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The proportion of in-memory donations made to animal charities doubled between 2019 and 2023 – our latest consumer survey for In-Memory Insight found – making animals the fastest growing in-memory cause. As we enter National Grief Awareness Week, many of us are missing people who were ardent animal lovers. But for thousands more, the family member we cannot forget was a beloved pet.

As humans, we are constantly seeking out connection. When that connection is severed, its absence can be really profound to us. Andy Langford, Clinical Director, Cruse Bereavement Support

According to PDSA, over half of us now live with a pet. 29% of us own a dog (an estimated count of 11 million dogs); and 24% a cat. Overlay a range of life expectancies for these animals of around 8-14 years and you begin to understand the sheer scale of pet bereavement as a shared experience.

Disenfranchised grief

Our recent Legacy Voice research for RSPCA, speaking to a group of the charity’s own in-memory supporters, highlighted how disenfranchised we can feel when grieving a beloved animal. Often the depth of our response is barely understood, appreciated – or even accepted – by employers, acquaintances, even by friends.

The charity Blue Cross, which runs the market-leading Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS),wouldconcur. The number of contacts it takes from people seeking support has grown by almost a quarter in the last year. Since Covid, the service has diversified its reach by incorporating webchat and social media channels. Its Facebook group now numbers over 17k members, many of whom are themselves supporting children.

On the eve of its 30th anniversary, PBSS is planning a change of name that will see the word bereavement replaced with loss. This reflects the fact that death is now only one of several factors that can force separation from beloved pets.

Devastating financial stress is the big one. Feelings of shame and guilt often come into play when people are unable not just to feed, insure and treat their animals, but to euthanise and cremate them when their time comes. Being unable to give a pet the end of life it deserves can be a heart-breaking outcome.

PBSS also hears increasingly of pets going missing from home, displaced due to illness or relationship breakdown, even stolen. These alternative iterations of pet loss have no lesser impact, but – unlike in many cases of actual bereavement – the owner is denied anything approaching closure. In turn, they are much less likely to adopt a further animal. While loss of any kind is hard, being unable to bear witness at the end can be the bitterest pill of all.

The charity recommends that people in this situation consider creating a simple memorial ritual for their pet – writing a letter to say the things they were unable to say in person; sharing a few special words in the presence of close family; or creating a memory box.

The journalist Monty Don recently spoke movingly to BBC5 Live about the part ritual had played in his family’s send-off for their much loved golden retriever. She was wrapped in one of Monty’s jackets, surrounded by her favourite biscuits, tennis balls, and flowers from the garden – drawing comparison with preparing an Egyptian pharaoh, ‘for her voyage’.

Certainly the demand for fitting goodbyes is clear. Search ‘remember a pet’ on Etsy UK, for example, and over 4,000 results arereturnedfor pet remembrance products, with commercial providers clamouring to fill the gap.

Connections with human loss

If this still feels like a marginal area of interest for charities, think again. Head of the PBSS, Diane James, explains that pet bereavement is often inextricably linked to human loss.

All too often, someone’s pet can be the very last connection they have with a person who’s recently died. Sadly, this is all too common an experience for elderly or otherwise isolated households. Pet loss can be a key trigger of ‘echo grief’, sharply evoking difficult memories. No wonder that in the last few years, PBSS’s heartland has been as much the well-being of the person themself as the loss of the animal.

Multiple loss

The burden of multiple loss is increasingly pronounced among people seeking help from Cruse Bereavement Support, according to Cruse’s Clinical Director, Andy Langford. Grief that starts with the loss of a human loved one is frequently compounded by other types of loss, including loss of financial stability, of mental health and well-being, and of our general confidence in the world and our futures. Layered upon these, the loss of a beloved pet can feel like the final straw.

The charity Cats Protection commissioned its own research to understand the features and drivers of pet grief and loss. Matt Vincent shared how one key finding was that we can experience a similar cycle of grief  when a beloved animal dies, as with the loss of any family member. This often incorporates the same identifiable ‘key stages’ and strength of feeling, with the only notable difference being that people often progress through these stages more quickly with a pet than a person. So while some of us can never imagine ‘replacing’ a beloved animal, many others rush to adopt or rehome a new pet very quickly, when circumstances make this possible.

