Companion Pets Provide Comfort in Grief

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?


Discuss: Companion Pets Provide Comfort in Grief

One Response
  • I am surprised there are no more responses to this article.
    I found it thoughtful and well written.

    My darling miniature dachshund is having many troubles now.
    Just got the courage up to look for different options.
    Now that I know a general cost, I have an idea.

    I wish my dog could be a volunteer dog, people love her.
    She is only ten pounds, and when she is well, she waves that tail beautifully.
    For some reason she has always had a fear of little boys.

    I got her when she was about 3, and she is almost 14 years old now.
    I cannot let my selfishness keep her alive.
    She has been the most delightful dog ever.
    I love her.

    I have Major Depressive Disorder.
    She has spent a lot of time by my side and being my comfort.
    She has earned a peaceful and painless passing.

    Thank you for reading.

    Comment by Beth — September 14, 2014 @ 10:10 pm

Share Your Thoughts