Every day, bereaved families and friends visit funeral homes to pay respects to deceased loved ones. There they are greeted by sensitive, empathic funeral professionals who dedicate their lives to caring for the dead and supporting the living. Then there are places like Michigan Memorial Funeral Home in Flat Rock, Michigan, where mourners receive an extra measure of comfort and unconditional love from a very special member of the staff.
“It’s almost as if Zoey knows that her calm presence just seems to make people who are sad a little less sad,” says Kelly Dwyer, whose husband owns the funeral home. Zoey, a golden retriever, is the Dwyer family’s pet. In the past year, she has also served as a grief therapy dog to visitors at Michigan Memorial.
When Zoey was five months old, she began training to assume her new role as comfort canine. Now full grown, Zoey attends visitations only at the invitation of the bereaved families, and she is quiet and restrained as she makes her way among the crowd. Time and again, Dwyer observes as Zoey senses who in the room needs her most, makes her way to that person on her own, and approaches with calm and soothing affection.
The science behind therapy animals
The value of animals in providing comfort to the sick and the bereaved is well documented in science. Study after study has shown that:
- Pets can lower blood pressure and relieve sadness, pessimism, and loneliness in patients who reside in long-term care facilities.
- Pets can help children cope with a parent’s serious illness or death.
- Pets can help prevent loneliness and decrease depression in hospice patients and their families.
- Senior citizens who have pets tend to have fewer doctor visits and lower health care costs.
- Heart attack victims who have pets live longer than those who don’t.
Unfortunately, the people in these studies – the ill, the bereaved, and the elderly – often lack the capacity to own and care for their own pets. Well-meaning friends may suggest that a pet may help in coping, but caring for a pet is a big responsibility, and in times of illness and other life crises, most folks have all they can do to care for themselves.
In fact, seriously or terminally ill pet owners are often forced to give up beloved pets that have been with them for many years, simply because they can’t care for them any longer. The loss of the pet in such cases compounds the sorrow the patient is already feeling.
Animal assisted therapy
Part of a small but growing movement, Zoey and other pets who are trained in animal assisted therapy (AAT) spend their days improving the quality of life for the sick and grieving. A “new” concept to most people in modern times, AAT actually has roots in the ancient Mayan culture, where each person was believed to have a “soul animal” to guide them in life.
Today, human AAT volunteers bring their trained pets to visit with seriously ill patients and their concerned families in homes and health care facilities around the country. Hospices and, more recently, a small handful of funeral homes have begun to realize the tremendous benefits therapy animals can provide for the families they serve.
Most pet owners can recall a time when their dog or cat responded to their pain – a dog that stayed by the side of his owner, who was ill, or a cat that nuzzled up to her owner when she was sad and crying. While the idea of AAT and therapy pets is relatively new, to anyone who has known the love of an animal, it’s an idea whose time has come.
Share your story
Has your pet brought you comfort and consolation when you were sad or ill? Have you ever considered volunteering with your pet to help other people who are suffering?