Marking and Memorializing Pet Loss
When we lose a loved one, the stories of our lives change forever. Our connections to those beings are not gone, but are transformed as we move forward in time. The ways in which we choose to mark and honor seminal events such as marriages, births, important religious or spiritual milestones, life-stage transitions or deaths are steeped in the ancient tradition of ritual. Our life stories and who we are change through loss. Despite the pain, most people come to discover "positives" that, upon reflection, help us appreciate lessons learned and personal strengths or qualities that would not have been discovered without such powerful transitions. Marking these losses through rituals or other means of memorializing is a healthy first step toward moving through the tasks of mourning.
Rituals Help With the Reality of Loss
In the case of death, rituals serve many healthy purposes. On a personal level, they allow us to take time to pause, reminisce, honor and cement in memory the gift of presence and a shared relationship. They help us tune in to the reality of loss when sometimes it just doesn't feel quite "real." Memorials allow us to celebrate what was and to begin to mourn what has been lost. On a social level, they allow us to gather support from others and to allow others who love and care about us to offer support. Those others are also given an opportunity to celebrate and mourn. Bereavement, although unique to each individual, is a shared and very communal experience.
Importantly, rituals of remembrance — no matter what they are — act as anchors to help us as we try to make sense of the pain and heartbreak. Rituals help us start to write the next chapter in the story of our changed realities.
Sometimes, the loss of a pet can be surprisingly overwhelming. It is not uncommon for people to find themselves blindsided by how deeply they are affected when a pet dies. For some, this is the worst experience of loss they have yet experienced. They are surprised, and sometimes ashamed, by how hard they are hit by the death of a pet. They may think there is something wrong with them. It can be a singularly isolating experience, and society often dismisses the loss of a pet as not that important compared with the loss of a human loved one. But the truth is, sometimes losing a pet is the worst loss someone will ever experience. The ways that we find to make sense of how a loss affects us — and to find support along the way — often starts with ritual.
Grief and Remembrance
After many years of practicing veterinary medicine, I am continually amazed at the ways people find to begin that "sense-making" process. What seems normal and acceptable to some seems weird and crazy to others. Remember that however you decide to remember your pet, it is the act of taking time to remember that counts. Cultural or spiritual traditions can add richness to various means of expression, so as you look to support others, remember that just because something is unfamiliar or even weird to you, it may be the one single thing that helps them the most.
For instance, I am a writer and I find comfort in journaling or in reading what others have written when they have lost a pet. One of my favorite books is Angel Pawprints: Reflections on Loving and Losing a Canine Companion (Laurel E. Hunt, Ed.). From Rudyard Kipling to Eugene O'Neill, some of the greatest writers the world has ever known have waxed poetic in their personal expressions of loss and remembrance related to an animal companion.
So, for me, I find the greatest solace in words. For others, however, it may be tangible things. Some people save pet ID tags or collars, or fashion bits of cremains into lovely fused-glass items or pottery glazes. They may travel the world sprinkling ashes as a way of holding close the memories of their friend. Others may hold funerals, wakes or foster homeless pets. Some may place a snip of hair in a locket, plant a fruit tree or flowering plant over a grave, or hang pawprints on a wall over a desk. All are important ways to remember, and there are as many ways to remember as there are people who have deeply loved a pet. Find one that works for you.
In our house, given the number of beloved beings (human and other-than-human) we have lost, things started getting a little crowded with these types of tangibles. So now we often honor those lives through making donations to charitable causes that serve both human and animal health and well-being… living legacies that remind us that the love we shared lives on through service to others.
Resources for Making Sense of Pet Loss
Increasingly, there is more understanding of how difficult it can be to lose an animal companion. Good resources for help can be found through the Association for Death Education and Counseling.
Let your heart take the lead, and allow your head to rest a bit as you decide what feels "right" when first processing loss. Most often the heart of love we shared will steer us in the right direction.
Read more Vetstreet articles about grief and losing a pet.