When Your Pet Passes
A Guide to Mourning, Remembering and Healing
A pet’s love is extraordinary because it is unconditional. It doesn’t have expectations, pass judgment or try to leverage guilt. It is rich in loyalty, trust and adoration. Domestic pets provide warmth, companionship and love, as well as purpose, fun and conversational gambits for family members. For lonely hearts, they are a lifeline, providing a physical, emotional and spiritual connection to life that may prove critical to survival and happiness.
Loving pets seem like an endless source of happiness while with us, but few outlive their owners. Loss is as much a part of having a pet as potty training. For some, the loss of a dog or cat is debilitating and the grieving process can take months.
Rev. Gary Kowalski, author of Goodbye, Friend and a Unitarian Universalist minister in Santa Fe, New Mexico, contends that the depth of the relationship that we develop with pets emerges from the time we spend with them every day—exercising, feeding, grooming and even sleeping with them. The relationship is pure and uncomplicated, and the pain of separation can be especially intense and profound.
The challenge of pet loss is often complicated by the difficult decision to euthanize an aged or suffering animal. “One of the hardest things about having a dog is that sometimes you have to decide to end its life,” says Jon Katz, of upstate New York, a New York Times bestselling author of many books about dogs, including Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die. “Our job as pet owners is to be an advocate for our pets, making sure they do not suffer. Don’t poison the joy that you shared with your pet with guilt over your decisions,” he says. Katz recommends taking photos of pets and making intentional memories in the time leading up to parting to encourage closure.
The same kind of rituals we use to honor and say goodbye to other family members can likewise help ease the pain of a pet’s passing. Owners can gather with loved ones and friends to celebrate the life of their pet with a burial ceremony or memorial. Kowalski likes adding meaningful words. His book includes a variety of readings that pet owners can use in their rituals taken from poems, literature, the Bible and other sacred texts.
When a human friend or family member dies, compassion and empathy flows from everyone we meet, but many may not be aware of, or understand, the depth of grief associated with a pet’s death. “Some people feel embarrassed or don’t understand that mourning a deceased pet is a normal process,” explains Julia Harris, a pet bereavement counselor from Ellijay, Georgia, and author of Pet Loss: A Spiritual Guide.
For many children, the loss of a beloved pet is their first exposure to death, and age-appropriate honesty is the best policy for helping them through this difficult time. Rev. Gary Kowalski advises parents and caregivers to reassure kids that the death of an animal is not something they have to fear, and let them know that the animal is not in pain, is not sleeping
and is in a peaceful place. He cautions parents against speaking euphemistically about death to young children.
Involving children in the planning of a memorial service for a pet can be therapeutic. Let them talk openly about their favorite memories together and their sadness. Bereavement counselor Julia Harris encourages parents to share stories from their faith traditions that address afterlife. “These stories can help your child best understand that God continues to watch over their pet,” she contends. “This provides a sense of security that the pet is safe and remains with your child in spirit and memory.”
Support is essential during times of grief, and it can be difficult to find an understanding friend to discuss it with. Several online communities are devoted to providing support. An Internet search of “pet loss support” yields a wealth of online resources.
In the same way that the belief in an afterlife comforts people of many faith traditions when a person passes, the possibility of the same destiny for pets can offer comfort. “Perhaps one of the most common questions I am asked is whether or not animals have a soul,” explains Harris. “I encourage people to know that the soul, like love, is eternal. It leaves the physical body, but the loving relationship continues.”
While there’s no standard timeline for the grieving process, it’s important to keep perspective. Excessive grief can lead to depression. “If the grief is interfering with life and your work, then you may need to seek professional help,” advises Katz.
Not even a parent is capable of providing the purely unconditional love we receive from pets. Kowalski views it as a sacred connection, observing that through the unconditional love and acceptance that we receive from our pets, we get a little glimpse of what God’s love must look like.
Julianne Hale is a writer and editor for Natural Awakenings and blogs about family life at AnotherGrayHair.WordPress.com.