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An Honorable Parting: Why Pet Memorials Matter

Sharing grief is a basic ritual of healing for social cultures.

Key points

  • Pet loss grief is a form of disenfranchised grief. But it is very real, and very valid.
  • There are not clearly defined societal norms for memorializing a pet.
  • The purpose of a memorial is to honor the life and love shared with the departed, be they a human or an animal.
Source: Sarah Hoggan, DVM
Source: Sarah Hoggan, DVM

“I don’t know what to do next,” is a common statement I hear after someone loses their pet. Obviously, they are grieving, but the question is asked because the path to navigate the grief is invisible.

When a human passes away; there are a series of societal expectations and normal customs that help someone figure out how to tell the world about their loss and how to celebrate the life that has gone. Obituaries not only serve this purpose, but they also allow anyone who may have known the person to reach out and offer condolences or even attend the memorial service. Facilitating this connection forms a support system of shared grief that allows a family to express their feelings safely and seek comfort from others. Sharing grief is a basic ritual of healing for social cultures.

Disenfranchised Grief

Unfortunately, pet loss grief is different. Pet loss grief is classified as disenfranchised grief, meaning there is no societal template, no generally accepted “normal” behavior, for someone to follow. Not only is there a lack of guidance for sharing your grief, but there is also a level of societal discomfort associated with even discussing the loss, as if pet loss grief were in some way abnormal or shameful.

This lack of societal patterning for pet loss grief is rooted in the roles animals traditionally played in our lives. Animals were historically treated as tools: Horses pulled a plow, cats killed mice, and dogs helped us hunt food. Only in the last 50 years has the human–animal bond been recognized, and animals accepted as companions and family members. Unfortunately, even though pets are now widely accepted as family members, not all aspects of society have kept pace, so the way to publicly grieve a lost pet, remains to be fully defined.

Wanting to Honor the Life You and Your Pet Shared

Even though there are not social patterns of grief to follow, it needs to be understood that wanting to have some form of memorial to celebrate your pet’s life is normal and completely reasonable. A memorial in any form is a tangible way of acknowledging the loss, and it allows you to start processing the grief.

Unconditional love and acceptance are the foundations of the human–animal bond. Every tail wag from your dog, purring exchange from your cat, excited whistle from your bird, nicker from your horse, or eager attention from your reptile showed you that you are loved and appreciated. It felt good every single time you had that exchange. Of course, you want to honor the life you and your pet shared; that is a very valid need.

To address this need, you can decide how you want to memorialize your pet: in a public expression, or something more private. This is about what feels right to you, so the only rules associated with it are the ones that you set.

Examples of public pet memorials are things that can be found on the Internet or seen in a public place. Examples of public memorials are a social media post, an engraved stone or brick on a memorial path, or a donation to a shelter or charity in your pet’s name.

Sarah Hoggan DVM
Sarah Hoggan DVM

Examples of more private memorials are things that can only seen by individuals who are invited to view them, such as a planting in your yard, a special framed photo, or even a box that contains their collar, a locket of fur, and their favorite toy.

If you wish to hold some form of service at your home, in a park, or at a pet cemetery where you have family and/or friends attend, tell stories, and share memories, that is OK.

If you feel it is more appropriate to celebrate your pet’s life privately by planting a tree over their remains on your property, that is OK. What is most important about how you memorialize your pet is that it has meaning and value to you. Whatever the form it takes, the purpose of the memorial is to honor your pet’s life and the bond that you shared; your love was real, and your grief is valid.

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