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The heart is warmed by expressions of affection like this!—Sid
As an animal chaplain who works with people to help them prepare for, cope with and move on after pet loss, I think this pet cemetery is a wonderful idea, especially for those who prefer to bury rather than cremate their pets. It is largely illegal in the city to bury animals, and then there’s always the concern that if you do it anyway you may someday move to another home and have to leave behind your departed animals’ graves. I just helped a woman through the euthanasia of her beloved cockatoo, Cuddles, yesterday. She lives in a condo and is Jewish—her faith disallows cremation—so she had to bury her bird in her mother’s garden. She may still someday have to face her mother moving from that house and leaving Cuddles behind. Having access to a permanent, preserved burial space might have brought her an additional measure of comfort.
In my research and writing of my book, “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss,” people all over the globe submitted stories of how bonded they were with their animals and how important memorializing them is to their own heart’s healing. I agree fully with Ms. Ayl, in the following article, when she writes, “Places like this and memorializing your pet are very important. Humans need symbolism. It’s very powerful. It’s very healing.”—Sid
The Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas offers a final resting place for beloved animals as well as comfort for their grieving owners.
About 40,000 pets are buried at the Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park in Calabasas, and each tombstone and grave tells its own uniquely bittersweet story.
Although not the largest pet cemetery, the park is the second oldest in the country. A far cry from Stephen King’s “Pet Cemetery,” the Calabasas memorial park has a tranquil atmosphere where many animal lovers have found comfort.
Kathleen Ayl, pet loss support specialist, says people need emotional healing when a beloved animal dies.
“The amount of grief someone goes through is in direct proportion to the amount of connection they shared,” said Ayl.
According to Ayl, places like the memorial park and the burial or cremation ceremony help people find closure and aid them in the recovery process.
“People need to be aware that there are beautiful places that handle your animal in a loving and spiritual way and in a very respectful way,” said Ayl. “Places like this and memorializing your pet are very important. Humans need symbolism. It’s very powerful. It’s very healing.”
At the center of the park grounds a statue of Saint Francis of Assisi, patron saint of the animals, stands with his arms outstretched. Names such as Mittens, Spanky, Corky and Chipper are etched into the flower-adorned headstones surrounding it.
The park’s prices vary depending on the size of the animal and the amenities requested, employee Donna J. Robinson explained. The cost for a cremation depends on the pet’s weight and runs from $90 for a small cat to $310 for a large dog. For a headstone, casket, plot and service the total can range from $550 to $1,250. For larger pets such as horses the price can go up as high as $4,750.
People come to the Calabasas park for different reasons. Raphael Briliant was visiting with her rescued boxer Marcelle, who she explained is still a little aggressive as a result of his past abuse. Briliant, who had her cat Esmeralda cremated at the park, finds the grounds’ peacefulness redeeming and a start contrast to the brutality and neglect that she often witnesses in her rescue work.
“I remember walking through the park and reading some of these things . . . When you work in rescue and you see some people give up on their pets,” she said as tears formed. “Then you read some of the testimonies here and you realize that there are good people out there.”
Clarence and Flory DeVoe came to the Calabasas park because they didn’t want to bury their dog Bijou in the backyard. They wanted a more dignified and traditional service.
“The animal is a big part of the family,” said Clarence DeVoe of his pet. “My wife still talks about Bijou . . . I took my grandson down there a few weeks ago.”
The park can be a setting for young ones to learn about life and death and respect, Clarence DeVoe said.
Many people come to the park asking about a great-grandmother’s or great-grandfather’s pet. Some of the records date to 1928, the park’s inception, said Robinson.
A group of pet owners formed Save Our Pets’ History in Eternity (SOPHIE) to preserve the cemetery, which was founded by Eugene C. Jones and his family. A nine-person board of directors runs SOPHIE.
David Stiller, president of SOPHIE’s board, offered to show a Patch reporter around. The first stop was a mausoleum, which was erected in 1929 and stands at the highest point in the cemetery overlooking the grass below. Inside the building are the cremated remains of birds, dogs and cats safeguarded behind engraved marble-covered niches.
In the oldest part of the park, Stiller walked toward his cat Majesty’s grave, laid to rest 21 years ago, and quickly arranged the flowers placed on top.
