This is my written notes for my talk at the 2011 Pet Memorial Sunday celebration hosted by Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation. I know I wandered a bit from what is here, but this is the basis of it. I’ve never had the opportunity to speak in this forum before, and I was more than gratified—and surprised—by the compliments I received afterward.
THE JOY OF PETS
I was very honored when Deb asked me to speak on this subject. I am one of Deb’s families, several times over, and am so glad I found her.
Among other things I do, I have the pleasure of creating commissioned portraits of others’ cherished pets, though often the choice is made to create the portrait when the loss is imminent or may have recently happened, or a family may decide a while after that a portrait is an appropriate remembrance.
When I create a portrait I not only use photos, I also use stories, and even if I get to meet an animal I want to hear about my subject’s personality from the people who love that animal. Part of what I do in creating a portrait is working with families around their loss and I am honored that they choose to share that with me, that they trust their thoughts and feelings in my care.
As a person who’s rescued and fostered cats and kittens for about 25 years I’ve also seen my own share of loss, both in sending fosters off to good and loving adoptive homes and in the losses of the cats who came to share my life.
Of those cats who shared my home and became a permanent part of my feline family for some period of time, I have lost 13. I say now that it is never easy, but I have learned to prepare myself for the experience and know what at least seems normal for myself.
I’m going to tell a little story of my own loss and redemption, of loving again after a loss. It has a happy ending.
In 2006 and 2007, I lost my four oldest cats, three of them among my longest-lasting friends. During that year of loss I fostered a litter of kittens born to a neighbor’s cat, found homes for three and one stayed with me. I didn’t want a kitten because caring for geriatric animals in their end stages is time-consuming and emotionally exhausting and I felt I had no time for a kitten. But the little black sweetheart seemed to understand my distraction, and after my Stanley, at age 25, finally let go of his love of this world, I turned my attention to my Lucy, my new life, and the remaining four of my feline family.
But when I had Lucy spayed three months later, she was diagnosed with feline infectious peritonitis, a form of it that is always fatal, and I lost her three months after that.
My heart was broken. I was beyond grief, I was simply numb after all that loss, so quickly, and in part unexpected. After a house regularly full of about nine cats, I had only four and for a house that rescues and fosters animals, that is empty.
And those four were between the ages of 12 and 17, and one of them had a serious heart condition and I was aware that I could lose him unexpectedly at any time. They suddenly looked to me like potential sources of pain, and I knew that I needed to do something quickly to save myself.
The day Lucy died, I saw her mother, who belonged to a neighbor who never bothered to have her fixed, in my yard, the petite black kitty laden with another litter of kittens in her belly. The thought flashed into my mind that I needed to take her in, her and her kittens.
No, I thought, the last thing I need is a litter of kittens, especially if one of them might also have FIP. But the idea persisted—get this kitty off the streets and get her fixed, especially if she might be carrying FIP. I called my veterinarian hoping she’d tell me “No, it’s too dangerous, you have enough cats, you’ve had enough loss, don’t do it.” Instead, she paused and then said, “I think that would be a good idea.”
I discussed with her and other veterinarians the risks and we determined I could safely do this. I asked the neighbor to just give me the mother cat this time instead of just the kittens. She said that would be fine.
By the time I had the space ready the kittens were three days old. I gingerly carried the box upstairs and opened the lid. The mother cat looked up at me and stepped out, calm and collected. I placed the kittens on the fleece bed in the cage and she went in to clean and nurse them.
I was afraid I’d be afraid of them too—looking for signs of illness, but after tentatively petting them a few times I picked up each one, then picked up all of them in one big handful and kissed them. I did that repeatedly several times a day, something that’s not really advised with newborn kittens, and that mother cats don’t really care for, but their mom watched me with understanding, and the kittens grew quickly, normally and strong.
I forgot to look for signs of illness, and there were none anyway. When it came time to spay and neuter them all, I had though I’d finally have my moment of fear because that was when Lucy was diagnosed, but by then I had forgotten all about FIP.
