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Grief Perspectives
Scholar's Corner
Resource Review

Helping People After an Animal Companion Dies

by William G. Hoy
(reprinted with slight adaptations from the May 2012 edition, one of Bill’s most perennially-popular columns)
One of the inevitable realities of life is that loving animals means saying goodbye to them.Virtually all of the four-legged, finned, scaled and winged 
companions in our lives have shorter lifespans than we do, which means we might say goodbye to many of these friends in our lifetimes. While perhaps not for everybody, the death of a pet is for many people the profoundest of losses.
I’ve written many times about the deaths of animals in the Hoy family. Chief,our daughter’s beloved Appaloosa, died after a short illness four Januarys ago but rarely do Debbie or I look out to the paddock 50 yards from our back porch without remembering—and even missing his steady presence. Carolyn has completed college and her first year of marriage; she has the responsibilities of full-time professional job and another horse whom she loves. But ask her aboutChief and like Debbie and me, she is likely to get a bit misty-eyed.
Many of our clients who present with issues related to the death of a human companion are at least sensing the loss of an animal companion, too. They might quickly explain that this animal companion understood them and accepted them in ways the humans in their lives never did. For some, they come to therapy about the human loss even though it is the animal loss they consider most significant.
Some readers of this newsletter work with people who experience the full brunt of grief after a pet loss. While certainly not confined to these groups, our readers who work in senior adult programs and in schools see and hear about more than their share of pet-related grief. That being said, here are some pointers on meeting the needs of bereaved individuals who are suffering with the death of a beloved pet.
Embrace the pet bond on its own merits. We can unintentionally disenfranchise the grief of pet lovers by comparing the bond to that of a human family. Words like, “Sounds like he was just like a son to you” or “I guess she was almost a member of the family” can suggest to the bereaved person that the loss of a pet is something less than other kinds of death. Cusack and Smith (1984) wrote,
"For the elderly person who lives alone and is no longer a working and active member of the community, the world can seem a bleak place indeed. An animal friend, however, can do much to provide companionship, love, affection, and a sense of being needed."
Instead of making comparisons to human relationships, invite the bereaved person to talk about the animal and the bond they shared. Rather than making “relational comparisons,” simply invite stories of the places and activities shared between the pet and the bereaved person. Asking questions about the animal’s life and the activities shared validates the relationship and the bond that was shared between the two.
Embrace the need for surrogate support. For many pet owners, animals form a cornerstone of their personal support network. Pets become the non-judgmental listeners, the warm body snuggled up on the sofa or in the bed, and the welcome face and wagging-tailed greeting at the end of a day. When that companion dies, the hole in the heart and the support network can be enormous.
Additionally, family and friends are often not all that supportive of the newly bereaved after a pet’s death. Trite cliché responses sometimes disenfranchise the loss, implying (or directly suggesting) that the grief is nonsense. For these reasons, online communities (chat rooms), phone helplines, and even specific pet loss bereavement groups have sprung up in many places. A quick Google search will reveal dozens of web resources following a pet’s death.
Embrace the discussion of values imparted. The animals for whom we care teach us much in their time with us. My wife, Debbie, reflected in the days afterChief’s death about how much she realized Chief had taught Carolyn about being a young woman. She learned responsibility from this “man” who needed to be cared for whether one “felt like it” or not. She learned companionship and friendship from the way he nuzzled against her, especially when he knew he was in trouble for some equine misdeed. Through my own tears, I told gathered friends at Carolyn’s and Matthew’s wedding last year that we knew Matthew was a “keeper” in that they had only been dating a few weeks when he accompanied Carolyn home from college for that horrible weekend as we said goodbye to Chief, intuitively sensing when he needed to be close or when to give her some space.
And we have laughed dozens of times about the experience when Carolyn was about 14 and she demonstrated how good training pays off. I had taken her to ride with a friend some miles from our home. The time came at the end of the day for Chief to get back in the trailer and he decided he wanted to graze instead. Carolyn did not get mad; she simply backed him away from the trailer and led him in an exercise called “ground manners” in which the trainer gets the horse’s full and undivided attention. When she had finished this “training discipline” with him a few minutes later, she said, “Chief, Trailer,” and in he immediately went. My friend Tony Dunn whose daughter had been Carolyn’s riding buddy that day leaned over to me after watching this event and quietly remarked, “I don’t think she’ll ever have trouble managing a man.”
Embrace the need for education. Several years ago, a woman approached me to ask my opinion about her friend who wasn’t “coping well” after the death of her 12-year old Labrador Retriever. The concerned friend told me she had counseled her friend that the dog would never have had any quality of life and that her friend had made the right decision to euthanize him. Furthermore, the questioner told me, “When she just kept ‘carrying on’ about it, I told her, ‘Come on; it’s not like it was a child or something; it was a dog for Pete’s sake!’”
Fortunately, this insensitivity might be less often seen today but the need for education is still apparent. Canadian and American veterinary associations as well as university-based veterinary programs provide web-based resources for grief support and education. Morris Animal Foundation provides a helpful list of grief resources in both the U.S. and Canada on its website, as well.

