For 18 years, Heidi and Niko were more than just best friends. They were family.
Niko, a Maltese, was Heidi L.E. Jones’ first pet. He was with her when she moved into her first apartment and was a constant companion through all of the subsequent ups and downs in her life. “He was with me nearly half my life,” she says.
When Niko became terminally ill, Jones loved him enough to know when to let him go. But while she was able to accept his passing in her head, her heart was not quite so quick to heal. “After about a month, I stopped talking about how I felt to family and friends who didn’t have pets,” says the Wilmington resident. “But I found that you can’t—and shouldn’t—put a time limit on grieving.”
At the suggestion of her veterinarian, Jones Googled ‘pet loss support groups’ in her area and found one at VCA Kirkwood Animal Hospital in Newark that meets on the third Wednesday of every month. (A similar group meets at Windcrest Animal Hospital in Wilmington the second Wednesday of every month.)
Jones thought she would go to sit in once or twice, but ended up going to the meetings for about 11 months. “I felt really comfortable there, like it was a safe place to share my feelings,” she explains. “I’m not one that likes to cry in front of people, but I didn’t feel that there was something wrong with me, that I wasn’t normal, or that I was being judged for my emotions.”
Heidi L.E. Jones with Niko // Courtesy of Heidi L.E. Jones
The meetings helped Jones to feel more comfortable about expressing her deep love for Niko in other ways, including putting her thoughts and feelings into writing letters to him and starting a journal. She also honored him by putting together a scrapbook of photos and inviting family and friends to write down their favorite memories of him. And on the first birthday following his passing, she invited family members to a small memorial service to celebrate his life.
“It does get easier over time, but you never really stop missing your pet,” she notes. “I still cry when I need to, but now, more often, I can look back and be grateful for the time I had with him.”
Jones isn’t alone in her attachment to her beloved pet. According to the American Pet Products Association, 79.7 million American households (65 percent) have a pet and 42 percent have more than one. This year, APPA estimates that we will spend $62.75 billion dollars on our animal companions.
In a survey conducted several years ago by Kelton Global Research, nine in 10 people with pets regard their animals as family members and 78 percent consider themselves to be pet “parents” rather than “owners.” Seventy-one percent admit to having at least one photo of their pet that they carry around with them. And a few American companies even grant pet bereavement leave.
“People ask if it is silly to feel such intense grief over the loss of a pet,” says Dr. Mary Kennedy of Associates in Health Psychology, which has offices in Newark and Wilmington. “But the truth is you don’t get over the grief, you get through it.”
Kennedy experienced “an overwhelming sense of grief” when her two cats, Clyde and Shadow, recently died only a month apart. A cat rescue volunteer, she found comfort in redoubling her efforts to help other animals in need.
“Helping other animals with donations of money or supplies such as bedding, blankets and towels to shelters is a good way to keep the pet’s spirit alive,” says Coreen Haggerty, director of marketing and outreach at the Veterinary Specialty Center of Delaware in New Castle.
Coreen Haggerty with Dobby. // Photo by Marlene Waeltz
Kennedy explains that the nature of grief changes as time passes. “When the death first occurs, it can leave a big gaping hole and a feeling of emptiness,” she says. “Later, when they start thinking about getting another pet, some people worry that they are being disloyal.”
Dr. Ryan McKenzie, a veterinarian at Limestone Veterinary Hospital in Hockessin, points out that veterinary schools are acknowledging the strength of the human-animal bond and its effect on people’s mental health. The One Health Initiative, which is being adopted in a growing number of schools, recognizes that grief resulting from the loss of a pet is a palpable thing and that vets can play an important role in the healing process.
“We share tears with clients who have lost their pets,” McKenzie says. “And we’re always here to lend a hand or an ear or to just offer a hug whether it’s the next day, a month or a year later.”
Helping a child deal with the loss of a beloved pet is one of the hardest things of all, acknowledges McKenzie. He suggests reading with the child a book called “Sammy in the Sky” by Barbara Walsh, illustrated by Jamie Wyeth. This book deals with the subject in a sensitive manner in terms that a child can understand.
Some children want to actually be involved in the post-passing plans for their beloved pets. Rob Mayer, owner of The Animal Soul—Delaware Pet Cremations in Wilmington, remembers how one little girl asked to have her hamster cremated and one little boy his goldfish. “The little boy knew that we had cremated the family’s dog and he found comfort in doing the same for his fish,” he said.
Mayer has seen many different ways that people cope with the grief of losing an animal companion. One of the most moving was when a woman who was visiting Mumbai asked him to handle the cremation of her dog. Fifteen members of the woman’s family gathered at Animal Soul to say goodbye to the pet while the woman said her farewells over Skype.
When his snow- and road-trip-loving Rottweiler Wools passed away, Mayer decided to scatter her ashes in a variety of places that she particularly enjoyed, including a favorite park where there was some newly fallen snow. When he took a hike up Mount Everest, he even took some of Wools’ ashes to sprinkle at the base camp, an experience he described as “cathartic.”
He also erected an altar in his family’s home to memorialize Wools. “She passed in 2007 and, since then, we have lit a candle every day in her memory,” says Mayer.
Rob Mayer set up an altar in his family’s home to memorialize his Rottweiler, Wools. // Photo by The Artful Union
Every year in early December, Limestone Veterinary Hospital holds a Memorial Tree Candle-Lighting Ceremony to celebrate the lives of all the pets that have been lost during that year. Participants receive an ornament with their pets’ pictures in them.
“The hospital is packed with clients who want to come and share stories of their beloved pets,” says McKenzie. “There’s never a dry eye in the room.”
VSCD and Windcrest Animal Hospital host similar events. In addition to decorating trees with personalized ornaments, VSCD invites participants to share their reminiscences and photos on storyboards, while Windcrest puts together a video slideshow of pets that have passed during the year.
To always keep their pets with them, some people get tattoos. Cathy Toner, a staff member at The Animal Soul and leader of the pet loss group at VCA Kirkwood, has a dragonfly tattoo in memory of her English Springer Spaniel Maggie. “We brought her to a farm to be euthanized outdoors and there were dragonflies all around,” Toner recalls. “Whenever I see one I think of her.”
As vice chair of Senior Dog Haven & Hospice in Wilmington and someone who fosters and adopts seniors, Eleanor Garrett sees more dogs at the end of their lives than the average person. To commemorate the dogs that pass under her care she built a garden where she inters their ashes. “I like the idea that they are outside in a pretty place,” she explains.
Dr. Karen Brockman with Lucy (left)
For some people, a ceremonial funeral at home or at a pet cemetery can be helpful, says Dr. Karen Brockman, a veterinarian at Windcrest. Her family has even gotten headstones for their pets.
As far as getting a new pet, the experts agree that it is a deeply personal decision. “You can’t replace the pet you lost, but you don’t have to be alone if you want another companion,” says Toner. “There’s no right or wrong way to grieve, you just have to follow your heart.”
“It was only a dog (or cat)” are words no family wants to hear after losing a beloved pet.
Yet, many times, even close family and friends do not understand the depth of grief that accompanies this loss.
As a result, many people are unable to give themselves permission to grieve and feel the need to apologize when they do, says Karen Brockman, a veterinarian at Windcrest Animal Hospital. “Friends and family who want to support someone who has gone through this loss only need to express condolences, maybe even send a card or note, and listen if the person wants to talk,” she says. “Try to understand that pets are not like family, they actually are family and will be mourned and missed just as deeply.”