Honoring the Loss of a Pet: Simple Ways to Grieve and HealOct 29, 2021 ● By Marlaina Donato
French novelist Anatole France’s sentiment, “Until one has loved an animal, a part of one’s soul remains unawakened,” rings true for anyone that shares a love story with a beloved pet. Whether we lose a cat, dog, horse, bird or lizard, the final parting can be quite emotional. Society supports us with empathy and rituals of closure when we suffer the loss of a human love, but grieving an animal companion can be a uniquely silent passage. Surrendering fully to the mourning process, creating a joyful ceremony and celebrating the life of a loved one invites healing and solace.
The animal-human alliance is hallmarked by the absence of emotional baggage, and is therefore capable of provoking grief that equals or exceeds losing a close relative. “This is a deep bond that is never judgmental on how we look, spend money or what we do for a living, as long as we love and nurture. And, in return, we receive undying, unconditional love,” says Pam Baren Kaplan, a pet loss grief counselor and life coach in Chicago.
Diane Stout, a pet parent and retired dog groomer in Paupack, Pennsylvania, knows the impact of this unconditional love, especially through life’s changes. “Long after a spouse has died and family have moved away to other lives and preoccupations, the family pet remains the faithful dinner or TV time companion,” she says. “A cherished pet is often the last true companion.”
Cancelling appointments or taking time off from work after a pet’s passing does not connote emotional weakness. “Treat yourself with the same kindness you would show another person going through this difficult time,” advises Cheryl Wyatt, a certified grief companion at Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, a national network of veterinarians that provides compassionate end-of-life care. “Allow yourself the time to do your mourning work. Tears are cleansing. If they happen to come 10 hours or 10 years from now, you have permission to shed them.”
Loving an animal until the last goodbye includes relieving their suffering to the best of our ability. In-home euthanasia can make a heartbreaking time more bearable for both pet and owner. “Providing beloved pets euthanasia at home differs from a clinical setting because it allows them to remain in their safe, happy place. At home, the veterinarian can greet the pet family and provide the loved one’s peaceful passing wherever they are most comfortable—a favorite bed or spot on the couch—surrounded by all those who love them most,” explains Wyatt.
Pet funerals are becoming more common, and ceremonies are as unique as the animal remembered. Stories, poetry and memories can be shared by family and they can include a living memorial such as a tree planted in the animal’s name.
Stout, also an accomplished artist, finds joy in painting her pets that have gone and suggests “a scrapbook of pictures and memories, because a look back at puppy or kitten pictures can bring an instant smile.”
Kaplan agrees, “Creating what I refer to as ‘a legacy of love’ can be done by the entire family or by one person. This is a book that you put together with favorite photos of your pet and journal the story around the photo. This is a great way to include family member’s memories from their perspective.”
Choosing a unique, handmade vessel for ashes can honor an animal. Mary Jane Panebianco, owner of SpiritpetShop on Etsy, was inspired by the passing of a co-worker’s dog. “At the time, I worked in a mixed media art gallery, and she had one of our ceramic artists create her dog Sandy’s memorial urn. It was beautiful and so well done. I did some research on the pet industry, and everything I found was so commercial and mass-produced. I knew pets and their owners deserved another option.”
Panebianco works with a small number of award-winning American artisans and accepts custom orders for handcrafted urns. “Many of my pet parents have told me how having a beautiful memorial for their beloved pet helps them make peace with their pet’s passing. It’s the last thing you will do for them.”
In the beginning and in the end, it’s all about the love. For Stout, it’s what animals teach us. “To play and dance often, to give unconditional love, loyalty and friendship, to find joy in the little things, and that life is too often short.”
Marlaina Donato is an author and recording artist.
Advice for the Bereaved
Cheryl Wyatt, of the Lap of Love Veterinary Hospice, recommends:
• Set aside some time each day to be alone in a quiet place to give yourself space to grieve.
• Honor the memories.
• Write out your emotions freely in a journal; compose a poem or letter to your pet.
• Light commemorative candles in his/her honor.
• Create a memory table—include all of the things that remind you of your beloved pet. Leave it up for as long as you like.
• Continue to speak to your loved one, sing to him/her whatever brought you joy in being together.
• Wear a piece of jewelry that bears your pet’s name or contains a small amount of his/her remains.
• Join an online group or meet in person with other people that are going through the mourning process.
• Don’t let people that don’t grasp the depth of the human-animal bond tell you how you should feel.