Image by Pixabay from GailRubin
Written by: Dr. Sara Hopkins, founder of Compassion 4 Paws
While the term “human-animal bond” has only existed since the 1960s, relationships between animals and people have been documented for more than 15,000 years.
These relationships began as working relationships and, over time, evolved into some of the most meaningful and special relationships people have held with others.
It is not uncommon for pets to sleep with their human family members, wear clothes, travel on family vacations, or celebrate birthday parties.
Besides companionship, there are known psychological and physiological benefits to own a pet – research has shown pets can lower blood pressure, reduce stress and anxiety, raise oxytocin levels, and contribute to an overall enhanced sense of well-being.
This mutually beneficial relationship is not confined to dogs and cats… humans may form meaningful bonds with any animal – the list is endless.
Along with the joys and benefits these animals bring to our lives, so comes the heartbreak when we must say goodbye.
For some, losing a pet may be harder than losing a human family member. Grief can be a complicated emotional state, and while there may be predictable stages of grief, it is an incredibly personal process.
The difference between grief and mourning should be noted… grief is what we think and feel following a loss, and mourning is the outward expression, or act, of this grief.
Some people prefer to focus inward after losing a pet and continue their daily routine, while others may find it difficult to get out of bed.
It cannot be emphasized enough that there is no right or wrong way to grieve or mourn and no timeline to follow. Some people cherish the memories of the times they shared with their pets. For others, finding creative and meaningful ways to mourn the loss of their beloved companion can be helpful.
Create a Memorial
Creating a memorial to honor your pet can be as simple or as elaborate as you like – the only limitation is your imagination.
For some, the actual act of creating the memorial may be cathartic in their grieving process.
Memorials can be in the home or a meaningful outdoor space. Families who bury their pets may mark the area with a headstone display, a simple plant or tree, a collection of rocks, or nothing.
Other outdoor memorials include a personalized plaque or engraved stone in the pet’s favorite area to stand guard or catch the sun’s rays.
In today’s world of online shopping, websites such as Etsy have hundreds of unique and personalized pet memorial products in all price ranges.
For guardians who want their pets privately cremated to keep the ashes, there are many options for urns ranging from simple wood boxes to biodegradable tubes to ornate vessels made of ceramic, wood, or metal.
Artists who work with glass may incorporate ashes into globes or hearts to create unique pieces. A previous client of mine combined a small amount of ash from her father and her dog into a glass art piece – the two most important souls in her life.
Wearable art and jewelry incorporating ash or fur or an imprint of the nose or paw may suit almost any style.
When I euthanized my heart dog a year ago, I had her privately cremated to keep her ashes. I bought a beautiful handmade ceramic urn with a hanging wire detail spelling her name. It sits on my desk, and it brings me comfort.
It is also important to note that it is ok to mourn different pets in different ways… I have lost many pets over the years, but this is the only memorial that keeps me company while I work.
Common memorials that are often offered by the veterinarian or crematory at the time of passing are ink or clay paw prints.
These items may be kept alone or incorporated into larger memorials such as shadow boxes or other displays. Commissioning an artist to create a painting or drawing reflecting your artistic style is also readily available and can cover a wide range of budgets.
Whatever you do to memorialize your companion should speak from your heart and feel natural and organic.
And it can evolve over time, and it is even ok to set it away at a point in time. Packing it away (or even saying goodbye to it all together) doesn’t change your relationship with your pet – the memorial served its purpose. If it feels natural to move it along, that is perfectly fine.
Donate To a Pet Charity or Rescue Group
The idea of ‘paying it forward’ may be cathartic to someone experiencing grief with the additional benefit of helping other pets. Finding a reputable cat rescue may be a great fit for someone who said goodbye to a beloved feline.
Or if you adopted your dog from a local animal shelter many years ago, a donation can support their dogs while waiting for loving homes.
Many organizations will accept monetary donations “in honor of” a pet and will publicize this on their social media sites and printed newsletters. One thing to note is that finding a reputable organization to use the funds to benefit the animals is very important.
Online research and talking with family/friends and your veterinarian may offer valuable guidance. If an organization promotes itself as a “non-profit,” there will be a record of its 501(c)3 status on file with your state government.
As a euthanasia veterinarian, I am often asked, “what can I do with this leftover medication and food?” Some rescue groups will accept these donations (they should partner with a veterinarian if accepting medication).
