Many people who own pets find that the loss of their companion animal is as painful as the death of a friend or family member. Because pets are integral parts of most families, it’s no surprise that the grieving process is often as complicated, personal, and intense.
Colleen Mihelich, founder and President of Peternity, a company that specializes in honoring the memory of pets, says, “Some people without pets think that’s utterly ridiculous. [But] pets give us unconditional love. They’re always there for us. It’s oftentimes a bigger loss than people anticipate.”
The phenomenal growth of Peternity from a modest cottage industry into a thriving business demonstrates, without doubt, that it’s becoming more acceptable to grieve over the loss of a pet.
We love our pets, and more of us are making them a part of our families. In 2006, market research for the American Veterinary Medical Association reported 72 million pet dogs and 82 million pet cats in US homes, up by almost half over those reported just 10 years ago. More than seven in ten GLBT households have pets, and of those, nine in ten say their pets are family members.
Peternity markets a number of products designed to preserve the memory of pets. It provides a wide range of items that are affordable, as well as a number that are also artisan-crafted.
Mihelich explains that her customers “want the last connection with their friend to be perfect, so they want things handcrafted.”
Engraved stones, keepsake boxes, urns, and a host of other items that can be personalized make up Peternity’s growing product line.
By all accounts, Mihelich is a happy, well-adjusted woman, yet she has, in an oddly warm way, made grieving her life: “It’s very hard for me, but it’s part of who I am, so I love what I do.”
Mihelich shares that Peternity means more than business for her. Certain life events trigger that sense of longing for a loved one. She lost her mother to cancer at a young age, and as her own children neared that same milestone birthday where she experienced her loss, a flood of feelings returned to her. She was grieving once again, but from a different point of view.
In addition, as a teenager, Mihelich lost her first pet, a quarter horse, to a muscular disease that took it down inside of a week. This loss of life planted the seeds for the blossoming enterprise that today is Peternity.
Connie Studer, MA, LAMFT, who works in Minneapolis as a grief counselor with Heteroflexible Therapy, sees the kind of work that Mehelich does as vital for those who have formed close bonds with their pets.
Studer suggests creating rituals honoring pets “to recognize the impact, to remember all the fun, to honor the love that our companion animal gave.”
Like a funeral, these practices help the grieving to accept the loss in their own way, and to move on. People with a strong support network typically are able to work through their grief, but that isn’t always the case. Because grief is unique to every individual, at times, professional help should be sought.
In Studer’s words, “If, after three months, the pain is still the same as if the death were yesterday, it’s time to reach out for help.”
Because pets have become such an important part of the lives of their owners, and because, with rare exception, we outlive them, it’s important to prepare for their eventual passing.
“Animals come into our lives for a purpose,” Studer remarks, “and when their purpose is completed, they move on.”
Bereavement can look like a chasm between private feelings and publicly honoring a loved one, even if it was an animal. Peternity offers an added way to help move on, to bridge that gap.
Connie Studer, MA, LAMFT