Life after living: pet-loss professionals help people work through their grief
When her beloved golden retriever Shelle died of kidney disease, Sharon Van Noort didn’t get to make the final arrangements. “I wasn’t told where she went, and what was done with her body,” she says – just that she’d be taken care of. “Back then, it wasn’t acknowledged that families needed care too.” Without closure, Van Noort continues to grieve her companion – 33 years later.
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“Taking the time needed to say goodbye, and having a veterinarian who truly understands the importance of the cherished pet, make a huge difference in moving forward through the grieving process,” says Faith Banks, a certified hospice and palliative-care veterinarian and pet-loss professional in the West End. “If grief is not processed and worked through, it sits and waits for the next opportunity to strike.”
Through the experiences of other pet owners, Van Noort found a way to right a wrong. Six years ago, Helen Hobbs, co-founder of the pet funeral service Pets at Peace Toronto, licensed her business and Van Noort opened Pets at Peace North in Orillia.
“Making funeral arrangements can give closure, which is so important,” says Van Noort, who has 25 years’ experience as a respite provider in the children’s mental health field. Like Hobbs and Banks, Van Noort looks after bereaved families as much as she cares for their pets.
Banks, who founded Midtown Mobile Veterinary Hospice Services in 2012, heads an all-female team of 20 veterinarians, hospice-care coordinators and aftercare providers. She opened Faithful Pet Memorial, a division of MMVHS, in February.
Faithful Pet Memorial is the first Toronto facility to offer pet aquamation, a water-based cremation process that, Banks says, has become “increasingly popular as concern for the environment grows.” Compared to flame-based cremation, aquamation uses 90 percent less energy, leaves one-tenth the carbon footprint and does not produce fossil fuels, greenhouse gases or mercury.
From their respective locations, Hobbs and Van Noort have provided aftercare services for a variety of pets – dogs, cats, reptiles, rodents, fish, birds, even domesticated farm animals – some species of which are not accommodated at other companies. As part of their jobs, they see a lot of grieving families. “Clients have disclosed to me that the death of their pet has affected them emotionally more than the passing of an extended family member,” says Van Noort.
Banks has encountered similar expressions. “Many people,” she says, “will tell me their relationship with their pet is purer, far less complicated and much more fulfilling than with certain family members. For some, it is akin to losing a child.”
The pet-loss experience is nearly universal, says Van Noort, and most people “have a story to share.” And she is happy to listen. “I encourage them to tell me about their pet and show me photos. Even if I had not cared for their pet, they can call me anytime to have a chat. There is a staff member at a local veterinary clinic who will often call me on behalf of a client who is having difficulty processing their pet’s death or impending death. If I am able to help, I feel honoured to be of assistance.”
Van Noort also gets referrals from past clients and friends. Most times, she hears from them after the pets have already died, but more owners are pre-planning. “They know their pet is elderly or very ill,” she says, “and they want to know ahead of time what their options are.”
As with any type of aftercare service, each day at Pets at Peace is different. Van Noort offers numerous options: preparation for burial at a pet cemetery of their choice, where a marker can be erected; or individual or communal cremation. Pet parents can also request to have ashes returned in an urn or a less traditional product, such as a pewter keychain urn, or in ash-infused glass jewelry. Even if a family chooses communal cremation, they can still have a clay paw print created. Although she is careful not to make any suggestions, Van Noort says that these memorial items usually become treasured possessions.
Set to retire after 19 years, Hobbs is preparing to close Pets at Peace Toronto at the end of the month. Van Noort, who says she has also reached “retirement age,” has no plans to leave the business: “I can’t think of not doing one of the things that is so rewarding for me and important for pet families.”
The death of her 12-year-old German shepherd/husky mix Spud in 2021 confirmed her dedication to her work. “I provided Spud’s aftercare, grooming his paws, doing ink paw prints and preparing him for transportation to the crematorium,” says Van Noort, who also has a 14-year-old border collie, Rider. “I realized I hadn’t provided him with any different type of care than I would provide to the pets entrusted to me. I wouldn’t want any less for others as I would have for myself.”