And in the process I invited their mom, Mimi to join my household, and all my seniors joined in watching the kittens and beginning to teach them how to be cats. Mimi and her babies are still with me, all involved in a study of FIP, and my newest subjects for art and writing.
That type of total immersion in loving again is an extreme case, but I know that for me, bringing that family into my life was the only thing that could heal my broken heart in the way it did. Now I could not imagine my life without them, just as I couldn’t imagine my life without any of the cats who came after other losses.
And that’s because, like everyone here, I find it necessary to share my life with animals, and once we do, we always do, though our time of healing is different for each of us.
If we even consider adopting again, we may feel we are betraying the pet we’ve lost, that we may be trying to replace the cherished companion who is gone or worst of all that if we move on that they will be forgotten.
And while the loss is fresh, the memory of the pain of loss is just too real.
But our bonds of love are never the same in any two relationships, and our hearts are big enough to hold a lifetime of loves. As I look through all those years of photos and see all the ones I’ve lost, I don’t remember their loss, I remember their love, I remember the years they spent with me.
I’ve known people who’ve gone right out and adopted another pet, others who waited months or years, or simply waited until another animal in need showed up on their doorstep, and still others who have never adopted again, preferring instead to remember and cherish the pets they’d lost. For each of them, the decision was right.
The important thing was that it was their decision, they were comfortable with the situation and they felt it best honored their pet.
As your period of grieving progresses, you may find your home feels empty, and you miss not only the pet you’ve lost but the companionship in general, the sharing of your routines and your space.
But mostly, we choose to live with pets because of that bond we have with them that we can’t even have with another human, that total devotion and unconditional love that is the gift we share with an animal.
And our precious animal companions remember how we filled their life when we adopted them—surely they’d want that for another animal. And, in life, they always wanted, and often worked hard for, our happiness as part of their love for us, and they would be the best to know that the love of a pet is essential for their human, and would not want us to be sad and lonely.
As much as you loved, so deeply do you grieve, but the grief wears away and leaves only the love, like a diamond. Look back through your photos and see your lifetime of pets, and what do you remember? Not the grief, only the love.
You know the kittens and mother cat in this story as Mimi and the Fantastic Four. This is how we began, and probably one of the reasons I didn’t work too hard to find a home for them when the time came—though a family of adult black cats is not the easiest to place, but in truth, I’m glad for that. I will always remember that time of intense grief and the joy of healing and loving again, every time I look at them.
Pet Memorial Sunday 2011
The rain moved all around us but never fell on our tent as nearly 50 people found a place to share their grief and joy, remembering their pets.
Deb Chebatoris, owner of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation and host of the event for the seventh year, opened with a welcome, and a moment of silence in recognition of the tenth anniversary of September 11, 2001.
She continued with a thank you to those who attended the pet memorial on this special day. “And this being Pittsburgh,” she continued, “I want to thank you for choosing to attend this ceremony while the Steelers are playing the first game of the season,” eliciting a murmur of chuckles as attendees smiled at each other and relaxed.
“Let’s hope the rain holds off for us,” she said explaining where we would go if we needed to take shelter other than the tent, “but if it does rain, it will just be like our tears. This is a safe place to cry.”
Those attending are usually families of Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation who have lost a pet in the past year, or even in years past. Families gather and are encouraged to bring a photo or memento of their pet to place on the table and display board at the front of the tent during the ceremony.
The program includes two speakers, a reading of brief tributes sent by the families in attendance, the release of doves and then a final speaker.
Our Last Moments Together
The first speaker was Dr. Brad Carmichael of Pleasant Valley Veterinary Clinic who spoke about “Our Last Moments Together” with our pet.
“I’m sorry you even have a reason to be here,” he began, and then went on to discuss being with your pet before or during its death, and the decision of euthanasia.
“If anyone here has any doubts, regrets or guilt about that decision, put them aside,” Dr. Brad said. “Think about this—when we get together and talk about how we’d prefer to die, what do we say? We’d like to go in our sleep. And isn’t this what we’ve done for our beloved pets? If you made that decision, you’ve given a gift,” he continued.
