By Susan Chernak McElroy
A rock carefully painted with a name and a date. A hole dug in the garden. And tucked into a shoebox or wrapped in a favorite blanket, the body of a cherished animal companion. Who among us hasn't participated in this sort of parting ritual?
Animals are often the first to usher us into the realm of grief. When one is floundering in the murky waters of a breaking heart, it is hard to imagine that the death of a beloved animal--or any animal--is anything but a senseless tragedy. Not so, I say. According to a Chinese proverb, everything with a front also has a back. If the front of animal death is heartache, then its back is initiation: The death of an animal can help prepare us for every other loss in our lives. In fact, I believe the lessons surrounding the passing of animals are among the greatest gifts they offer us.
The spontaneous rituals we use to respond to the death of our animals are deeply healing. We know how to prepare our deceased animal, how to consecrate the ground, how to honor a memory. These are ancient and sacred skills, wise and holistic in their application. Sitting with the feline body of Midnight--stroking her fur, placing flowers on her body--gives us time to absorb the reality of the loss. A woman who wrote to me about the death of her rabbit shared that she placed him on a cushion by a west-facing window. She lit candles around his small body and watched the sun set over him for two nights before she prepared his backyard grave. "I buried him," she said, "when I was ready to let him go."
Selecting an animal's grave site and digging into the ground brings our grief right into our very fingertips, spilling the first streams of sorrow through our hands and out into the hallowed soil. Many people bury their animals with old food bowls, favorite toys, poems, photos of the family. These burial rituals we perform so instinctively put every part of us into the grieving process. Elisabeth Kubler-Ross, the pioneering physician who quantified the stages of bereavement, has said that the more of ourselves we put into grieving, the faster our grief will pass through us.
While many are able to participate fully and naturally in the deaths of animals, few of us are so unencumbered in our sorrow when a human dies. People often die in nursing homes and hospitals rather than in the peace of our homes. At death, their bodies are given up to professionals--strangers--to wash and to dress. A minister who never knew our beloved often delivers the memorial service. Cemetery professionals prepare the grave.
This, then, can be the grief gifts of animals: To teach us how to honor and sanctify these sacred moments at the death of family and friends. The rituals of backyard pet burials can be applied to the experience of loss whenever and however it touches us. Touching our loved ones, sitting with them after death, preparing a resting place and selecting family treasures to inter with them allows the finality to ease gently into our bones.
At the death of my father three years ago, I heeded these lessons. After Dad died, we kept him at home for several hours and sat with him, just as we had with Sugar, our wonderful German shepherd who died decades before. Later our family wrote and delivered Dad's memorial service and decorated the chapel with pictures and mementos of our life with him, much like the graveside memorial I created for Bear, my long-departed, pumpkin-colored tom cat. It was those hours that ushered in our healing.
Reprinted from the Oct, 1998 issue of Vegetarian Times Magazine