'I Help People With Pet Grief Using Hypnotherapy'

For years I worked in retail in London. I loved it for a long time, but the hours were long and it was stressful. I knew that I wanted to work for myself, but I didn't know which area to pursue. Then, I went to have hypnotherapy and I instantly knew that it was exactly what I wanted to do. While I was still working I did all my training and accumulated my hours of practice. I went to the Essex Institute of Clinical Hypnosis, because it was important to me to be accredited by a recognized college. I now also belong to The Association for Professional Hypnosis and Psychotherapy.

I opened my first general hypnotherapy practice in London in 2011, but my mom became ill so I ended up moving back to the north of England, where I grew up, and opening another practice in a lovely seaside town called Saltburn.

Throughout my time as a hypnotherapist I have always asked clients to fill in a form during the initial consultation. One of the questions I ask is to identify their three worst experiences. Over time, I noticed that nearly all the clients who were coming to me for issues like anxiety, drinking too much or overeating, had included the time a pet had died in this list. After I realized that so many of my clients were dealing with grief over a pet, I completed a qualification in grief counselling, because I wanted to make sure that I was able to help people correctly. I received my grief counselling diploma in May 2020 and I'm on the National Register of Psychotherapists and Counsellors.

The more traditional grief counselling route can take many sessions, which for some people works, but it is a longer process. I find that using hypnotherapy typically resolves clients' issues with grief around their pets more quickly. Vets and a pet crematorium locally recommend me to people, and I receive clients through people I have already helped. I still do general hypnotherapy, for example, for smokers and for people who want to lose weight or stop drinking, but I focus more on helping people with pet grief now.

Firstly I will chat to a client on the phone, because I need to make sure that hypnosis is suitable for them. There are certain medical conditions and medications where hypnotherapy isn't recommended. Quite often I will have to write to a client's doctor to check that I am OK to use hypnotherapy on them. If not, we can go down the route of grief counselling.

Guilt is the number one emotion people have when they come to me with grief over the death of a pet. Sometimes people come feeling extremely guilty because they have had to take their animal to be euthanized, and they wonder if they did it too soon or if they didn't have enough tests. They can also feel guilt if money was an issue. During lockdown, I had people who had to hand over their pet to people in the street because of lockdown restrictions. They thought the pet was just going in to have tests, then they got a call from their vet and had to make a decision about euthanization. They weren't able to say goodbye and they felt terribly guilty about that.

I always give people the choice between hypnotherapy and grief counselling but most people choose the former. If people are dubious about hypnosis we have done the general grief counselling. Sometimes people won't let themselves be hypnotized because they are fearful that I can get in their head and make them reveal secrets or make them run around like a chicken—hypnotherapy cannot do either of those things.

I once had a client called Simon* who had a dog that was very ill, so they had taken various trips to the vet. Each time, Simon had said to his dog: "Good boy, it'll be fine. We'll go home soon." On the final visit, when Simon knew that the dog was being euthanized, his still dog looked up at him, trustingly, and Simon gave him those words of support.

Since then, he had not been able to get over the feeling that he had somehow deceived his dog. In our session we were able to reframe this to show him that he had actually done the kindest thing. In this case we used hypnosis in one session to allow him to say goodbye to his dog.

The first session is normally around two hours long, it's a more in depth consultation that is used for the hypnosis in the second part of the session. At the moment I am doing this over video call, so I need to be able to see a client's face and they need to be comfortable.

Julie Wood is a pet grief expert
Julie Wood is a trained hypnotherapist who works with people dealing with grief over the death of a pet. Julie Wood

The conscious mind is where you look, listen, learn, analyze, criticize and judge; that kind of thing. But our subconscious is extremely powerful. It has infinite memory, and stores your experiences, controls your bodily functions and keeps you alive. In hypnotherapy, we bypass conscious thoughts that might stop people from making progress; we need to take people into their subconscious.

In a case of a client dealing with grief or guilt over a pet, like with Simon, I would put them into hypnosis and it's then about prompting them to say goodbye and release the guilt or negative emotion they feel.

During the hypnotherapy I will prompt a client to say their pet's name, and encourage them to say everything they wish they had said and perhaps didn't have time to say, or to explain anything they need to. During this part the client visualises their animal either next to them or on their lap, whatever is appropriate. If they believe in a pet heaven or afterlife, this is when I might mention that.

But they don't have to say this out loud, it can be an internal conversation. That in itself is so cathartic. And clients know they are not speaking to their animals, I am not a "pet medium." I work in a clinical way.

If more than one session is needed, the work we do will depend on what has come up during the first session. For instance, it might involve forgiveness of self or others. Common issues that clients may need to work on forgiveness for include: "I left the gate open," "I should have chosen a different vet," or "we should have had better pet insurance."

If a client originally came to see me because they were drinking too much alcohol or over eating and that stemmed from grief or loss we would usually focus on hypnotherapy that helps with behaviour change.

I mainly see people about their cats and dogs, which is probably because throughout the population they are more common pets. But I've also had people come to me about the death of their guinea pigs and lizards.

I see more women, but I do see men as well. Typically, I see men whose dogs have died, but it is sometimes cats. Quite often the first experience of grief for a child is the death of their pet. So I do see children, but not very often. I tend to chat more with their parents about how they can help their children deal with pet grief.

Sometimes people come in and the first thing they will say is, "I'm never going to get another dog" because they feel they can't go through the same pain again. Then, months later I'll get a text saying they have gotten another dog.

I had no idea that there was so much suffering from grief over the death of pets. I was surprised how long people grieve for an animal, and how many people have gone into work and their bosses have not been understanding or not allowed them to have time off.

When people have shed their tears and are looking happier after I work with them, it is very satisfying.

Julie Wood is an accredited hypnotherapist and grief and bereavement counsellor. You can find out more about her work with pet grief at petgriefexpert.com and her general hypnotherapy work at saltburn-hypnotherapy.co.uk.

All views expressed in this article are the author's own.

As told to Jenny Haward.