“My cat Majesty was the kind of cat that would not be in the sun, so his little plot is in a shaded area underneath a big tree,” Stiller said. “This is the real, real old section if you look at the headstones . . . 1937, 1936, 1929.”
Many famous names can be found at the park including Hopalong Cassidy’s horse Topper, Rudolph Valentino’s Great Dane Kabar and The Little Rascals’ playful Pete the Pup. In other areas of the park, visitors can find Charlie Chaplin’s cat or Humphrey Bogart’s dog.
“We will be here for another fifteen years, roughly and then we’ll be full,” said Stiller. “We have an endowment to maintain the insurance, the water and the groundskeepers in perpetuity.”
The following blog entries document the series of emails between Ms. Shelley Strain of Minneapolis and me as she prepared for and went through with facilitating the passing of her beloved 17-year-old orange tabby cat, Rusty. I’m sharing the majority of each of our messages to let you glimpse her process. I believe she was incredibly wise and courageous to prepare in this way so that she could be fully ready for what was to come and learn as much as she could from the experience. I’m grateful she choice to utilize my Animal Chaplaincy Services, as well as honored to have met her and her mom and the awesome Rusty at such a pivotal time in his life and transition.
To her I say: Thank you, Shelley, for so graciously sharing your heart with others (it’s the life coach in you, I’m sure) so they can learn from you how to take care of themselves when they are faced with such a sad time.—Sid
First message on Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 2:22 PM
I have been on several websites today looking for resources, articles, etc. on preparing to euthanize my cat and was getting frustrated until I stumbled upon an article/blog with your name in it. I read about what you do and feel that you are one that can help me.
I’ve had Rusty for 10 years and he has been by my side through divorce, other relationship losses, and everything else that life throws at us! He is a gentle, sweet orange and white tabby, and it’’s killing me to have to let him go.
I’m considering finding a vet to come to my home rather than take him to a cold, sterile environment. I have a psychology degree, run a real estate business, and am a life coach, and can’t seem to “coach” myself through this painful process. I’m a huge animal lover and losing a pet (best friend) has to be at the top of the list of “most painful experiences!”
Can you provide any resources/advice for me. Thanks in advance for your time Sid
First of all, I am so very sorry for your impending parting from your precious Rusty. I know only too, too well the kind of pain you’re facing now. You are to be applauded for seeking out support beforehand. It is a very wise and courageous thing to do. You are honoring Rusty by acknowledging how very much he means to you in that you know you will be emotionally devastated for a time.
He deserves your tears, so don’t try to stop them up. But that’s only part of it. Along with that devastation, you’ll find small ways to remember and celebrate his life with you. You’ll eventually remember him and smile more often than cry. That is the goal as you take time to heal. You learn to cope with a pet loss, you never completely get over it.
I agree that it is optimal to have a vet come to your home if it is possible. I’ve wanted to do this for my last two Westies, but they chose to need to pass over on the night before Thanksgiving and a Sunday, respectively, both times when no house-call-making vets were available. If you do go this route, make sure the environment is as soothing as peaceful for you both as possible. You may want to light a candle, play a CD of birdsong or music that has meaning to you, etc. Take all the time you need to thank Rusty for all he’s brought you and taught you through his life with you. Let him know how much you’ll miss him, but explain that you’re going to be strong for him so he doesn’t have to stay on your account.
If you have friends or family members who were close to Rusty, invite them to come and say their goodbyes, too. They might be able to stay with you through the actual process, too. Or, you could ask a pastor or animal chaplain (like me) to say a blessing over Rusty when he transitions. Afterward, you can buy an attractive, personalized urn or other display case/marker. See my blog’s Pet Loss Memorial Products link for ideas. (I make no money from any of these, mind you, so I’m not hawking products.) Or, of course, you can scatter his ashes somewhere special or bury him.
If it’s in keeping with your spiritual beliefs, you can ask him to send you clear signs that he is all right when he makes his transition to the Other Side. This could be a visit in a dream or perhaps a sound, a smell, etc. that strongly reminds you of his presence. Believe me, receiving evidence that his spirit lives on and is accessible to you can really speed a broken heart’s healing.
