Interview with Coleen Ellis: Dealing with Pet Loss and Mourning
Losing a beloved pet is never easy.
Rather than trying to ignore the pain, experts believe recognizing and validating it will not only help you heal, but it will also honor the one you lost.
Coleen Ellis of The Pet Loss Center helps pet parents deal with loss on a daily basis. Coleen is a nationally recognized expert in pet loss and grief. An educator, business owner and all around charismatic pet lover, Coleen has a unique way of helping pet owners, veterinarians and other pet professionals understand pet grief and memorialization.
The Honest Kitchen: One of the services you offer through The Pet Loss Center is a memorial service. Can you tell us a bit more about what a pet memorial service is like and how it can help owners through the grieving process?
Coleen Ellis: In the beautiful words of Starhawk, “Rituals build community, creating a meeting-ground where people can share deep feelings, positive and negative, a place where they can sing or scream, howl ecstatically or furiously, play or keep a solemn silence.”
Therefore, having a service or a ritual allows pet parents the opportunity to do one more thing to honor the life they shared with their pet. Rituals, or a memorial service, to honor a life shared with a beloved pet can look like a variety of things. It can be things like:
- Taking a walk along a familiar path
- Planting a flower, tree or shrub with family
- Setting up a tribute table with special items to honor a pet, possibly taking time to gather around the table as a family to share stories and memories about the pet
- Conducting a service, complete with readings, poetry, songs, and the sharing of memories
Having a ritual for a pet should be designed to represent the personality of the pet and how they fit into a family’s life. For instance, if the pet loved running outside, consider having the service outside. For our cat-lovers, possibly the service is best held inside where the cat spent its days. And, if the pet loved to go to the local dog park, think of having the service there, with the other dogs and families who shared in those beautiful days of the park as well.
Also, think about how the pet can be honored even more with taking memorial donations for a local shelter or money towards research to cure a disease in that pet’s name. For the beautiful lab, Tara, who loved her tennis balls, attendees to her service were invited to take a ball in Tara’s honor. For the balls that were left after her service, the family took them to the local dog park and hid them for the other dogs to enjoy.
THK: The loss of a pet can be particularly difficult for children. How can parents help children understand the loss so they can grieve? Any activities you recommend families can do together to help children grieve in a healthy way?
CE: First of all, be honest with children when it comes to the death of a beloved pet. Children want the truth versus a made-up answer. And they want to know they can feel safe with their feelings of sadness, anger or guilt.
Parents are the barometer for how children will handle loss.
Children will dose themselves with the pain of the loss. They will take time to move in and out of the pain, taking the break that their emotions will need as they move towards their new normal of life without their pet friend.
Give children the opportunity to honor the love they shared with their pet throughout a variety of activities.
- Coordinate a fundraiser for a local shelter in honor of the pet
- Plant a flower
- Create a scrapbook
- Set up their own tribute table in the safety of their own room
- Plant a tree
- Be the facilitator of the ritual service for the pet
- Write a letter or draw a photo together, to the pet or about the pet
THK: How about creating a memorial at home? Any tips on doing that?
CE: A memorial table is a beautiful physical set up, much like what one would see at a funeral ceremony where special items are displayed to represent the loved one’s life.
A Tribute Table can include things such as
- Special treats
- Family photos
- The pet’s urn
- Anything else that the pet loved and was a part of the life shared together
Many families will leave the table set up for a certain amount of time, ending the time for the table’s set up with an actual service. This service may be remembering why the particular elements were placed on the table, readings, songs and other things important to the family. Sharing a dinner together is also very comforting as food is such an integral part of our culture’s rituals and celebrations, as we celebrate the life that was shared together as well as mourn the passing of a loved one.
THK: Do you feel mourning is a journey (with different steps)? Any tips on accepting the process and dealing with it better?
CE: Mourning with “steps” makes it sound like the grief journey is a linear process, where one can advance in their emotions. I think that the grief journey is more circular in nature, one where the emotions can ebb and flow more like the tide. There are some days that it’s low tide and the reality of the new normal is much more tolerable and not so up and down. However, then there are days that the emotions of grief are more like high tide, with all of the internal sentiments feeling like they are crashing down in a fit of fury.
One thing is needed for a grieving heart to mend and that is active mourning. Making movement in the grief journey happens over time with reconciling a death within us so that the loss becomes a part of us, versus one that continues to be raw with emotion and a constant open wound. We never have closure with the loss of a loved one so there is nothing to resolve, but again we reconcile the loss. Don’t think about steps in the grief journey, think of the need for the Central Needs of Mourning for a pet parent. These include:
- Acknowledge the reality of the death
- Move towards the pain
- Continue the relationship with the pet, now through memories
- Adjusting the self-identity
- Search for meaning in the loss
- Continue to search for support of those that understand