Why Funeral Homes Need to Offer Pet Loss Grief Support

April 07, 2016 Grief, Pet Loss by Danielle Burmeister

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My cat is a menace.

He routinely sprints full tilt through the house at 4 a.m. only to crash into a wall/door/cabinet in a mess of flying fur and distressed meows. He repeats this at least once a week.

He regularly shows his disdain for unwanted guests by stealth attacks to their feet, midnight aerial assaults to their pillows and violent hissing in the general vicinity of their luggage. (We don’t get many repeat visitors.)

He skillfully scouts out the least stain-resistant surfaces in the house to display his latest hairball, in great triumph and glory.

And he indiscriminately claws at man and beast, resulting in at least six shredded chairs and a couch that sports a series of suspiciously cat-shaped bite marks.

Bless his little whiskers.

Pancake (so-named in honor of my husband’s favorite breakfast) is a brilliant and strategic little monster*, and I often dream of how peaceful our house would be without him. It would be quiet. It would be clean. And it would be lonely – so very lonely.

According to sociologist Gerald Mollenhorst, the vast majority of adult relationships are temporary. In fact, 70% of friendships do not last longer than seven years. Consider that many household pets – dogs and cats, specifically – often live a dozen or more years. Wouldn’t it make sense that those relationships, some of the longest many adults have outside their immediate families, are significant enough to merit a considerable amount of grief and necessitate a corresponding amount of funeral home support?

A recent survey by the American Veterinary Medical Association found that 56% of American households have a pet, representing nearly 66.5 million families. The same study found that more than 63% of owners think of their pets as members of their families – and they treat them as such.

In an article for the Funeral Director’s Guide to Statistics, Coleen Ellis, founder of the Two Hearts Pet Loss Center, noted that today’s pet owners often humanize their furry companions, going so far as to have conversations with them, dress them up for the holidays and reward good behavior with their favorite treats. “Even during the 2008 recession, pet spending continued to rise as pet owners cared for them during the downturn just like they would any other member of the family,” she affirmed.

According to the Pew Research Center, the 2008 recession had a significant impact on other types of spending. Their research into consumer buying habits found that over half of consumers cut back on travel during the recession and three out of 10 respondents limited their alcohol or cigarette consumption. An overwhelming majority – 71% – further curtailed their expenses by opting for off-brand purchases rather than their preferred brand-name products. Yet consumer spending on pet care continued to grow.

During the recession, consumers prioritized the care of their pets above family vacations, wine night with the girls and brand-name groceries. What does that suggest about their approach to caring for those same pets when they pass away?

Consider the following eulogy from former Chicago Tribune reporter Barbara Mahany:

Bit by slow bit, I’ve been subtracting, cleaning the shelf of the cat food, washing out his bowls one last time. I’m trying to think of these awful days as lessons in grief, and the insolubility of death. No matter how hard you wish, you can’t bring back the pit-a-pat paw sounds. Can’t muster his face, with the ears perked just so, there at the glass still streaked with his mud prints.

It’s the valley of mirage and phantom echo, the raw and early hours of grief, as you imagine, make-believe — for an instant — you’ve just caught a glimpse, or just heard the sound.

It’s deafening. And deadening.

… And while the loss of a most blessed friend and the loss of a furry one are in no way comparable, I’ve realized this week that death is death. And “little deaths,” too, loom large, and they hurt sometimes in ways that riddle each hour with excruciating moments of missing.

Though – as Mahany points out – the death of a pet in no way compares to the loss of a friend or family member, loss is still loss and grief is still grief. If you want your funeral home to be able to meet all the needs of your client families, you might want to consider offering pet loss grief support to respond to the growing number of owners who want to commemorate and remember their pets.

Even if your funeral home does not offer disposition services for pets, your client families can still benefit from your services. Aftercare following the loss of a pet is particularly important as it often impacts children who have not otherwise experienced a permanent loss. Reaching out and helping families teach their children how to grieve is an important part of your calling as a funeral service provider.

It’s also important to remember that many pet deaths occur as the result of euthanasia. In those situations, decision makers may demonstrate a greater propensity toward feelings of guilt – even when they feel their decision was the compassionate choice. Aftercare from an expert can help them process their feelings and find healthy ways to cope with their loss.

So how do you support families who have lost a furry loved one? In much the same way you support more traditional services. Take a minute to google “pet grief support,” and you’ll notice that many of the suggestions you find match the grief support you already offer client families. Send follow-up cards to families. Provide memorial merchandise options. Host remembrance services. All of the things that help individuals process human losses can also help them cope with the death of a pet.

After all: grief is grief and loss is loss.

* After reading this far, my husband suggested I point out that I do, in fact, really love my cat. Really.community-funeral-home