If you need ongoing support, there are websites like <www.chancesspot.org>, support groups you can connect with through the local Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, grief counselors that specialize in pet loss, or the social work services at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center at 612-624-9372. I am also available to speak with you if you need it. Just call me at 612-822-0888. I’d be happy to help you create a memorial ceremony, too. There are many helpful suggestions in my book, too, which you can buy or simply request from your local library.
I hope some of this has been helpful. Be sure to take care of YOU as you work through this heartache. Try to take a day or two, minimum, off from work or plan for this to occur before the weekend so you can curl up and cry as long as you need to without prying eyes. Once enough time has passed and enough healing has occurred, perhaps you can open both your heart and home to another animal in need of rescue. Ask him nicely and Rusty just might introduce the two of you in the future.
I also welcome you to write a tribute to Rusty and attach a jpeg photo of him to be added to the Pet Passings section on my blog. My book has several suggestions for means of memorializing your cat, and you can simply request it from your local library if you don’t wish to purchase a copy. (However, if you do order one from my site, I can inscribe it in loving memory of Rusty; and $2 will go to support a local no-kill animal shelter.)
You will both be in my thoughts and prayers. Please do keep in touch whenever you need more support.
I can’t thank you enough for this email. It was exactly what I needed. I’m on my way to Barnes & Noble to purchase your book, which they have in stock (yah!).
I will most definitely take advantage of the resources you suggest, and will be spending the day petting Rusty and reading your book.
I may need to call you at some point. I live [near you, so] perhaps I can steal a few minutes of your time in person.
Much gratitude for you, the work you do, and your wise counsel.
SHELLEY WRITES AGAIN:
Good morning Sid,
Wow, I’m reading your book and it’s helping me tremendously. It’s so easy to get caught up in the memories and the sadness of letting go of Rusty, and lose clarity about the process of life, and learning to let go and not be “attached.” I loved your last sentence about “hope you find this process rich and rewarding.” I DO want this process to be rich and rewarding. I’m working desperately to balance the grieving and decision making, with having clarity about the amazing process of life. I’ve always had a fear of death, so I believe that fear is making this process harder. Also, I have been single for a while and live alone, and Rusty has been my best friend and companion who has always been there. So hard to fathom my dear, furry kitty disappearing…
It’s funny because I teach detachment to my clients in terms of not “clinging” to things that are out of one’s control. I want to practice this with myself. In your book, in part six, you provide “other spiritual perspectives” which I LOVED as it gave me some new perspectives for this process. I especially liked the Zen Buddhist perspective: “Impermanence is a natural law or truth of the Universe. Animals accept these changes. Suffering comes through attachment. Bear witness to feelings without being overwhelmed….in holding on to the feelings of sadness, we trap both them and ourselves.” That is a great reminder for me to “let go.” While painful and sad, it’s all OK.
Sid, I don’t know you but feel a strong connection and would love it if you have ANY time tomorrow or this weekend to visit over the phone. I truly want this experience of letting Rusty go to be a good one. I have to watch him and decide when to have the vet come to my home and send him to kitty heaven. I keep going back and forth as I watch him from minute to minute. He seems fine; then I’m not sure. Then he’s eating and drinking water out of the faucet; then he seems distant. I’m really confused. A discussion with you may help. While I have MANY great friends who are loving and supportive, I feel I must connect with someone who, I feel, can guide me through this process.
I NEVER write emails this long and am NOT a rambler but feel I need to get this out to you, someone who can completely identify with what I’m going through. Thanks for listening and reading and let me know if you have any time today, tomorrow or this weekend to chat.
With MUCH gratitude,
I’m thrilled you are finding nuggets of truth in my book that resonate with you at this point in your grief journey! That’s so very fulfilling of my purpose in writing it. You mention having a fear of death, so I’d urge you to read the Afterlife Connections: Humans section if you haven’t already done so. I find those stories very hope-giving, and they’re one step back from the rawness of pet loss, so they’re easier to take when things are particularly intense regarding your Rusty.
[OMITTING BORING STUFF ABOUT MY SCHEDULE HERE.]
Wishing you strength and courage to be selfless for your dear furry friend,
I’m really fighting the battle today; very emotional. I have an appointment [for work] at 12:00 so need to stay strong until afterward. The emotional roller coaster ride is quite a fascinating phenomenon.
