Thursday, March 7, 2013

Memorializing Pets We Have Lost

[Reviewed and updated on June 8, 2023]

A colleague writes: I am a veterinarian and would like to memorialize the pets we have lost in the past year. Does this seem appropriate, and do you have any specific suggestions which could be helpful? I plan to plant a tree and maybe provide garden stone marker engraving with the lost pet's name, but beyond that I'm open to suggestion.

My response: I think your idea of memorializing lost pets is most appropriate, and I applaud you for your sensitivity and caring. I'd like to offer some suggestions and point you to some resources that might be helpful to you as you develop this wonderful plan, and if I can be of any further assistance, please let me know.

As a grief counselor, I can tell you that planning and participating in a pet's funeral or memorial service can bring great satisfaction to those who mourn the loss of a cherished companion animal. Such a service makes the fact of the death more real to the mourners (including the veterinary staff), gives staff and family members the opportunity to express their thoughts and feelings about the lost pet, and enables everyone to reflect on and acknowledge the important role the animal played in their lives. 

Unlike a funeral, a memorial service may be held at any time after the pet's death, and its function is to remember and to celebrate the loved one's life. Oftentimes the mood is positive and uplifting. 

A service for a much loved pet can be as small and private or as open and elaborate as a person or family wishes, and a memorial service can be delayed as long as its planning requires. Having a yearly memorial service for all the pets you've lost in the past year is fine. Keep in mind, however, that having a service closer to the time when the loss is most deeply felt is when it is most likely to help participants express and work through their grief.

There is a wonderful passage in Robert Fulghum's 1993 book, Uh-Oh about his first experience holding a funeral for a friend's dog:
. . . We did indeed gather on that Sunday morning in August — thirty of us — and told stories that were as much about us as Gyda [the dog]. Mostly about the attachments possible between living creatures when they are patient with one another. We buried her ashes under a rhododendron bush that’s planted in a barrel on her owners’ back porch. I always nod in her direction when I pass by. Gyda. The grand old virgin aunt in the dog suit. My seminary training didn’t cover how to perform a dog funeral. It takes a real dog to teach that. And when the pupil is ready, the teacher appears.
And there is this, also by Robert Fulghum, in From Beginning to End: The Rituals of Our Lives:
On Wednesday morning, the family stayed home from work and school. Snowball was driven to the vet and put to sleep painlessly. Placed in her favorite sleeping place— an old brown-leather house slipper, which was put in a small, lidded basket lined with straw and placed in the front seat between Lucy and her dad. The family car became a hearse for the ride home. Snowball, the tiny wonder dog from South America, living under an assumed name and disguised as a Guinea pig, was laid to rest in a grave dug underneath the willow tree in the backyard. Lucy and her mom and dad thanked Snowball for all the good times and filled in the grave. And marked it with a large flat stone on which Lucy had written in paint: “Happy Days, Snowball.”           This story, of course, is not about pets. It’s about any life and death. It’s about the deep attachments we make to other living things. It’s about the obligatory rituals of hello and good-bye when we become attached to the life around us. And it’s about how we help children understand the basic lessons of existence. To an outsider, Snowball was just a Guinea pig. But Snowball was also a teacher from whom Lucy learned about responsibility, affection, reproduction, imagination, sorrow, and death. Lucy’s grandmother is dying now, and Snowball made dealing with that easier for everyone in the family. Snowball, Grandma, Mother, Father, and someday Lucy. It is the way of living things. All of them. Now Lucy knows
The suggestions I've listed below are taken from my book The Final Farewell: Preparing for and Mourning the Loss of Your Pet, which includes a chapter entitled "Meaningful Ways of Memorializing Your Pet." I also invite you to take a look at my Comfort for Grieving Animal Lovers page, which contains dozens of beautiful writings that you may find useful as well.