In-memory supporters of Cats Protection are also often reflecting on multiple experiences of grief. A key stewardship challenge for the team is that they can rarely know the exact proximity of the supporter’s most recent bereavement. (Are they remembering a favourite cat from childhood? Celebrating a lifetime of special pet relationships? Or is their grief still raw?)

The role for in-memory giving

A very important facet of grief support – and one that’s in all our gift to influence – is the positive impact that in-memory giving can have. So, what’s to be done?

For animal charities, linking from support platforms to in-memory offers should be a given. In its own Advice on Pet Bereavement, PBSS signposts people to its platform, where anyone can donate in memory of their pet; and see links to other ways to support, including volunteering, regular giving and gifts in Wills.

The team at Cats Protection understand better than most how bereavement support is not just about giving people platforms to talk about their pets, but also inspiring outlets and products to remember and donate in their name.

However, the listening comes first. In their own research, they uncovered a core need to facilitate conversation for cat owners, who sometimes felt more reserved about seeking support with the death of a cat than they might perhaps have done, say, with a dog. The acceptance of dogs as fully bona-fide members of the family may be down to the fact that we see so many people out and about with them; the human/animal connection is clear and tangible. Relationships with cats can be more private-facing, and are often the domain of already isolated households.

That’s why the charity’s research led initially to the set-up of its own telephone support service, Paws to Listen – on the basis that bereavement support should come before fundraising offers. But in the spirit of build one and the other will follow, the charity’s Memory Wall now features an incredible 528 pages of tributes and cat in memory income has grown every year since this was introduced.

What could help?

In all our conversations with in-memory supporters of animal charities, we’ve found that the impulse to remember pets by marking their lives on special dates and anniversaries appears every bit as strong as we’ve found it to be in people remembering human loved ones – a key opportunity for in-memory regular giving products.

Many supporters are inspired to remember pets with physical tributes, strategically placed in the context where associations are the strongest – lots of ashes in plant pots, tucked into in favourite spots of the garden. There’s great scope for charities to create tangible, commemorative merchandise that comes with added meaning because of the work its helps fund.

And the syndrome of the ‘favourite ever pet’ is prevalent. Even serial animal lovers often have one particular pet that rises above the others. Grief can be hardest to cope with where the love and affinity was felt to be highest. This suggests opportunities around tribute funds and pet memorials that celebrate the life of a most special pet (and what made them so).

Unusually, Cats Protection offers a distinct in-memory giving journey that starts by inviting people at first contact to self-select, based on whether they’re remembering a human or pet loved one. Matt Vincent explains that an obvious benefit of knowing definitively whether the loved one was human or feline gives staff confidence to have more meaningful conversations with bereaved supporters, and talk to them further about appropriate opportunities.

When it comes to in-memory fundraising through community and events, these types of activities sometimes work better for supporters of single species organisations than for charities representing all animals. Cat lovers, for example, tend to have their own, small but completely bought-in network of fellow enthusiasts who have absolutely no need to question what they’re doing, or why. Fundraising within their own niche community, people are less likely to come up against objections like “Shame she’s only doing it for animals…”.

For all charities, there are opportunities to raise awareness and reduce the stigma around pet bereavement.

On the campaigning front, Blue Cross is lobbying companies to reference support for employees under the general heading of ‘compassion’, to ensure that pet loss is recognised and included, for example, in staff handbooks.

As co-partners on the Helplines Partnership, PBSS is working collaboratively with leading human support experts Cruse, Mind and Samaritans, all of whom signpost to each other’s specialist grief support services. This begs the question why every charity couldn’t do the same, providing a relevant link to a pet bereavement support provider from its own in-memory landing pages.

What better way to acknowledge that the ripples of pet loss are felt everywhere we look.

With thanks to:

  • Diane James, Pet Bereavement Support Service (PBSS), and all at Blue Cross
  • Matt Vincent and the team at Cats Protection
  • Andy Langford and all at Cruse Bereavement Support
  • Jessica Bayliss and Clare Young at RSPCA