In our area, we encourage donations from a local veterinary organization that helps low-income and homeless with their pets. One legal aside – controlled medications (tramadol, codeine, etc.) cannot be donated and must be disposed of according to state and federal regulations.
Plant a Memorial Garden or Tree
For those who have, and enjoy outdoor space, creating a memorial garden or planting a special tree, flower, or plant, can be a meaningful way to mourn the loss of your companion.
Creating a beautiful space will be enjoyed now and for years to come. Is there a part of the yard your pet loved that you could memorialize?
Do you have a favorite color or plant that reminds you of your pet? Can you create a serene sitting area to reflect on the wonderful times you shared?
These plantings may represent a burial site or be something beautiful to look at and remind you of your companion. Some people bury the cremated remains in the ground and plant a tree at that site.
The ashes of a deceased pet have a high pH, creating a challenging environment for plant life to thrive. Mixing the ash with a product like ‘Let Your Love Grow,’ the ash will be neutralized, providing a nourishing medium for plant life.
For those without an outdoor garden area, indoor potted plants can also serve as a beautiful memorial. And for those of us with no green thumb, buying the occasional bouquet of flowers or a pretty plant and consciously honoring our loved ones can be as meaningful as a gorgeous English garden.
Create a Photo Album or Collage
During such sorrow, it can be hard to remember to celebrate the wonderful life you shared with your companion. Gather all the photos and the funny stories to create a photo book and put these amazing memories to print. Tell the story of your lives together.
How you first met? The trouble they got into. Shortly after I started my practice, I helped a family of four say goodbye to their sweet dog.
In anticipation of that day, they made a book through Shutterfly, and the entire family contributed to the story. They struggled to read it, so I offered to help. I could not finish without emotion… the love they showed was amazing.
How about a scrapbook if a preprinted bound book doesn’t speak to you? Local craft stores and online sites have beautiful paper, stamps, and anything else your creative heart desires.
For those who prefer the digital age, consider creating a video montage to mourn. Social media sites, photo programs, and smart devices like Google Home often create this for you.
Write a Poem or Letter
Expressing feelings of love, loss, and gratitude through writing can have therapeutic benefits. You do not need to be a proficient writer – words from the heart are the most powerful.
Write about the first time you met, when they helped you through personal struggles, and how you were scared when you heard they were sick. Nobody needs to, or will, read this, so let the words flow.
For those with a musical inclination, consider writing a song. One of my long-term clients wrote a song for each of the three dogs they lost.
As I euthanized their third dog (after a long-term relationship), they played the song he wrote and recorded that morning. He said it was a release to offer that at the time of her passing.
Along with letters and poems come eulogies. Many pet grief sites and even veterinary websites and social media pages have a place reserved for tributes. If this is not the case, consider designing a tribute page to honor your loss.
Call to Action
There are countless ways to mourn the loss of your beloved pet creatively. The most important point is one size does not fit all. Grief and mourning are intensely personal processes; what feels right for one is not for another.
You need to find a way to mourn, honor, and remember your companion in a way that feels special, meaningful, and unique to your relationship.
Taking time and space to grieve in a way that feels right for you is important. Seek support and lean on friends and loved ones if it is helpful.
There are online support groups, in-person support groups, and one-on-one counselors who may be valuable.
Grief has no timeline, and you should feel no pressure to follow one. Take the time needed to focus on yourself, reflect on the past, and contemplate the journey ahead.
Sara Hopkins is the founder of Compassion 4 Paws, an in-home end-of-life care for pet’s service in the Pacific Northwest. She is a renowned veterinary professional with over two decades of experience in the field. In 2020, she was honored to join the IAAHPC Board of Directors and became President of the nonprofit in 2023.
With a passion for working with animals, Sara completed her veterinary education at Washington State University and obtained her Certification in Veterinary Acupuncture through the International Veterinary Acupuncture Society in 2013.
In 2013, she started Compassion 4 Paws to help pets and their parents through the end-of-life journey. In 2017, Sara became one of the first veterinarians in the world to achieve certification in Animal Hospice and Palliative Care through the IAAHPC, furthering her knowledge and ability to support pets and their families.
Sara lives in Edmonds, Washington, with her husband Dennis, their son, and their furry friends, including dogs George and Roy and cats Sushi and Freddie Purr-cury.
She enjoys traveling, camping, reading, crafting, and spending time with friends in her free time. With her passion and commitment to providing compassionate care to pets, Sara Hopkins truly advocates for the human-animal bond.