Dr. Jessica Vogelsang is a veterinarian in San Diego. After working in emergency and general medicine for a decade, she recognized the need for better end-of-life care options for pets and now works as a hospice veterinarian with Paws Into Grace. "Dr. V" is also a contributor to I Remember You, a website offering grief support for pet owners, sponsored by the Helen Woodward Animal Center.

I’ve learned over time that the grief of pet loss is intensely personal, something people experience deeply but have a difficult time talking about with others because they’re worried no one will understand. The isolation associated with experiencing grief without a support system can lead to depression and prolonged grieving, which only gets worse when others say things such as, “Are you still upset?” or “It’s just a cat!” or “You can get another dog.” Even people you’d think would know better can be insensitive: The day after I lost my dog Emmett, a fellow veterinarian greeted me with, “Really? Are you still sad?”

As an added layer of difficulty in the grieving process, many pet parents make the decision to end a beloved pet’s suffering through euthanasia. Even though they know in their hearts it is the right thing to do, it can be an agonizing choice, and some pet owners find themselves with no idea how to deal with the resulting guilt and remorse. Improved education from veterinary hospice teams about the end-of-life process is making things better, but it’s been a gradual evolution.

There are resources for grieving pet owners, but they can be disjointed and difficult to find. Some people want books to help them through the process, while others need someone to talk to on the phone or online. Still others need assistance talking with their children about their pets’ passing. The degree of assistance needed is also different from person to person. Pet owners experiencing severe depression after the loss of a pet may find themselves having suicidal thoughts and need immediate professional assistance to deal with their pain. All too often, though, pet owners are left to navigate on their own, unaware that assistance is available. As veterinarians and pet care professionals — and pet parents ourselves — we can do better.

Remembering Those We Have Lost

I Remember You Website

In September, I was in San Diego for The Business of Saving Lives conference. At the first session of the day, I found myself in a conference room transformed by the light of tiny candles, surrounded by strangers. Animal care professionals from all over the world were there, and despite different languages and goals, we had one thing in common: All of us had lost deeply loved animals.

Mike Arms, the event’s organizer and president and CEO of the Helen Woodward Animal Center (HWAC), had decided to use the conference to launch the first I Remember You candle ceremony to recognize the pets we have lost and the homeless pets who were never able to enjoy the love of a family. The ceremony offered both the people in the room and hundreds of online participants from around the world an opportunity to mourn together. As a veterinarian who offers home hospice and euthanasia services and sees every day what the pain of pet loss can do to a person, this public recognition of that grief gave me chills.

But that was just the beginning: After seeing how profoundly people were affected by the I Remember You ceremony, Arms decided to expand the offering: His outreach would include both Remember Me Thursday, an annual candle lighting ceremony, and IRememberYou.org, a website listing resources for grieving pet owners. When he asked me if I would be interested in helping with the project, I jumped at the chance.

Beyond the Memorial Service

Here in San Diego, HWAC is known for innovative programs designed to expand the human-animal bond, such as pet-assisted therapy, an onsite animal hospital, collaborations with Meals on Wheels to deliver pet food to seniors, and summer camps for kids. Far more than an animal shelter, HWAC seeks to continually expand its offerings to meet the community’s needs. With the addition of Arms’ I Remember You website, HWAC is changing the way we grieve for our pets as well.

I Remember You provides resources and support for pet parents facing the loss of furry family members. As a contributor, I offer advice from a veterinary perspective on how and when to say goodbye, and Dr. Wendy Khentigan shares mental health resources to help grieving families. In addition to the ongoing support available through the website, the Remember Me Thursday candle lighting ceremony will become an annual event, enabling participants to organize in-person services or light a virtual candle online. This year, Remember Me Thursday falls on September 25.

When the lights came on in that San Diego conference room at the end of last year’s ceremony, I wiped tears from my cheeks, certain I was going to be the only person in the room openly weeping. I was wrong: I saw my own surprise mirrored in the other participants’ eyes as we recognized the raw emotion of loss etched on every face. There’s a huge sense of relief in knowing we are not alone in times of grief and mourning, and I am honored to be a small part of expanding that camaraderie and comfort to other pet owners experiencing losses.

For more information about I Remember You and the Helen Woodward Animal Center, visit IRememberYou.org.