Every dog owner will someday experience a time of sorrow that, hopefully, occurs after years of joy with our beloved dogs. While nothing can speed up the healing process — which, indeed, is a process, not something one magically “gets over” after a certain amount of time — many have found memorializing their dog to be comforting.
There is absolutely no single, right way to do this, reminds Reverend Kaleel Sakakeeny, an animal chaplain and credentialed pet loss and grief counselor in Boston. “Each of us mourns and memorializes in his or her own way depending on so many factors from faith, religion, intensity of the human-animal bond, stage of life the pet parent is in, how the pet passed, etc.”
Again, take your time and do what feels right to you. “And it definitely is a process — and not one that is always linear. It’s critical for the healing process to move from grief to mourning, which is externalizing/memorializing the pain and sadness so we can begin to move forward. NEVER to move on; to move forward,” adds Rev. Kaleel, who is also a professional life coach.
Over the years it has become more common to keep the ashes of a beloved pet, as well as using some of the ashes to create different memorial items.
“Urns and urn jewelry seem to be what most people think about,” says Coleen Ellis, a pet loss author, consultant and speaker who oversees Two Hearts Pet Loss Center in Texas, but options don’t end there. “Outside rock urns, mixing ashes with Let Your Love Grow to create a very nutrient-rich product for flowers and trees, portraits painted using the pet’s ashes or even shooting the pet’s ashes into space or turning the pet’s ashes into a coral reef for the ocean are some beautiful and creative ideas.”
Rev. Kaleel offers a caveat to consider. “I advise not to spread all the ashes because we move, change locations and don’t want all the pet’s ashes somewhere else. People have been grateful for this guidance. We need to keep the ashes with us, some of them anyway, and having spread ashes far and wide can leave us bereft.”
Craft a jewel
There are many different ways jewelry can include part of your pet. Options can include turning the ashes into a diamond, creating jewelry with the pet’s nose or paw print on it or wearing a locket with your dog’s photo or a tuft of fur, perhaps even engraved with his name or initial.
Picture a memory
Doubtless, you have lots of pictures of your dog. Many different companies print a photo book that you can fill with images, as well as stories about your dog — funny things he did, all his nicknames or who his favorite furry friends were. I created one of these for our dog Medusa through Costco’s photo site (above, left). You can find photo books at Shutterfly, Minted, Personalization Mall or shops on Etsy. You can also go smaller scale and get a personalized frame for your absolutely favorite photo.
As with any of the items on this list, don’t pressure yourself to take on a photo-based project. As I’ve experienced with those Facebook Memories, seeing images from years ago of either our beloved dogs Axel or Medusa sometimes makes me smile; sometimes they make my eyes sweaty. I created the Medusa photo book for my husband for Father’s Day, which was about six months after she passed. It took him a long time to actually be able to look through it; don’t be offended if the recipient of a photo, or any gift, is on a different bereavement timetable than you.
Hold a memorial service
“With increasing frequency, I am finding that many grieving pet owners are open to the concept of hosting a memorial or a celebration of life for a pet,” says Maryglenn Warnock, a certified pet bereavement counselor and ordained pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain based in Nashville. “I have long questioned why we celebrate our human companions after death but typically don’t celebrate our furry companions. I know I am not alone in my belief that pets are family, too.”
Coleen concurs, also embracing the model many follow for humans. “Absolutely, rituals are one of the most powerful ways to honor not only a life and love shared but to bring people together who might have also loved the pet. I believe in the power of what we do for humans: a visitation or wake. Taking time during the service to remember the special moments, share photos, have a toast … whatever it was the family did together throughout the life of the animal is the perfect thing to do for a service or to share with the eulogy. Get the entire family involved.”