If you are available Monday around 1:15/1:30 I would LOVE to have you there for moral support. I would, of course, pay you for your time as this is a onetime deal and I want it to be as peaceful for Rusty, and ideally, also for me (although I know how hard Monday will be). Having someone there who has more experience with this, and who has the wisdom and spiritual beliefs you have, would probably make this a much richer experience.
Let me know what you think. If you cannot make it, I truly understand and simply appreciate your offer.
I’d be glad to join you and Rusty on Monday at 1:15 p.m. Just tell me where to be and how to get there. Is there anything you need me to bring along, or will myself do?
Hang in there. This part can be the worst, I think. Once it’s over, it all still hurts but your healing can at least begin.
I’m SOOOO happy you are going to be here for Rusty’s transition! It’s so strange that we have not met in person yet; however, I’m in great need of your support through this!
Rusty and I have been hanging out today. Sat in the back yard on a bench; sat on the front steps; laid in the cool air-conditioned house. Gave him a few licks of his favorite soy yogurt. Just trying to spoil him as much as possible. I can’t help but feel weird to be doing this when he’s still getting around and eating and drinking. I realize, however, this is a better time, as I want his last few days/hours to be as comfortable as possible. That might not be the case if I wait another week.
I can’t thank you enough. Please don’t be alarmed if I’m sobbing my eyes out when you get here. This is a traumatic experience for me. I’m trying so hard to coach myself, and to make this a rich and rewarding experience like you recommended. Thanks for that advice…
I’ll be there, bawling my eyes out, too. If you’d asked me even a year ago to voluntarily attend a pet’s euthanasia, I’d have sent you packing. I never dreamed writing this book would take me down this path and that I’d put myself in such a painful position on purpose. I sometimes think I’m far too big a mushball for this vocation, but then again, the day I’m not moved to tears is the day I should walk away from animal chaplaincy altogether.
I do see it as an honor and a privilege to be there for you and Rusty on this occasion.
See you Monday.
[NOTE: BEFORE HE DIED, I HAD SPECIFICALLY ASKED RUSTY TO SEND HIS MOM A SIGN THAT HE WAS AROUND AND DOING FINE ONCE HE’D PASSED!]
THE DAY AFTER, FROM SHELLEY:
Thank you so much for being with Rusty and me yesterday for his transition. It meant a great deal to me, and Rusty I know. Last night, my boyfriend and I went to get a smoothie and then I wanted to get a funny movie to relieve some of the grief. We laughed a bit, but I got tired soon and went to bed. I was lying in bed (you know when things settle down and your faced with the deafening silence in the house), and tears rolled down my face and I cried a little while missing and thinking about Rusty.
This morning, my boyfriend left early, and as soon as he left and I locked the door behind him I started sobbing again, uncontrollably. I knew this was coming. I actually cried out, telling Rusty how much I missed him and just kept repeating it. Then, the calm came again, and I could breathe and think. Such an emotional roller coaster.
You’ll like this next part…
I was sitting in the kitchen just getting myself pulled together and decided to wash my sheets. I took them into the basement and while standing at the washer I saw, out of the corner of my eye, something run along the basement wall. I quick turned to look and saw a little black mouse. I’ve lived there 3 years and NEVER saw a mouse in the basement. I immediately started wondering about this.
Next, the little mouse came around the front of the washer toward me. I kind of felt freaked out but stayed with it. I went and got a little box to catch him and he ran in, but after I put the cover on, he came out a little hole in the box! Dang.
Next, I went to the other end of the basement to my storage closet to get a different box and wouldn’t you know it, the mouse followed me! What? Shouldn’t mice be scared and run the other way? Anyway, I got him in the box and ran upstairs to release him in the yard. He ran out then ran back in and sniffed around. Then ran willy-nilly around the yard and started heading for the house again. He finally ran under the deck and was gone. My mind was racing about this sighting…
Then, I got dressed and decided to go into the office to get some work done (i.e., distract myself). I got my purse and went out the door and locked it. I walked down the steps and onto the sidewalk and right in the middle of the sidewalk where my next step was the mouse again! Or at least “a” mouse. What are the odds that “the” mouse or “a” mouse would be sitting right there? He wouldn’t move either. I bumped him, and he was alive but wouldn’t budge. I scooped him up with a stick and my book and put him on the grass. I just couldn’t believe I ran into the mouse twice, or saw 2 mice in one day, after never seeing them before. What do you think?
