by Mary Moriarty and Stacie Wallace
For all too many of us, 2020 involved terrible grief and loss. For Stacie Wallace, a retiree from San José, California, it meant saying goodbye first to one of her elderly rescue dogs and then, three months later, to the other. As we all did throughout the rollercoaster of events during the pandemic, she “kept on keeping on,” but the sadness and sense of emptiness were ongoing.
An “Aha” Moment
When Stacie shared the story of Cole and Honey with her fellow celebrant Mary Moriarty, Mary told her that she had herself recently performed a celebration of life ceremony for a close friend’s pet. Stacie realized that she too could have some sort of “pet funeral” to formally acknowledge her pets’ importance in her life and the grief she felt at their passing. We hold funerals and celebration-of-life ceremonies when beloved family and friends die, and from the gathering and the sharing of stories and memories, we share our grief as well as our sense of the importance this person had in our own growth. Why not hold such a gathering for a beloved pet?
Remembering Two Special Dogs
Stacie: I found Cole first, at a weekend dog rescue event at a local pet store in 2013. He was the full-grown, shiny, black spaniel among 20 or so yipping little dogs. Others his size were in another area, so I could guess that Cole had issues about bigger dogs, and quickly I learned that he also had some odd anxiety behaviors, when lights flashed or reflections startled him. But he was placid under my touch, and had such sweet brown eyes, that I fell for him. I was his dog mom for seven years, and his personality quirks were easy to work around. Previously only a cat person, I embraced what his “dogginess” brought to my daily life, walks, bark-fests when the mail carrier “attempted to break in,” visits to the groomer, trips to the pet store, even his naps, complete with frog stretches and deep groans. We developed a bond. So in his last year, when he was diagnosed with cancer and too ill to be treated anymore, I knew with sadness—but also certainty—that putting him to sleep was the right step.
Honey came along in the early phase of those years. I found her on a local pet page on Facebook, and her Dobby-like looks were adorable. Sometype of Chihuahua mix, Honey was small but fierce. She dictated the pecking order with Cole, and I became the dog mom to a second loving barker. Honestly, Cole passively accepted the change of regime. Whether it was where they slept(she on my bed, he in a crate) or who walked closest to me when we were out in the neighborhood, Honey became top dog.
But Honey developed a serious immune disorder a few years after she came to live with us, one that meant visits to a specialist veterinarian, with all the tests, meds, and dollars that were required. And even then, the vet gave me no false hopes about her. The condition was terminal. When she did finally have to be put to sleep, it was for a second serious problem that developed from the first. So Honey was the first of the two dogs to go, held in my lap to be euthanized late at night at the veterinary clinic that had treated her for more than a year. As she stood, trusting and yet bewildered, my tears dropped onto her face, and she licked me. When she passed, I just sat there with her empty body on my lap, shocked at the immediacy of her absence. The compassionate veterinarian sat with me for a moment and then respectfully took Honey’s body away.
Just four months later, I said goodbye to Cole. His illness came on quickly, and scans showed he had cancer. He stopped eating. After only one successful round of tempting his taste buds with home-cooked meals, I could no longer coax Cole to eat at all. He wore a tired expression and seemed to be saying, “Enough.”
All this happened at the beginning of the pandemic in 2020. I was still working remotely but feeling the turmoil and worry we all felt. There is no good time to lose a beloved pet, but this time was particularly fraught. Having to juggle my work while giving so much care, to be up at night with an ill dog, to go back and forth to vet visits for them, and to see each clearly miserable and maybe even bewildered by their situation, it took a toll. That’s all aside from the anticipatory grief, and then very real sadness when the inevitable decision had to be carried out. It left me feeling like I had been through an ordeal.
Indeed, I had. With Cole, the pandemic flourishing, I had to pass him off to someone in the clinic, with a vet then calling me (in my car in the parking lot) to talk about test findings and next steps. This kept me at a remove from his treatment, I felt, and made it that much harder to accept my sweet, silky dog’s inevitable euthanasia.
