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Till death do us part: Honoring the human-companion animal bond

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Death is a natural part of the life cycle. It is the final culmination of all of our lives. Whether death is sudden and unexpected, the result of tragedy, or simply the natural order of living, no-one’s life is more important than any other. We are equally significant and exceptional.

Throughout the entire animal kingdom, death is ceremoniously ritualized. Both publicly and privately we grieve, mourn, and honor our loved ones by celebrating their life.

We humans memorialize the lives of our loved ones who pass before us and we undoubtedly retain the beautiful memories and importance of our beloved within us. This is also true, as heartfelt in both sadness and joy, when it comes to the most unique, rewarding, and celebrated reciprocal relationship between humans and our companion animals.

The human - companion animal bond is absolutely profound in its effect on our lives. In addition to taking on the responsibility and caring for the life of another sentient species, learning from our close animal family members opens pathways to immense compassion and a greater understanding of our connection with the natural world.

The mindset of people who flippantly argue that our connection with our other-species family members is not enough in the struggle for animal rights, is akin to those who deny and have no experience with the beautiful and astounding relationship between humans and animals.

The recognition and experience of the human-companion animal bond is the bedrock of true and limitless compassion.

“Companion animal death and grief issues and human issues mimic one another,” explains Thanatologist, Coleen Ellis, Founder and Chairperson of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance (PLPA) and Founder of Two Hearts Pet Loss Center in Greenwood, Indiana.

In regard to burial issues, Coleen says there is more regulation on the human side. “The primary goals of the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance is education, due diligence, and the development of standards and ethics and an accreditation process to facilitate a fully transparent pet death care industry.”

As improper, undignified, and illegal dumping of animal remains continues to occur within the veterinary and companion animal crematory industry, the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, in collaboration with the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association (ICCFA) are preparing to launch a consumer search engine in April 2014 to aid caregivers in choosing reputable burial and memorial services.

The most contentious issue dividing the companion animal and human death care industry is the burial of humans with their companion animals. Although laws vary by city, county, and state, cemeteries are highly cognizant of the minority that do not want animals buried near their sacred resting places.

The resounding and simple reason for this is: “Many people don’t understand the human - companion animal bond.”

Some people still may not understand the human - companion animal bond, however, Coleen expects respect for the human - companion animal bond and therefore advocates the burial of humans with their companion animal in specially designated sections.

“Mourning and grieving for our companion animals is natural and acceptable,” Coleen states. “In some instances, we love our animals more than we love our human counterparts.”

To healthily experience grief (what we feel on the inside) and mourn (our outer actions like crying), Coleen advises openness and honesty.

“Children mourn much more appropriately than adults, who can mask their emotions,” Coleen says. “Parents are the barometer for how children will respond to the death of a companion.”

Rather than trying to protect children from the reality of death by creating stories with a mystical element, Coleen encourages families to mourn, cry, and talk about their companions.

Many companion animal care professionals and volunteers come into considerable contact with people who are grieving over the loss of their companions as do friends and extended family who may not fully understand the influential gravity of the human - companion animal bond.

The best way to help people through the process and heal, Coleen says, “Allow them to talk about their loved one and listen to and honor their stories.”

Visit the Two Hearts Pet Loss Center website and Two Hearts Pet Loss Center on Facebook.

Visit the Pet Loss Professionals Alliance and learn more about Pet Loss Professionals Alliance webinars, events, and grief training. Also join Pet Loss Professionals Alliance group on Facebook.

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