OK, sorry for the novel but knew you could appreciate this experience. I will admit, I did say out loud, “Rusty? Are you sending me signs?”
Sid, I can’t thank you enough again, for your time and compassion. You are a wonderfully loving and compassionate person, and from one fellow animal lover to another, thank you for loving our fur babies who give us such joy, love, laughs, but pain, too. You are a kindred spirit indeed.
HERE’S MY SLIGHTLY ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE:
OH MY GOD, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE RUSTY AND THE WAY THE UNIVERSE WORKS!!!!!!!!
Yes, your brilliant, loving, tremendously smart and sassy cat sent you the mouse as a messenger!!!! No, mice do NOT approach humans. No, mice do NOT repeatedly run back into your house when you’ve set them free. What better messenger from a cat who is giving you permission (and now a need) to get another cat someday!!!!!!
Rusty, you rock!!!!! And thank you, brave little mouse!
I’m jumping up and down for joy!!!!!
Listen, girlie girl, if you overthink and try to talk yourself out of accepting this enormous GIFT from Rusty, I’ll have to take you over my knee!
Would it be all right with you if I excerpt any of your letters to me and this story in my blog? This is so thrilling, I can hardly stand it!!! Your story is going to go in some of my talks, too. (No names, of course.)
I am sorry for your waves of pain and floods of tears, but because you set things up in the smartest way possible and knew to expect these reactions, you’ll come through like a trooper—stronger, wiser and more accepting of life and death as a result. I’m very proud of you!
When my mother passed away in 1998, putting together a display for her memorial service was made a million times easier because I’d already made a seven-foot-long Lifetime Banner for her surprise 75th birthday party two years earlier and could simply add the most recent reminiscences to an additional couple of foam boards to make it current. It was a tremendous comfort to feel I was adequately honoring her life with this banner, which included funny and/or touching stories told and photos submitted for that birthday party from friends and family the world over. It was a terrific conversation started and allowed people to creatively express their feelings about my kooky mother. (By the way, her funeral service concluded with a 21-squirt-gun salute that devolved into a water fight! It was PERFECT for her!! Read more about this in Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss in the “We All Love Lucy” chapter.)
The same is true for our beloved animal companions. If you keep a scrapbook, file folder, memory box, etc. to which you periodically add photos, used-and-abused chew toys/catnip mice, and old collar or tags, bits of fur after a haircut, lost baby teeth, a chewed-up shoe, anecdotes or memories shared on note cards, etc., you’ll not only be making sacred every moment of your pet’s life while he/she is living it, but you’ll save yourself trouble and heartache setting up a memorial service or shrine in his/her honor when your furry/feathered family member does pass on.
Think of it like a child’s baby book or scrap book. You’re not adding things to that with a morbid eye on their eventual death 60–70 years later. You’re highlighting special occasions in the moment to allow for those fond memories to be more vivid any time you wish to revisit them throughout his/her life. It’s no different for your pet. Besides, it’s fun to pull your pet close to you and take out the memory book/box and show him/her, “Look, Ludwig, here’s a picture of when you jumped in your Auntie Diane’s fish pond and then rolled in her newly mulched garden! You were a West Highland “muddy” terrier that day!” (Just don’t let him/her chew or drool on the photos as you show them.)
It can also be a tremendous help to those around you who want to be able to help you when you’re at your most distraught during your grief. Just have them pull out the book/file/box. You can sit together and go through each item, with you explaining the significance of and/or telling stories about each item with your friend’s arm around you and a box of tissues close at hand. Even if you just leave it out for visitors to look through without your direct involvement, it feels good to know your pet is being remembered by another person. Or, if you’re not up to it just yet yourself, you may ask a creative friend to make a nice arrangement of the items for display for a more formal ceremony that other animal-loving friends and family members will attend at a later time (with or without an animal chaplain speaking at it). Believe me, when they’re at a loss as to how best to help you, this can prove a wonderful,tangible way for your friend(s) to show their love and support.
