“There’s no guidebook for pet death in the way you’d lean on culture or religion to know the steps to take when a person dies,” Bartels explains. That can leave some pet parents feeling lost and confused when their pet is gone—but it also gives pet parents the freedom to choose the most fitting way to honor their beloved friend.
When it comes to mourning pets, Bartels has been there. Throughout her life, she’s had many pets—and that means she’s had to say goodbye to many pets, too. Turning through the pages of her book, you get to meet all of Bartels’ numerous pet friends, from childhood into adulthood—from a finch named Kiki to Gus and Gwen, two Cairn Terriers—and learn how each held a special role in her life, and how each death left its mark on her heart.
To be clear, Bartels will be the first to tell you that she’s no grief expert; she’s someone who has simply had a lot of pets, and therefore dealt with a lot of their passings, learning something new about what it means to grieve with each goodbye.
Still, she never planned to write this book, she explains. It wasn’t until grad school when she found herself penning essays on beloved animals that a friend pointed out the varying ways pets are laid to rest or mourned. Bartels began researching and discovered that when it comes to honoring dead animals, there’s no “right way”—and the options are endless.
“I fell into this black hole of learning about all the different and amazing things that people do when their pets die to mourn and remember them,” she says. “When a pet dies, I think it's sort of amazing that you don't have any restrictions. You can do things like have a funeral service, or buy a burial plot, and also have your animal cloned, or taxidermied, or have a portrait painted of them.”
Each memorial, Bartels realized, is driven by a sincere and deeply felt love for the pet. Yes, it’s sad, she acknowledges, but the bond evident in each unique gesture of love is also inspiring.
As your pet’s closest companion, you know how best to honor their passing. But if you’re having trouble deciding on the perfect memorial, “Good Grief” has plenty of inspiration for you.
Should I Get Another Pet?
Some pet parents need a long grieving period before they’re ready to welcome a new pet into their lives, Bartels says. For others, caring for a new pet helps them move through their pain. The only right answer is the one that feels right to you. Just remember to keep taking your responsibilities as a pet parent seriously. If you feel ready to welcome a new pet into your life, ask yourself these questions first.
Another common option she’s seen used are memorial spaces—whether or not that place is in the backyard or elsewhere.
“Many people I spoke with will have a rock or marker made, sometimes plant a bush or some flowers, and create a little space where they can go and sit and remember their pet.” You could also choose a spot inside the home, such as a shelf where a pet’s ashes are displayed.
“I think holding a physical space for memories is really important,” says Bartels.
When putting together her book, Bartels not only spoke with parents to discover new and familiar ways they choose to mourn their pets, but she also turned to psychologists and grief counselors who tackle these heavy topics for a living. One thing that kept coming up during her conversations with experts is that grief doesn’t necessarily get easier with time—in fact, for many, the weight of grief can compound with each loss. But she also learned that through these heartbreaking experiences comes resilience, and “you can learn tools to help yourself move through grief — and to take care of yourself while you're moving through it,” she explains.
If you’re not sure where to start, Bartels has some go-to advice for how to deal with grief associated with the loss of a pet that may help you when the time comes. Just remember: There is no one way to mourn the loss of a pet — nor one singular way to celebrate their life, so let yourself do what feels right when dealing with pet grief.
- Don’t give yourself a time limit. Grief is not linear. It can come in waves, so don’t put pressure on yourself to be “over it” by a certain time, and allow yourself to be upset if something brings your grief back up to the surface months or years later.
- Be kind to yourself. Whether you’re dealing with your first loss of a pet or your twentieth, pain is pain. You must allow yourself to feel it. Remember that it’s natural to miss your pet—as “Good Grief” points out, people have been grieving and honoring their beloved animals for centuries.
- Find your support system. Lean on friends or family who understand what you’re going through. You may also find pet death support groups and hotlines helpful. The Association for Pet Loss and Bereavement has a listing of support groups both online and in-person, as well as grief counselors for one-on-one support.
Here’s the good news: You’re not alone, and pet parents who are grieving now have more support than ever. So do whatever you need to do to manage your grief, and when you’re ready, memorialize your beloved pet in the way that feels right to you. As Bartels puts it in “Good Grief”:
“Just because an animal is gone, even if its death is long in the past, that doesn't mean that pet isn't part of you. It doesn't mean that the experience of having that pet didn't profoundly change you, or make your life better, or help you become a stronger, happier person. And even if it's been six years, thirteen years, a whole lifetime, those animals still deserve to be honored and remembered."
Helping Others Through Pet Loss
If you know someone who’s struggling with the loss of a pet, there’s one big thing you can do to help, Bartels says: Take their grief seriously. ”Do the same things you'd do for someone who had lost a beloved human,” she explains, such as:
- Offer to cook a meal or pick up take out so the grieving person doesn't need to worry about dinner one night.
- Send flowers or a card.
- Share memories you have of the animal.
Your goal is to show them that they aren't the only one who is sad about the loss—that their pet was loved by many and will be missed.
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