Children in elementary classrooms can learn important aspects of the life cycle and of helpful ways to cope with grief when teachers address a student’s experiences with the death of a pet. Sometimes, parents inform the teacher “just so you are aware,” when in fact, what the parent might be really looking for is instruction on how to help the child cope. Kaufman & Kaufman (2006) describe their own experience with pet death in the family as a psychiatrist father and a seven-year old son.
Hospice staff, educators, marriage and family therapists, and other caregivers can make reference to pet death as a significant loss whenever working with clients or making community presentations. Clergy who Illustrate sermons or homilies with an occasional story of a pet whose life was meaningful but who has now died can also model for members of the congregation the realities ofthis kind of bereavement and validate its existence.
Embrace the need for creative, meaningful rituals. On both the internet and in pet superstores, one can find a plethora of animal memorial products. From memorial stones for the garden to pet urns to memorial websites, there is no shortage of ways to remember one’s animal. However, these are onlyproductsbut what all grieving people need most are rituals. In the next paragraph, you will notice the italicized words are active verbs because when someone we love dies, we need to get moving and get our hands dirty!
Our 15-year old Sheltie, Sato died when our kids were young, we dedicated the afternoon to saying goodbye to him. Debbie, the kids, and I made his casket from the wood we had purchased at Home Depot a few months earlier, knowing this day was coming (you see, dogs need funeral pre-planning, too!) We drew pictures, arranged flowers and favorite toys in with him, and wrappedhim in his favorite towel he always lay on when sunning on the back patio.Standing next to his grave, we told our favorite Sato stories and we prayedtogether to thank God for Sato’s life and the ways his life had touched ours. In simple ways, we acknowledged this life that had come to be a cherished part of our family. We repeated this act in similar ways—though with greatly “enlarged” logistics—when Carolyn’s 1,100 pound Chief died and we buried him out by the barn on our central Texas property.
Pet owners may be very creative in the ways they want to “get moving and get active” with the death of their animal. They can plant a tree in the animal’s memory, make a contribution to the humane society, or even host a gathering for animal friends and their humans to remember the life that was lived. These rituals provide wonderful opportunities to acknowledge the life and its many contributions.
Through grieving the deaths of our own pets, we learn important lessons for ourselves about life, death, and loss. Helping our clients, patients, and constituents through this loss is vitally helpful for them, as well. In the final chapter of her book, Betty Carnack (2003) writes,
“How do you make sense of all this?” “What are the lessons for you?” “How are you different because of your animal’s life and death?” I ask these questions regularly. It can be worthwhile and meaningful to reflect on the lessons learned from living with animal companions and what they’ve brought to our lives. For some, it takes time for the answers to evolve. For others, the lessons are readily apparent. An answer I hear often is that our animal companions teach us about unconditional love, patience, and caring. Because of our relationship with them, we are changed forever. When we made that covenant with them long ago, we pledged to keep our commitment to our animal companions. By keeping that commitment, they’ve become forever a part of our heart and memory, and we never lose that connection.
Carmack, B.J. 1991. Pet loss and the elderly. Holistic Nursing Practice 5, 80-87.
Carmack, B.J. 2003. Grieving the death of a pet. Minneapolis, MN: Augsburg Books.
Clements, P. T., Benasutti, K. M., & Carmone, A.  2003.  Support for bereaved owners of pets. Perspectives in Psychiatric Care 39, 49-54.
Cusak, O. & Smith, E.  1984. Pets and the elderly: A therapeutic bond. New York: Hapworth.
Gosse, G. 1994.  Human grief resulting from the death of a pet. Anthrozoos 7,103-12.
Kaufman, K. R. & Kaufman, N. D. 2006. And then the dog died. Death Studies 30, 61-76.
Morley, C. & Fook, J. 2005. The importance of pet loss and some implications for services. Mortality 10, 127-43.