Jenna Blum, Boston-based bestselling author, found herself getting her entire neighborhood involved. “When my black Lab, Woodrow, passed at age 15, we had a memorial for him about a week after, on the bench across the street from our downtown Boston apartment where he and I spent much of his last seven months. We had Woodrow’s photo in a frame, LED candles, champagne to celebrate his life, bacon—because he loved it—and many beautiful ladies, just as Woodrow, the ‘George Clooney of Dogs’ would have wanted, singing Amazing Grace and reading poetry for him. Days later, the photo and candles were still there — and people left flowers, rocks and notes for him, like ‘Dear Woodrow and family, we will miss seeing you here at the bench!’ I saved them all.”
As part of her healing process, Jenna wrote Woodrow on the Bench, which includes many more stories about Woodrow’s last years and beyond.
Design a garden marker
A bench may not be practical for everyone, but a similar approach is a stone. You can get a stone in the shape of your dog to put under a favorite sunning spot. You can get a stepping stone, perhaps in the shape of a heart, with the names of pets who have crossed over.
Axel had a stretch in the backyard that he ran along often
enough to make a path, so we opted to create a row of pavers that showcased it. It’s just a section of pavers, there’s no start or end, which we view as our never-ending love for him.
Ink a memory
This one, too, isn’t for everyone, but another way to memorialize a pet is perhaps the ultimate artwork — a tattoo. Tattoos of pets can include portraits, paw prints or your dog’s name.
Create a special Spot
“I have had the honor of attending a number of special tree planting services honoring a pet or pets that serves as a way to allow our beloved pets to live on in a meaningful way,” says Maryglenn, who is also the founder and owner of Paws to Remember, a pet aftercare company that serves grieving pet owners in their time of need.
Still others create a section of their backyard to plant flowers and include a statue of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of animals, as a place to sit and reminisce about their dog. You can also get a pawprint mold and display that as part of the tribute.
While a garden is lovely, that special spot can also be indoors with something as simple as a keepsake box or memorial shelf. Rev. Kaleel suggests, “Creating a special memorial in the house with the dog’s leash, favorite toy, photographs, perhaps, and other objects that give the pet parent a place to go and be especially close to their departed, beloved animal companion.”
Make art from the heart
While few things capture a pet’s likeness as a clear, in-focus photograph, there are many media that go beyond that. An art director friend of mine, for example, did an Illustrator image of our Medusa (above) that we had printed on a canvas. It was based on a photo of her and we display it proudly in our home. You can also get pillows, watercolor portraits, a mug, etc. to keep a visual of your pet, along with the many memories you shared, close at hand.
Create a Mini Me
Another form of remembrance is a custom-created animal made in your pet’s likeness. This is a very cool idea, which you may want to act on before your pet passes. I know for myself, I’d need to let some time pass before getting one after the fact; as I mentioned with those Facebook memories, sometimes things are just “too soon.” And, again, only you can determine what is right for you — there is no single correct approach!
Do a good deed
A donation on behalf of your dog is a very special way to honor her while also helping other dogs in need. “I do this whenever a friend’s pet dies,” Jenna says. “It’s such a lovely legacy that allows them to live on while helping other animals.” Options could include the rescue organization where you got your dog, a group dedicated specifically to your dog’s breed or one just for senior pets, like Grey Muzzle, which has a special “in memory of” donation section.
Grieve without judgment
“No two people grieve the same; some grieving owners want community and ceremony, while others want to be left alone,” Maryglenn says. “I do think it is important to keep that in mind when honoring a loved one’s pet.”
Rev. Kaleel says he knows people who, 30 years after the death of their pet, still mourn and miss them.
“I want people to know tears are sacred. Grief is healthy. Many people I work with tell me they grieved more deeply for the death of their pet than when their parent or friend or relative died,” he says. “Yes, that’s true because the love between us and our pets is without betrayal, complexity, judgment — the stuff that complicates and corrodes human relationships. Yet, so often, the heartbreak we feel at the death of our pet leads directly back to un-mourned losses in a person’s life. I see it almost all the time. The tears never shed at Dad’s passing are shed at the dog’s passing.”
