InterviewUnleashing Healing: An Insightful Conversation with Kaleel Sakakeeny, Pioneer of Pet Loss and Grief Counseling

Kaleel Sakakeeny, Animal Talks’ director

Kaleel (Rev K) is one of the country’s few ordained Animal Chaplains, nondenominational Pastoral Counselors and Credentialed Pet Loss and Grief Counselors. His work in the field of Loss and Grief, especially Pet Loss and Grief, has earned him recognition from The Washington Post, People Magazine, New York Times and other media. He is a “thought leader” in the emerging field of the animal-human bond studies, and a practicing therapist.

In our latest in-depth interview, we’ve had the unique opportunity to connect with Kaleel Sakakeeny, Director of Animal Talks and one of the country’s pioneering ordained Animal Chaplains and Pet Loss and Grief Counselors. An advocate for the special and profound bond between humans and animals, Kaleel shares his insightful journey from personal grief and loss to finding his mission in supporting others in their most vulnerable moments. Through this heartfelt conversation, we gain a deeper understanding of the often undervalued emotions associated with pet loss, the transformative role of grief counseling, and the emergence of the animal-human bond studies. Kaleel’s work has earned him national recognition, and through this interview, he sheds light on the evolving landscape of grief therapy, the significance of communal healing, and his vision for Animal Talks’ future. Whether you’ve experienced pet loss or are interested in the intersecting fields of therapy and human-animal relationships, this conversation is an enriching exploration of grief, healing, and our collective bond with the animal kingdom.

Digital Health Buzz: What drove you to establish Animal Talks as a specialized service for pet loss and grief counseling?”

Kaleel: When I lost a beloved animal companion, a pet who was a huge love, I was devastated . The grief and loss were overwhelming, and I was stunned that there was no one to turn to who had a real feel for the animal-human bond, and understood the profound, bone-marrow loss the death of a beloved pet causes.

I was pretty much a lost soul-drinking too much, trying to combat the unexpected, overwhelming grief, and trying to understand it.

Little to nothing existed to help people with the loss of a nonhuman-or in fact, even human losses.

While it’s true loss does not have to equate with death. Acute grief accompanies all kinds of losses-think loss of friendship, job, health, relationship, home, but a pet shares your life and that of your family for maybe 15 or 20 years, every day, 24 hours a day.

So my wanderings finally led me to a theology institute where I became ordained as a pastor specializing in grief counseling,  and also became an ordained Animal Chaplain.

Becoming a Credentialed Grief and Loss therapist followed, with an emphasis on pet grief and loss, but including, increasingly, other losses that as humans we all experience.

DHB: “How does your one-on-one counseling approach help pet owners navigate their profound grief and find their way towards healing?”

Kaleel: Good question. Each of us needs to have our grief witnessed. The grief that does not speak, Shakespeare tells us in MacBeth, shatters the heart.

Our job as grief counselors is to listen deeply to the stories of the bereaved. Not to judge them, never to advise, always to listen and help them realize they are the experts in their own grief. They know what they need.

I companion them, helping to separate the grief event from the story around the grief event that the mourner spins.

To help the “client” go from Grief to Grieving, to Mourning, which is to externalize and accept the pain.

We help people understand that grief unravels in its own time frame, and there is no right or wrong way to grieve, nor is there any timetable for grief to end.

In fact sadness and grief at the loss of what and whom we love never ends. It softens in time, but we are never the same after a profound loss. Our reality, our world have changed forever.

One last point here. Grief is not a mental health issue. There is no pill for sadness.

Grief is a spiritual and emotional issue. It’s of the heart, not of the mind.

I urge anyone burdened with grief and sorrow to seek help. The pain of can not really be carried alone!

DHB:  “Can you share some insights into your monthly Loss and Grief Healing Circle? How does it contribute to the grieving process?”

Kaleel: Sure. We know from evidence that healing takes place within a circle of connection. With contact and support by the community, friends, family. Grief and Sorrow shared are really halved.

So while we believe in one-on-one counseling for grief journeys, we strongly urge participation in the monthly Healing Hearts Grief Circle. For information on dates and times, best to contact thembela@animaltalksinc.com

DHB: You are not only focused on pet loss but also other types of losses (e.g., job, relationship, health). How does your experience in pet grief therapy inform your approach to these other areas of loss?”

Kaleel: Another great question.

We found during our work in the field of Pet Grief/Loss and Bereavement, that within minutes of talking about the sorrow of the death of a pet, almost always by euthanasia, we were into many past losses of the client. Losses that were not often fully or completely mourned, and so were carried, unexpressed, throughout the lives of the person.

The death of a beloved pet activated all these past, unmourned losses, and gave permission to bring them up and grieve them at last.

Perhaps it was the death of a parent, a sibling a spouse. The loss of self-esteem because of abuse of one kind or another. We found that it was impossible to just concentrate on the loss of a pet. That loss was a portal into so many others that we began to open our work up to people who were suffering any kind of loss and needed help.

We received further training from one of the country’s leading grief experts, Dr. David Kessler, and soon became listed on therapy sights like Psychology Today, and more and more people started reaching out

While grief is grief, there are different kinds of situations requiring different approaches. For example, the tragic death of a child is in a category of its own. Yet, the grief of a divorce is also profound. Grief from a suicide demands its own approach. And so it goes.

So, yes, while our trademark work is with pet grief, we are seeing more and more grievers coming to us for other losses too.

DHB: “Can you tell us more about the annual Animal Blessing event in October and its significance?”

Kaleel: Oh, it’s simple, lovely sweet event usually sponsored by one of the faith-based organizations, churches, etc.

We gather in an open field, sing a few songs, I talk briefly about what I consider the sacred nature of the human-animal  connection, and then people bring their animal friends close to me, or I go to them, and sometimes I use some “holy water” and simply say a few words thanking the animals for their presence. Thanking them for teaching us, for bringing out our better selves and sharing their lives with us.

One of my favorite events!!

DHB: “Can you share more about your international reach, such as your collaboration with Thembela Makhuba in South Africa? How does this global approach shape the work of Animal Talks?”

Kaleel: As you can imagine, grief has no boundaries. And the coverage we have received from say People Magazine, London Podcasts, the Washington Post and multiple pet magazines are all accessible by an international audience. Perhaps especially Brainz magazine where I’m an executive contributor. Brainz is published in Sweden, and distributed to 65 countries with a readership of about 35,000.

So I suppose it’s inevitable that we have people reaching out to us from Germany, Portugal, Central America and so on. Our collaboration with Thembela is pretty straightforward. She’s our team leader and in charge of our extensive Social Media platforms and strategies. She also runs our monthly healing circle and provides a presence in a vital and important country, and extends our international reach

DHB: “Where do you see Animal Talks in the coming 5-years?”

Kaleel: Yes, the question that keeps us awake at night. Or at least one of the questions.

I think we made an internal decision that while our grief counseling work, Healing Circle and Workshops are critical to our identity, and are our basic to our mission, our goal is really to be active and forceful as “Thought Leaders” in the field of Pet Grief and grief work in general-and the animal-human-nature global nexus.

I think we want more speaking engagements. More small-group webinars. More talk show appearances, more faith-based participation-all those things that allow us to spread the word that Speciesism is an existential threat, and by affirming the unique and sacred bond between people and animals, we can move away from the cruelty and abuse to our precious planet.

Animals know this world in ways we never will, and by extending personhood to them, we evolve into more totally compassionate beings. That’s our ultimate goal

For now, we stand humbly waiting to help all who suffer from the loss of what they love.

Kaleel can be reached at kaleel@animaltalksinc.com

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