The Author:
For three decades, William G. Hoy has been counseling with the bereaved, supporting the dying and their families, and teaching colleagues how to provide more effective care. After a career in congregation, hospice, and educational resource practice, he now holds a full-time teaching appointment on the Medical Humanities faculty at Baylor University in Waco, Texas.
Scholar's Corner

Tzivian, L., Friger, M., & Kushnir, T. (2014). Grief and bereavement of Israeli dog owners: Exploring short-term phases pre- and post-euthanization. Death Studies, 38(2), 109-117.
In introducing their research paper, Tzivian, Friger, & Kushnir (2014) acknowledge a multiplicity of issues contributing to the experience of grief following a pet’s death. Included among these, they suggest, are the strength of the attachment bond, the age of the bereaved, and the support of the veterinary team. Wanting to understand the nuances of the bereavement experience more fully, however, these researchers conducted in-depth interviews with 29 bereaved pet owners and conducted a content analysis on the interview transcripts. Twenty-four of the respondents were women and the median age of all participants was 49; interviewees described themselves as non-religious Jews. In all, the respondents had experienced the death of 17 dogs since multiple family members were interviewed in several cases. The dogs had lived most of their lives with the respondents and had been euthanized two weeks or less prior to the interviews.
Results from the study show several common trends between the respondents. The decision to euthanize the dog was uniformly difficult for respondents, in spite of the animal being sick or feeble. Five of the respondents (17.3%) experienced guilt as a result of the decision, even if rationally aware it was likely in the dog’s best interest. Owners reported a diversity of caregiving activities (bathing or massaging the pet, providing a tasty treat, allowing him to sleep in the owner’s bed) as a way to mentally and emotionally prepare for the dog’s death. The authors recounted one woman’s experience with her dog: “I was with him all weekend, kissing him all the time. The last night I put him in my bed and we slept together. The morning before euthanasia I gave him ice cream for the last time” (p. 113). Some reported writing their pet a goodbye letter as a way to prepare for the animal’s death.
Approximately 70% of the owners buried the dog or arranged for the animal’s disposition; the authors indicate that this seemed to be an important act for most, with those choosing to bury the animal seeming “calmer than those who did not. Four of the families recounted following a traditional Jewish seven-day mourning period similar to sitting Shiva for a human family member. Two women wore black clothes, did not use makeup, and did not speak to friends, common customs inShiva. Several indicated they took days off of work or school after the dog’s death. Some owners recounted using symbolic items as linking objects; one mourner indicated she was sleeping with her dog’s blanket in her own bed, an activity well-known to grief counselors following a human family member’s death. Approximately half of the owners indicated they had another pet in the household. Of the 14 respondents who did not, eight indicated they would not get another dog though only two of those were for practical reasons (difficulties when the owner wanted to travel).
The authors refer to these five aspects of the content as “stages” (1-decision to euthanize; 2-mental preparation for euthanizing; 3-burial; 4-mourning; 5-replacing the pet/getting a new dog. Like most bereavement specialists who decry the term “stages” in the first place, I think they better describe aspects or “themes” of the experience, a mistake likely made because the authors are not bereavement content experts (their teaching and research is in the fields of epidemiology, sociology, and health). Nevertheless, this study contributes to our awareness of the diversity of experiences among bereaved pet owners, especially in the near aftermath of a dog’s death.
Like all articles from Death Studies, the full article is available free to members of the Association for Death Education and Counseling by accessing the “journals” section of the member-only page. To learn more or join, visit
Resource Review

One of the more innovative pet grief support programs is the pet loss support help line run by vet students at Washington State College of Veterinary Medicine. These veterinarians-in-training are trained and supervised by a licensed therapist and they, in turn, provide phone support to individuals who call in. Not only is this a kind service for the school to offer to anyone with a telephone, but what great training for these future doctors to have while they are still students. Access the information page at
Dolan-Del Vecchio, K. & Saxton-Lopez, N. (2013). The pet loss companion: Healing advice from family therapists who lead pet loss groups. North Charleston, SC: Create Space.
With kind understanding, these two family therapists weave together a practical and gentle approach to dealing with the death of an animal companion. From the outset, the authors acknowledge this deep grief that is often disenfranchised by well-meaning friends and family members but they quickly move on to the practical matters of understanding and working through one’s loss. Their brief, readable chapters include titles such as, “Is my grief normal?” and “Why would anyone say such a thing?” In fact, because their slightly more than 100 pages is divided into 16 chapters, readers can quickly find help with particular issues if they don’t want to read the book straight through. This is a book filled with tender stories and helpful direction.
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