Memorials Help Us Cope With the Loss of a Pet

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Making memories while they are still here, remembering pets after they are gone, and disenfranchised grief.

After the loss of a pet, support from family and friends can make a big difference. But what about the things we do to memorialize our beloved pet? Memorials are a common way for people to cope after losing a pet and can help people to still feel connected to them (Park, Royal, and Gruen 2020).

A pawprint can sit on the mantel as a reminder, as can ashes, which might instead be scattered in a special place or even turned into jewellery. Pieces of fur or favourite toys can be keepsakes. Photos and portraits of pets can remind us of their character long after they are gone. People may also like a stone, tree, or special spot in the yard where they will think of their beloved animal. And posts on social media or on pet memorial websites allow us to share our memories with others.

Tiffin writes that he considered a portrait, but was advised by the artist to wait until Hector was old, because that’s when a dog’s looks are more pronounced and dignified. But Tiffin had heard of someone composing music for a dog’s ears, and so he had the idea of commissioning a piece of music instead.

The Royal College of Music in London put him in touch with a recent graduate, Nahum Strickland, who is also a dog lover and was willing to take on the challenge. It’s not like composing an ordinary piece of music.

Strickland told The Guardian, 

“In composition you usually start with an arc – a beginning, middle and end – but Hector is always charging around. He seems to find it hard to concentrate on one thing and I get the idea he will always do what he feels like; he is a very immediate dog.”

I enjoyed listening to the piece, which is busy (just like the dog). It begins with an oboe solo and builds to a very satisfying conclusion. The music leaves you with no doubt that Hector is having lots of fun.

Tiffin is unusual in thinking of this memorial while his dog is still very much alive and well, but many of us like to memorialize our pets in one way or another. 

Although these days there’s more understanding of pet loss than there used to be, to a large extent it is still a disenfranchised type of grief: a grief that we are expected to get over quickly, and where support from friends and family is sometimes lacking. There are still people who will say (or think) “it was just a dog” or “just a cat”.

We know that social support makes a big difference in helping people to cope with grief after the loss of a pet. Researchers have also wondered whether memorializing a pet can help people to process the grief. After the loss of a person, people can sometimes experience posttraumatic growth in which they learn about their own personal strength in coping, feel more connected to others, and have changes in their life. They may also feel a greater appreciation for life, and/or question or develop their spirituality. 

However one study found that memorials for a lost pet had no relationship to posttraumatic growth (Spain, O’Dwyer and Moston 2019). Memorials were more common in cases where the grief was severe and also when it was disenfranchised, which does suggest they are being used as a way to cope with the loss. 

Research has shown that memorial activities following the loss of a person can help people to manage their grief. Spain, O’Dwyer and Moston suggest that the nature of memorial activities might make a difference, and that activities such as keeping a journal and writing about thoughts and emotions may help. 

One question this raises for me is the extent to which memorial activities are shared with others. Perhaps being able to show memorials to others and talk about them would help with grief, since this would mean the grief was acknowledged by others instead of disenfranchised.

In any case, having a piece of music composed while the pet is still very much alive and letting people listen to it seems like a lovely way to share your dog with others. Hector is not the first pet to be immortalized in music—Benjamin Britten’s setting of Jeoffry, the poet Christopher Smart’s cat, is just one of many examples. (The video shows King’s College Choir singing Benjamin Britten’s Rejoice in the Lamb, Op 30 – For I will consider my cat Jeoffrey). 

I’ve never met Hector, but I have a picture of him in my mind thanks to both the music and the Guardian’s photo of him. And I feel like the piece of music speaks to this: the dog in question as a lovely, lively, bouncing creature. 

For now, the music is not a memorial but a celebration. If you were able to commission or compose some music to depict your pet, what kind of music would it be? 

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