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Saying Goodbye to a Friend: Community Care After the Death of A Pet

A painting of two medium-sized dogs on a pink fancy couch. The dog on the left is sitting and is khaki and white. The dog on the right is brown and white, lying down and wearing a light-blue patterned bandana around her neck.
Erik Magnus
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One listener honors his grief over the loss of his pit bull/boxer mix Frances with a portrait of her. She's on the right, with her sister Mackenzie on the left.

The loss of a pet is often diminished and deemed less important than other losses. But the grief that comes after is real and difficult for pet owners and veterinarians alike.

There is deep, difficult grief that comes with the death of a pet. And yet, pet loss is often an example of disenfranchised grief — grief not acknowledged or considered “valid” by mainstream culture.

Host Anita Rao talks with two people about the significance of losing pets and the realities of the grief process. Corban Smith got his dog, Dallas, as a puppy when he was 19, and cared for Dallas as he experienced seizures in the last years of his life. Sarina Manifold, a licensed clinical social worker with specialized training in veterinary social work, helps pet owners through end-of-life decision-making and conducting memorial ceremonies.

Smith is an adjunct professor at James Madison University and a jail/emergency services clinician at Valley Community Services Board. Manifold is also a certified grief recovery specialist and the owner of Authentic Healing Counseling.

In the network of care created for those experiencing the loss of a pet, veterinarians often do more of the supporting than being supported. Rao talks with Dr. Erika Lin-Hendel about the mental toll this takes on vets and what can be done to prevent burnout and compassion fatigue in veterinary communities. Dr. Lin-Hendel is a relief veterinarian and board member for Not One More Vet, a mental health advocacy group for veterinarians.

Thanks to Christine Stone, Angela, Haley and Erik Magnus for their contributions to this episode.

Ways to Memorialize Your Pet

Have a Paw Imprint Made

Many veterinary practices will offer to make a clay imprint of your pet’s paw after they die, which can serve as a reminder of them.

“I have the clay paw impression next to the urn, and I've got a candle beside that. And it's just a space where if I really want to stay connected with my animal, I go there.” - Sarina Manifold

Attend a Memorial Celebration and Make Art

In social worker Sarina Manifold’s time working at the University of Tennessee, she facilitated a celebration featuring an art project.

“Memory boxes, making a memory candle, doing picture collages — just things like that can be really helpful for people.”

Spread Their Ashes

If your pet has been cremated, visit a space they loved and spread the ashes there.

“When we went back home [to Alabama] for Christmas that year, we took his ashes with us, and we spread them where he seemed the happiest.” - Corban Smith

Donate Your Animal’s Old Items or Your Time Towards Other Pets

Passing on toys or volunteering with a local shelter can be a way to give things that made them happy new appreciation and honor your animal’s role in your life.

“There are a lot of people who end up volunteering at animal shelters, or volunteering with a rescue after their animal’s death as a way to honor what their animal did for them.” - Sarina Manifold

Looking for more pet loss resources? Check out:

When It’s Time to Say Good-bye: Pet Loss Support

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Kaia Findlay is a producer for Embodied, WUNC's weekly, live talk show on health, sex and relationships. Kaia first joined the WUNC team in 2020 as a producer for The State of Things.
Anita Rao is an award-winning journalist and the host and creator of "Embodied," a live, weekly radio show and seasonal podcast about sex, relationships & health. She's also the managing editor of WUNC's on-demand content.