Revd Julie Donn, MA, is incumbent at St Andrew’s in Immingham. The initials after her name are in respect of finishing her MA in Theological and Pastoral Studies and her dissertation was titled ‘Pet Loss – a Grief Unobserved. A pastoral and theological response to issues raised by companion animal death’. Her dissertation is dedicated to the memory of her dog Scamp, a ‘very loyal and precious dog’ who died in 2011 at the grand age of 18.

In her paper Julie discusses the issues raised from a perceived vacuum in the support available for those who have lost companion animals from a Christian perspective, and she calls for these relationships to be openly supported as one that is valued in the sight of God.

Julie said: “There is a real bond of friendship between humans and animals where God is in that bond and I see that connection as an extension of the love of God. It is part of theology to love all creation.”

Her thesis also covers both the theological understanding of how pastoral care could be applied to an animal bereavement; animal theology and the concept of the soul in relation to animals and ideas around animals and heaven.

Julie’s love of animals goes back a long way.  Prior to being ordained she worked for the Blue Cross (the animal charity) for 15 years, based at their animal hospital in Grimsby. Julie said: “I really enjoyed my time working for the Blue Cross and on the first morning of my first day I adopted Scamp.

Scamp was in a poor state. She came into the hospital with a broken leg which needed surgery and was encased in plaster of paris. Acutely malnourished, her other front leg couldn’t stand the extra strain and another stress fracture happened, so both legs needed surgery and plastering.  Her owners never came back for her and so she went home with Julie.  “The first of many!” she reports.

Julie described her feelings for her pet. “She was particularly precious to me as she taught me so much about life and love and my late husband Alistair absolutely adored her.  Although Scamp was only a few months old when she  came to me I have a passion for the dogs that are disabled, or have chronic health issues or are just old.  It’s not their fault.”

When Julie was ordained she moved into her parsonage with 11 very old dogs and four old cats. She is now left with Lulu, her one eyed 14 year old spaniel, who is her sole surviving dog from her time at the Blue Cross. She has since acquired two other rescue dogs.  Horace, the one eyed pug, arrived in 2018 and this summer, Doris the four-year-old pug moved in.

“What I saw whilst working at the Blue Cross is that, like me, most people saw their pet as an integral member of the family and loved and cared for them as such. It was a privilege to share with them the joys as well as the sadness and grief when that relationship is broken. One widower I met was in pieces at the death of a budgie but it was because his late wife had taught it to talk and when it died that last connection was gone.”

Currently the Church of England has no specific guidance for members of the clergy in how to help and support those suffering with an animal bereavement. Similarly there is little formalised training for vets in how to manage the human, emotional aspect of a pet’s death. As a result, Julie states that this leaves many people finding the loss of a pet to be a ‘lonely experience’.  

Having had many cats and dogs as pets Julie has experienced the grief of their passing again and again. “Even though I grieve terribly when I lose a much-loved animal I understand that there is a time when you have to let go. I know my animals have had the best of everything and I wouldn’t want them to suffer for my sake.  Unless you have had a pet and really loved it people just don’t understand how you feel; but you share memories and experiences with animals just as you do with people. 

“The pain is real – you feel a knot in your stomach whether that is for an animal or a person; so I understand when someone comes to me having said goodbye to their pet. I say prayers with them and I talk about their pet going to heaven.  It’s not fluffy and I hope it helps people to move forward” she said.

At the end of her thesis Julie makes a number of recommendations. These include the need for suitable liturgical material to help bereaved owners undertake some rite of passage for their pet – whether that is in the form of prayers, service sheets or a burial. Information to help the healing process would also be beneficial – this could be memory boxes or pet memorial services. 

Until pet loss is more widely recognised as a form of bereavement Julie is able to combine her love of animals and her day job by leading special animal services for anyone who would like one.  These can be both acts of celebration as well as for those who have lost a pet. 

In this regard she has worked with Alf Wight’s son Jim (Alf is the author of the James Herriot books) at a service in Thirsk in Yorkshire and also held one in the Actors’ Chapel in Covent Garden, London where several celebrities brought their pets along.  She has also held services in her own parish churches over the years where horses, dogs, cats, snakes and spiders were all blessed; some of which were even covered by Country Living magazine and Yorkshire TV. The beasts in the fields are not forgotten either and sheep and cows can be blessed at rural services.

Pictured is Lulu.

 

 Below is Horace and Doris.