Any one of these ideas may spark your own imagination as you think of ways to memorialize the animals you've lost in your practice, and may help you help your clients plan their own private memorial rituals as well:
  • Reminisce with staff members or clients who knew the pets you want to memorialize. Talk about the funny or silly (or annoying!) habits these animals had. Such reflections will help you plan your own unique ceremony of remembrance, and will help you express and work through your grief as well.
  • Invite clients to bring snapshots of their deceased pets and post them on a memorial bulletin board in your office or clinic.
  • Encourage your clients to make a special place in their own home, yard or workplace that acknowledges and honors their pet's life — a place where they can go (or be) and remember their lost friend. Remind them that the death of their pet is a natural event and an occasion for the honest expression of their feelings and their values.
You can also suggest that your clients:
  • Have a funeral or memorial service for their pet. Involve the whole family in the planning. Make it as simple or as elaborate as they like and invite whomever they choose, as long as it meets their need to express and share their sorrow, pay tribute to their dead pet and support one another as they say goodbye.
  • Write an article, an anecdote, a story, a poem, a song, a farewell letter, an obituary or a eulogy for their pet. If they don't want to write for someone else, they can keep a private journal and write about their feelings as they journey through their grief. Say what they are feeling, what they will miss most, what they will always remember with fondness. Say what the relationship gave them and tell how their life will be influenced by having known and loved that pet.
  • Share anecdotes and favorite stories about the pet who died. Sometimes others need permission to talk about the dead pet. Better to keep the memory of their beloved pet alive than pretend that nothing has changed.
  • Decorate a candle and light it in memory of the cherished pet (or light a virtual one).
  • Make a ClayPaws® print of the pet's paw.
  • Purchase a book — perhaps a children's book — on coping with the loss of a pet, and donate it to their local library or school. Ask the librarian to place a label inside the front cover inscribed "In memory of (their pet's name)."
  • If the pet had any credentials or certifications, decorate a tree or wreath with all the pet's ribbons or awards, or make a memorial shadow box or scrapbook.
  • Save something that belonged to the pet (collar, tags, food and water dishes; bed or blanket; toys; a clipping of fur or baby teeth; a feather; a horseshoe, tail and mane hairs from a horse; the wool from a llama.)
  • Carry a feather, a clipping of fur or a portion of the pet's cremains in a tiny container or locket.
  • Collect all the snapshots of a pet in a memory box, an album or a collage. Frame a favorite picture of the pet and display it in a special place. Give a copy as a gift to another grieving family member. Have a professional portrait of the pet painted or drawn by an artist from a favorite photograph. Have a favorite picture of the pet imprinted on a watch, mug, stein, T-shirt or sweatshirt.
  • Buy a statue or a stuffed animal that reminds them of their pet, and put their pet's collar around its neck.
  • If the pet is buried in a cemetery or in a yard that must be left behind because of a move, take a picture of the grave site and keep that in a special place that can be visited instead. Plant a tree, bush, shrub, garden or flower bed as a permanent growing memorial to the pet. Mark the site with a memorial plaque, marker or statue.
  • If combings, wool or fur clippings from the pet have been saved, they can be cleaned, spun into yarn, and made into an afghan, garment or rug.
  • If the pet has been cremated, scatter or bury the cremains in the pet's favorite outdoor place, or put them in a potted plant that can be taken with them should they move. Or keep the pet's cremains in a box or an urn that they can display in a special place of honor in their home or office. Some people place a small portion of the pet's cremains inside a memorial locket or have them incorporated into a piece of jewelry. (See some of the sites listed on my Memorializing a Pet page for suggestions.)
  • Inscribe a plaque or nameplate with the pet's name, years of birth and death, and whatever else they choose to write in tribute. Put the plaque on a framed photograph or wooden memory box, hang it on the wall, attach it to a garden bench or other piece of furniture, or display it near the pet's grave.
  • Make a donation in the pet's honor to a pet grief support service, to a favorite animal charity or organization, to a special service organization or to a research foundation. (The cause of the pet's death may guide them in this choice.)
  • Volunteer for work in a pet grief support service, an animal shelter, humane organization, or other "people helping animals / animals helping people" program. Become an active member of the local Humane Society. Join or help start a pet loss support helpline, group or service in the community.
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1 comment:

  1. You can choose to buy a gift basket and have it sent to your grieving acquaintance or relative or put one together yourself. There are so many options for you to choose from.


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