Suffolk charity Our Special Friends can step in to save that crucial relationship with a beloved companion

Our Special Friends organiser Belinda Johnston with local volunteer Mary Roberts, and their pets.  Pictured: Belinda Johnston with Rolo and Mary Roberts with Buster ANL-150330-162152009
Our Special Friends organiser Belinda Johnston with local volunteer Mary Roberts, and their pets. Pictured: Belinda Johnston with Rolo and Mary Roberts with Buster ANL-150330-162152009

When age, illness or frailty mean people need help to cope with life, there is one precious relationship that often gets ignored.

Health, social care and housing authorities look after their basic physical needs, but a cherished bond can sometimes be shattered.

For some, a much-loved pet is their only companion – especially if they are elderly or on their own.

Losing the ability to look after themselves, or their animal, may mean saying goodbye to the most important relationship in their lives.

Some people find it hard to understand how much that will hurt.

But not those who work for Suffolk charity Our Special Friends.

Their mission is to maintain those special relationships, and nurture the well-being of both the person and their pet.

They also offer comfort and assistance if someone’s animal companion dies, help them find another suitable pet, or arrange visits from volunteers with their own dogs.

Our Special Friends was founded three years ago by Belinda Johnston, a vet who moved from clinical practice to specialise in training, and emotional and practical support.

It is about to celebrate its first anniversary as a registered charity.

Belinda’s knowledge of the pain experienced by bereaved pet owners was one of the first triggers for setting it up.

She teaches other vets how to help grieving clients. “People grieve before and after the loss, but vets only see them as clients,” she says.

“I am trained as a vet and I know it is very hard to support people.

“And sometimes those grieving human loss will come to rely on a pet, then when that animal dies, it will be even more difficult because it has left such a big void.”

Belinda, who lives in Higham near Bury St Edmunds, knows only too well how the reassuring presence of an animal can support you through troubles and tragedy – but also how other people’s help may be vital to keep the relationship going.

Her mother died when she was 10. Then, while she was at university, her father committed suicide.

“My mum had a dog, and I had a cat, and the constant relationship with them after her death was very supportive and beneficial,” she says.

“When my father died, I had a dog called Tasha and the unconditional love I got from her was again very supportive.

“But I couldn’t have kept her without support from everyone else in my life.

“Dogs help you get out and about and stay engaged but I could have lost that without other people helping me.”

When Belinda started Our Special Friends, she never imagined how wide-ranging its remit would become.

“I became aware there was a need, but had no idea how ambitious the project was,” she admits.

“We are a jigsaw piece in community care that joins up human and animal care.”

Another aim is to encourage the authorities to take pets into account if, for instance, someone has to move from their home.

“A huge number of animals are put down or rehomed because of housing. People have to give up the very thing that supports them,” says Belinda.

“We are setting out to make organisations appreciate the benefits of having a pet.”

The charity is still young and finding its way. Belinda is putting together a bank of volunteers to help.

They include people with sociable, well-behaved dogs to go on visits.

Mary Roberts, a retired bank cashier from Sudbury, is a volunteer and passionate supporter of the cause.

Like Belinda, she knows how an animal can help in difficult times.

When she had cancer almost 20 years ago, her collie-cross April was constantly at her side.

“I took her with me when I had chemotherapy,” she recalls. “I didn’t have any family to be with me.

“It was everything to have her sitting there beside me, and it helped the other patients, too. I don’t know how I would have got through it without her.”

Now her one year-old cockapoo, Buster, is an Our Special Friends visitor.

Mary has seen the charity as a client, too. They supported her when a tumour killed her previous dog, Poppy, soon after she was assessed to go on visits.

Sudbury is one of the charity’s key target areas. With Mary’s help, they are spreading the word to groups that encounter vulnerability.