Setting an Intention
After this heartbreaking experience, Stacie knew that she needed to mark these important animals’ place in her much-longer life. To honor them, she took the very healing step of having a watercolor artist make portraits of each of her dogs. Stacie says she treasures the pictures and sees them many times each day where they hang in her bedroom. These have helped her remember and savor the loving gifts Cole and Honey gave to her.
Yet, seeing them also naturally brings back the sadness and sense of emptiness that losing each one caused her. As Life-Cycle Celebrants®, she and Mary have been trained in the art of ceremony creation to honor life’s significant milestones and transitions. Until now, though, Stacie’s focus had been on ceremonies(baby blessings, weddings, funerals) that honor fellow humans in a non-religious way. Mary then told her about the celebration of life she conducted for the beloved feline companion of her friend Ruth. This was the impetus for Stacie to set a goal of holding such a ceremony for Honey and Cole.
A Celebrancy Perspective
Mary: My friend Ruth and her cat Lila had been family to each other for many years, and when Lila passed away, Ruth was grieving deeply. When I offered to officiate at a celebration of Lila’s life through a ceremony, Ruth agreed immediately. Our first step was a detailed interview. I asked Ruth to describe the life that she and Lila shared, the story of their meeting, their routines and special times, and also Lila’s quirks and personality traits. We discussed other possible elements for the service, including rituals, songs, and poems.
As I prepared a first draft of Lila’s eulogy, Ruth compiled a guest list and sent out invitations. Then with my prompting, Ruth decided to revise the ceremony, dropping some minor passages of the draft eulogy, and tweaking wording in other areas. In addition to the eulogy, Ruth asked for inclusion of a favorite poem, and that the service end on a happy note, with everyone singing “The Rainbow Connection.”
At the appointed hour, Ruth and her guests sat in the courtyard of her apartment building facing a table adorned with a framed picture of Lila, the urn holding her ashes, and a bouquet of flowers. I began by greeting the guests and thanking them for their friendship toward both Ruth and Lila, as well as their kindness toward Ruth since Lila’s death. Then the story of Lila’s life was presented, featuring a description of this special cat that was familiar to many in attendance, and tales that were funny and tender: in one, Lila would awaken Ruth each day by “swiping” her cheek no later than 5:00 am, and while she enjoyed many human foods, her absolute favorite was ice cream. Ruth and her guests laughed, shed a few tears, and shared a moment of silence to end the eulogy for Ruth’s “Lilabelle.”
I then gave Ruth’s friends a lyric sheet and turned on a portable speaker, inviting them to join in singing “The Rainbow Connection” with Kermit the Frog. Once the song ended, I invited the guests on Ruth’s behalf to stay for an informal repast of sandwiches and cookies. Ruth was very grateful for this tribute to her companion and comforted by the loving presence of her friends.
Stacie: As Mary says, “Grief is grief.” Our animal companions join us in the rhythm of daily life just as a spouse or child would do, and they accept us unconditionally as we are. Losing a beloved pet can be devastating. Many of us say a few words as we bury their ashes, or lift a glass to toast them once gone. I chose to honor Honey and Cole by commissioning portraits that remind me of them every single day. But perhaps the deliberate gathering of friends, a spoken tribute to our beloved pet, and the sharing of poetry and song in their honor could help to soothe our souls and bring some comfort to our new lives without them.
The Last Word
Stacie has decided to follow the lead of her sister celebrant in holding a ceremony for Cole and Honey in the coming months, when people are able to gather again. It will ease her heart, she feels, and help gather her happiest memories of them. Cole and Honey’s part in Stacie’s life, though too brief, is something she will forever honor and treasure.
and Mary Moriarty(firstname.lastname@example.org)
were trained as Life-Cycle Celebrants® through the Celebrant Foundation and Institute(https://www.celebrantinstitute.org/)