What does an animal chaplain do?
When people suffer a traumatic loss, they might consult a spiritual leader for advice and counsel. But where can one turn to deal with the grief of losing a pet?
Increasingly, they are seeking the services of pet chaplains like Kaleel Sakakeeny (photo, at left).
Sakakeeny, of Roslindale, provides pet owners a platform to talk about their relationship with their animals confidentially. Clients can communicate in person, but most prefer to speak over the phone or via e-mail.
“They usually say, ‘I just want to know someone is there,’ ” Sakakeeny, 75, said.
He might build a shrine or plant a tree to memorialize their lost pet. Clients sometimes ask for a ceremony or to sing a song in the pet’s honor. He also prays for and blesses animals when he visits shelters.
Since launching his practice in 2017, he has comforted upwards of 50 clients. Although he currently operates on donations, Sakakeeny might start charging hourly to pay for advertisements.
People connect with him through a Facebook page and his websites, Pet Ministry Boston and Pet Grief Help.
These days, more pet owners tend to see their animals as members of the family. Some people still find that the death of a pet is undermined because their attachment was to an animal and not a person.
“If they have a very close network of people they will talk to them [for their comfort], but they often get a common response that their grief is disenfranchised,” Sakakeeny said.
“They’ll say, ‘It’s only a dog, you can get another one,’ or ‘it’s been six months, you’re still grieving? You should’ve moved on by now.’ ”
Cynthia Santiago, 43, felt she was treated this way after abruptly losing her golden retriever mix, Angus, last summer. She sought out Sakakeeny for support.
“That grief is real and is dismissed, sometimes,” said Santiago, who lives in Quincy. “[Pets] are many things to many people.”
Sakakeeny said he also consoles clients who feel guilty for having a pet euthanized or for seeming to care more about their animal’s death than that of a relative or friend.
He said he often assures them that owner-pet relationships are usually uncomplicated in comparison to human relationships. This can create lasting bonds.
In addition to counseling, Sakakeeny partners with the Stratford Street United Church in West Roxbury to host “Animal Talks,” once a month. A group comes and discusses topics such as, “Can my dog really read my mind?” and “What ceremonies work best for people in grief?”
Sakakeeny decided to pursue a career in pet bereavement counseling in 2016, after the death of his cat, Kyro, devastated him. He previously worked as a journalist.
He received certification from an animal chaplaincy program at the Emerson Theological Institute in California. He will be officially ordained as a chaplain and minister in April.
Santiago said consulting with a pet chaplain instead of a standard therapist allowed her to focus on her issues with Angus specifically, which helped her cope.
“I feel like only somebody who is that connected to animals could understand the depth of my pain,” Santiago said. “It helped me feel heard, comforted.”