Power of Grief

Grief is a powerful emotion that is vastly misunderstood by our society as a whole. Ms. Lagoni shared that people are uncomfortable experiencing and being around such strong emotions, so the desire, then, is to get back to ‘normal’ as soon as possible. Three weeks is commonly seen as an appropriate amount of time to grieve, when the reality is it could take years to ‘get over’ the loss of a loved one.

If society as a whole struggles with human grief, then grief associated with the loss of a pet is even more pronounced. Pets are often viewed as less significant than humans, so in many cases people have a hard time getting time off of work, or being given time to grieve. They need help in working through their grief, but may feel that their grief is not taken seriously among their peers. However, the death of a pet is a significant loss, and Ms. Lagoni stresses the importance of recognizing that grief. We should not have to bury our emotions and need to be willing to talk about it in order to move forward.

Pet grief, in particular, seems to surprise pet owners because they don’t prepare for the death of their pet. Ms. Lagoni explained that many pet owners live with a sense of denial. They get lulled into thinking that their pet will always be there with them, so they don’t plan ahead or prepare themselves. Pet owners forget that ten to fifteen years is long time in terms of a pet’s life span.

Ms. Lagoni shared that many people react to the loss of their pet with a sense of disbelief. They didn’t see it coming, so they don’t prepare for the inevitability. An added burden is the communication barrier we have with our pets and the decision pet owners must make on their pet’s behalf. As their end of life approaches, it is left to the pet owner to make final medical decisions, such as euthanasia; a tough and complicated decision that can be hard to make. Ms. Lagoni hopes in the future pet owners are more knowledgeable and educated about end of life procedures and decisions that will fall to them on behalf of their pet. She cannot stress enough how important it is to think ahead so that the owner and family are prepared to handle such a big life event.

The Power of a Keepsake

NEP_9019.JPG It was during her time spent as a veterinary grief counselor that Ms. Lagoni began making paw prints with a basic casting material for the families who came to the clinic at Colorado State. The families were appreciative of the gesture and the idea began to grow. Veterinarians began inquiring about the keepsakes and wanting to bring it to their practice. Ms. Lagoni began searching for new methods of casting the paw prints, and eventually left Colorado State University so that she could make the keepsakes available nationwide. She continues to make grief support resources available for families preparing for the loss of a pet through her online Resource Center. The paw print keepsake allows families to have a memory of their pet, and is one small way to begin coping with their grief.

Looking Forward

Within the human-animal bond field we are learning more about our emotions from pets and the significance of the bond we form with them. More programs are addressing that need for counseling families through their grief and providing resources for veterinarians working with families going through this difficult time.

When asked about the most surprising aspect of her work, Ms. Lagoni praises the work of veterinarians. She continues to be amazed at their willingness to help and be in the midst of a family’s grief. They are a compassionate group of people that learn to balance both the needs of their patient and the needs of the owner, which she believes to be a unique skill.

As the human-animal bond moves forward, Ms. Lagoni is curious to see the direction animal law will take. As humans become more attached to their pets, she believes that veterinary medicine may move in the direction of human medicine, in terms of insurance coverage and liability, which holds both pros and cons for the field.

In the future, she hopes to see research in the field continue to move in the direction of clinical application and for our understanding of pet grief to grow. The presence of a bond between owners and their pets is becoming increasingly apparent and Ms. Lagoni hopes to further educate on pet loss and handling the emotions associated with it.

If interested in learning more about Ms. Lagoni’s work at World by the Tail, Inc. you can visit her website.

To read more about the Argus Institute at Colorado State University you can visit their website.

Ms. Lagoni can be contacted by email at llagoni@comcast.net

  1. Counseling
  2. Death
  3. End of life
  4. Grief
  5. Pet loss
  6. Pets and companion animals

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