If you have a friend who is grieving for a pet, don’t worry too much about doing or saying the wrong thing. “As a friend, to acknowledge and honor the love someone shared with a pet is a wonderful way to say ‘I care,’ and ‘I, too, want to help you honor the life and love you shared,’” Coleen says. “When a pet parent is in grief with a shattered heart, having a friend be a caring voice with a helping hand is so heartwarming. And, if nothing else, ‘just be’ with the person who’s had the loss and listen to their stories. The gift of presence in that manner means the world!”
No matter how big or small your dog is, when he passes, he leaves behind a huge void. Grieving is a deeply personal process. Whenever you’re ready, some of these memorialization ideas can create a tangible form of the many memories in your heart.
Create a bucket list
Many of us are familiar with people creating a bucket list of things to do before they pass on. They might include go to Paris, drive a race car or meet Brad Pitt. As with everything else, our companions have far lower aspirations, which makes it even easier to create a bucket list to delight your dog.
Consider the following treats or experiences when you know you will have to say goodbye soon:
✤ Trip to the dog park – borrow a wagon if your senior dog isn’t so mobile
✤ Day at the beach
✤ Playdate with some of your dog’s besties
✤ Tasty table scraps
✤ Trips through the drive-through for a burger or other snack
✤ Chocolate, the ultimate forbidden delight. In fact, some veterinary clinics have a jar of “Goodbye Kisses” in the rooms where pet parents say their final goodbyes as a way to give their dogs something special at the very end.
Celebrate a Life Event
“For many, a memorial service or celebration of a pet’s life can be an important, meaningful part of the grieving process,” says Maryglenn Warnock, a certified pet bereavement counselor and ordained pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain who currently serves on the advisory board of Old Friends Senior Dog Sanctuary, on the board of the Nashville Humane Association, and Pet Community Center.
Maryglenn experienced this firsthand when planning a celebration of life for her beloved Old English Sheepdog, Garcia. “Celebrating Garcia’s life with people who knew him and loved him meant the absolute world to me — and it is an honor and a privilege to be able to help others who are in that same position. Maryglenn offers the following tips for planning a memorial:
Pick a spot. Whether an outdoor space, a home or other location, honoring the memory of a beloved companion in a place that holds special significance can add a meaningful dimension to a service.
Create a guest list. Take some time to think of the many lives your pet touched — neighbors, friends, dog walkers, veterinarians and staff, co-workers, groomers, pet sitters, etc. There are plenty of well-intentioned people who don’t understand the significance of losing a pet (and there are also non-well-intentioned people who are quick to judge). When making the guest list, I recommend not inviting the people who fall into either category. Their presence at such an event can be hurtful. This event is a way to promote healing, and people who are not sympathetic to your mourning have no place there.
Give children a role. Letting children take part in a ceremony can be tremendously healing, as it allows them space to acknowledge their loss, and also allows them to learn how to grieve in a positive, healthy way.
Speak. Be prepared to say a few words if you are up to it. There is something incredibly moving about hearing an owner talk about memories of his or her beloved pet. I typically encourage owners to at least spend a portion of a service sharing their personal reflections.
Include an officiant. Just as there are officiants for human services, there are also people, such as myself, who serve as pet officiants. I think there is no greater honor than having a pet owner trust me with this important role. Delivering a meaningful, personalized eulogy for every pet is a role I absolutely cherish.
Do what resonates. Remember that it is OK to celebrate, or cry — or both. The word “funeral” strikes fear in the heart of many, as it conjures up images of discomfort, sadness, sorrow, etc. But a pet funeral, or a human funeral for that matter, doesn’t need to be somber. The event can be celebratory, joyful, touching, inspiring — whatever resonates with the owner.
Know that there are no rules. For human funerals, there is a trend toward celebrating a life in a unique way. Similarly, a memorial service for a pet can be structured in such a way that feels right to the owner. There is no rule that says the event has to take place immediately after a pet’s death. Additionally, there are no rules for the service itself. It can be somber or lighthearted. It can be religious or not religious. It can take place day or night, in a place that feels right to the owner.
To so many of us dog lovers in the United States, our canine companions are both our best friends…