By Jennifer (Smith) Schuler
In my last blog, “Saying Goodbye to the Baby Years,” I mentioned that Kalli Dakos has a wonderful collection of “goodbye poems” to mark occasions of love, loss, and moving on (click here for her website). The poem above is a touching tribute to a beloved dog – missed by a child even into adulthood.
When you have children, addressing the loss of a pet can be especially tricky for two reasons: you are demonstrating how grief in general is handled in your family, and you are building the foundation for how your child will cope with loss in the future.
Several months ago, my family and I went through this process as we grieved the loss of our beloved American Eskimo dog, Bebe. I purchased Bebe in the late 1990s from a well run, local pet store where I lived in St. Petersburg, Florida. She saw me through a painful divorce, the sometimes loneliness of single life, and many career and personal adventures in between.
Although Bebe died several months prior, we celebrated her life this May in our lovely azalea garden with the flowers in full bloom. No matter how you choose to say goodbye to your pet, it is important to find some way to commemorate the life of the beautiful creature that brought sunshine to your days. Below are a few suggestions for saying goodbye to your pet – no matter what kind of a pet you have.
How to Say “Goodbye” to Your Pet
* If you have the opportunity, spend last moments of quiet time together. Hold your pet, talk with your pet, cry with your pet. These final memories will be good ones to hold onto after your pet is gone. The evening before I had to take Bebe to the veterinarian to put her to sleep, my husband watched my son so she and I could just be together. I petted her, held her, talked openly with her, and cried – a lot. We even took final pictures of her with us. I am so glad I spent that final time with her and will treasure it always.
* Talk with others. Sometimes we may feel a bit embarrassed, even “silly,” when we grieve our pet. Yet remember that many people share your feelings. You may have heard someone refer to their pet as a “member of the family.” Pets can indeed touch our lives in some profound ways. Talking about how you feel with others will help you see that your sentiments are echoed by many. You are not alone!
*Address the loss openly and with great sensitivity. If this is your children’s first experience with death you definitely want to handle it well since it will likely have a lasting impact on their lives. It may be difficult to refrain from cracking a smile when having to flush a little belly-up guppy down the toilet, yet if you treat this time seriously and guide your children through the grieving process they hopefully will develop coping skills for future losses.
* Include the entire family in the grieving process. This is very important in order to help your children and other family members find closure. No matter how old your children, they can participate in some way. Of course for an infant it may simply be that they are being held in your arms during the goodbyes, and can look back on pictures of the day when the family discusses the event in the future. In this way, they will see that their presence was valued during that time as well. Older children can have more involved roles, depending upon their age.
* Hold a remembrance ceremony or memorial service. Every family will handle this differently. Some purchase a burial plot in a pet cemetery; others mark a special place in their backyard for burying a memory box. Still others have their pet cremated and display the ashes in a beautiful container or box. If allowing a veterinary hospital handle all of the arrangements, and no ashes or memory marker is going to be received, a family may just wish to set aside time one day for sharing memories of their pet.
* The way you say goodbye does not have to be extravagant to be meaningful. There is no “right” way to say goodbye, nor one way over another that will make the loss any easier. In acknowledging the life of your pet, you need to choose a way that feels good to you and works for your family. Perhaps you have the money for a burial plot in a pet cemetery and feel that is a special tribute. Just know that it is not necessary to go to such great expense and effort to say goodbye to your pet. The way you say goodbye is not as important as the meaning behind whatever way you choose.
* Establish a permanent “marker” for your pet. Again, this does not have to be an expensive item – rather just something for you and your family to look at, touch, visit, and talk to. Something solid that allows you to “communicate” with, and remember, your pet during the times you miss her. Sometimes time doesn’t heal all wounds and it is nice to have a more tangible way to reminisce about your pet outside of recalling fond memories. My family chose to keep Bebe’s beautiful wooden ashes box on our display case rather than bury it. Instead, we buried a box full of memorable items from her life in our azalea garden. We marked the “grave” site with a fairly large, flat rock and placed a small outdoor dog statue of an American Eskimo on top of that. Her resting place is watched over by our garden fairy, Fiona.
* Invite whomever you like. Your ceremony can be small and intimate, perhaps just the members of your immediate family as ours was for Bebe, or you can open the memorial service to extended family and even good friends. Invite whomever you are comfortable sharing the occasion with as well as whomever will be supportive of you during this difficult time.
*Plan ahead. Of course all pets will die eventually. Just as we often begin planning for our passing before it happens, the grieving process and saying goodbye to our pets can be made easier if we know how we are going to handle that time when it comes.
Saying goodbye to a pet is typically not easy yet by having a plan in place for doing so with your family, finding a special way to honor the memory of your pet, and helping your children deal with their loss you can certainly get through it.
Please share how you handled the loss of a pet with your family – how you coped, or a special way you remembered the life of your pet.