Having a positive thing like this to focus on, though it WILL be linked to tears, is a very healthy activity that encourages expression (as opposed to bottling up) of these emotions while at the same time giving you a sense of purpose. That “purpose,” namely honoring and celebrating your pet’s life, can give you an anchor when your emotions threaten to sweep you away.
I’d love to hear some creative ideas you’ve had in creating a memorial to your pets!
“Call my chiropractor, I did it again!” comes the muffled cries from the large lump beneath my blanket. I am paralyzed…by pets, and I’m paying the price for twisting my torso for their comfort yet again.
But, seriously, who could expect me to move when my West Highland white terrier, Keely, is three-quarters under the covers beside me and has her little head draped over my throat; my cat, Giles, is perched high on my hip; my second Westie, Blanche, is nestled in my knee pit; my second cat, Xander, is curled up and purring in my arms; and my third Westie, Ambrose, is snuggled against my feet? Nothing short of the smoke alarms blaring is going to get me out of my bed until the critters themselves are good and ready (meaning they’re hungry, have to go outside, or have detected a squirrel has crept into their yard).
I know I’m being used. A line from the musical Oliver! comes to mind at these moments: “Consider yourself part of the furniture.” But I wouldn’t trade my role as their human ottoman for the world. My pets, which also include two finches, Atticus and Scout, who thankfully opt not to sleep in bed with me, are the most important “people” in my life, aside from my hubby, who fortunately feels the same way.
Before you rag on me, yes, I know full well they’re animals. I feed the five carnivores a raw-meat diet, something I never serve my human friends and family. I discipline them when they squabble over a chew toy or jump on the kitchen counter, take them on long walks to teach them to use a loose leash, make them wait to let me in doors or down stairs ahead of them, etc. Most of the time I actually am their pack leader.
But in bed, I’m just another animal.
The presence of these warm, loving creatures brings me a depth of peace and happiness I truly cannot adequately describe. Suffice it to say, I would not willingly live without animals. I need them to survive emotionally as much as they need me and my opposable thumbs to survive physically; they suck at operating can openers and/or cleaning their own litter boxes.
I purposely avert my eyes from the omnipresent gruesome news stories, those that redundantly prove the depths of depravity of which we humans are capable. Instead, I watch my four-legged companions at play or pet them while they’re sleeping in a patch of sunshine and instantly achieve a Zen-like state. They’re never part of the world’s problems. I’ve never once read headlines like “Kamikaze Kittens Bomb Seafood Factory” or “Tyrannical Terriers Turn Terrorist.”
Yes, they do all instinctively go after rodents, but there is never malice aforethought in their actions, so it hardly equals the evil some homo sapiens do out of greed, jealousy, fear, addiction, or for the sheer perverse thrill it gives them.
Humans are the only creatures that can and do create suffering for themselves and others. Dwelling on past wrongs that can never be altered—playing the endless-loop tape of “if only…”—or fretting over a future that has not yet arrived—listening to “what if…” bounce off the insides of our craniums—our minds struggle to live anyplace but where we actually are—not yesterday, not tomorrow, simply now.
Letting go of all that is over and done means never having to harbor a grudge or feel stinging regret. Animals, having no concept of the future of the economy or the swift destruction of the environment, or the ongoing wars in the Middle East, reside happily in the moment and teach us, if we pay attention, to do the same.
I never achieve that state of acceptance, of peace, better than when I’m surrounded by, even buried beneath, my furry family members. Nothing keeps me in the now like listening to their purrs or puppy snores and/or watching them chase phantom squirrels in their sleep. My heart swells. I sigh, smile, and resolve to call that chiropractor when we all finally get up…if my arm will still move. Under the weight of my cat, it’s been asleep quite a while.
In digging through old photo albums for photos of my brother, Dave, for his 25th wedding anniversary collage, I came across this picture of my cat, Giles. It pertains directly to his story from my book (and I’m mightily bummed I’d forgotten I’d had such a shot in time to add it to the book).
In it, Giles is demonstrating his supernormal ability to choose coloring-contest-winning pictures. You’ll just have to buy the book to learn the full, fascinating story!