He then presented a framed, hand-lettered verse entitled, “The Veterinarian’s Prayer”.
“A client gave me this in thanks, and it pretty much sums up how I feel about what I do,” he said, then read the text to us.
A VETERINARIAN’S PRAYER
Heavenly Father, I offer myself as an instrument of kindness and shelter
to the wondrous animals that You’ve entrusted to my care.
I ask you to enlighten and strengthen me
and to keep me as gentle as Thou would be.
O Lord, may you always hear this prayer–
Please be with me and be my helping hand
and when it seems I sometimes fail,
please help me to understand.
For even though You’ve given us our animals
for pleasure and to serve,
we thank You for Your gift to us through
the care they richly deserve.
Heavenly Father, please be merciful
to the animals who are in pain and to those who are ill
and hear my pledge as a veterinarian to serve and
always obey Your will.
©92 Patty Temple
Our Initial Grief Response
The next speaker was Elizabeth Babcock, LCSW, who also moderates the “Healing Hearts” pet loss session CCPC holds every February and also numbers among CCPC families, spoke about “Our Initial Grief Response”.
“If you’re feeling awful right now, you can’t sleep, you don’t want to eat, you don’t want to talk to anyone, all you want to do is cry, then you’re in a pretty normal state for grief,” she said.
“Grief is a normal, healthy response to the life-altering loss you’ve suffered,” she said, and went on to remind us that our loss has touched every part of our life physically and emotionally and so we feel grief just as much physically in energy, sleep habits and appetite, as emotionally, in our tears and simply in our thought processes.
“Grief can be frightening in its intensity, and it seems to go on and on, as if it will never end,” Elizabeth continued. “We tend to try to hide it, and our society wants us to feel better right away so we don’t have to see that grief,” she said, “but that’s often the worst thing you can do. You have to let it run its course, in a way that is right for you.”
She reviewed what to expect as we mourn a loss, that we may relive the loss again at anniversaries and we may find ourselves wanting to perform or repeat activities that make no sense, but are part of a normal response.
“If you find yourself wanting to put down the food bowl at mealtimes, even though your pet is gone, just go ahead and do it, let yourself go through that ritual for a few days afterward,” Elizabeth said. “You’ve done that every day for how long? And it was a happy part of your day? And you expect yourself to stop wanting to do that? It’s okay, you need to do that,” she continued.
Allow your feelings to happen, she advised, and do whatever feels right for yourself within reason, and give yourself a break from grieving now and then so that you don’t exhaust yourself. Let your grief unfold in its own way and for as long as you need, and both seek the company of others who “get it” and avoid those who don’t. Lower your expectations of yourself for a while, she continued, and take good care of yourself.
But grief is a process and does eventually come to an end. If you feel that your grieving process is getting out of your control, or if a person you love and trust tells you they feel you may not be healing from your grief, then this has become “complicated grief” and it’s perfectly appropriate to seek help.
Deb encourages families to compose tributes of up to 50 words for their pets to be read aloud as part of the ceremony and includes guidelines and samples on her website. These were read alternately by Deb and Bernadette Kazmarski, another speaker, turning the rain stick between each one.
A sample tribute: “Lindy, Calvin and Hobbes, you were some of my best friends in this life and I am forever a better person for the years I spent with each of you. Thank you for all you gave, for all you made possible, and for the countless memories that will always make me smile. You were – each of you in your own unique way – the very best. –Elizabeth”
The Dove Release
Everyone stepped outside the tent for the release of doves, symbolizing the ability to let go of cherished pets and let them fly free while still loving them, watching the graceful white birds wheel and swirl among the trees, disappearing into the sky, listening to Celine Dion’s “Fly”.
The Joy of Pets
Then there was me to speak about the joy of pets, and loving another pet after a loss.
“I am one of Deb’s families, several times over,” she began, “and I am so glad I found her.”
I paint commissioned portraits of pets, and often they are commissioned around a pet’s loss so I work with grieving families as part of my artwork, hoping to help ease their grief with a portrait that commemorates what they loved about their pet or family of pets.
I have also rescued and fostered cats for about 25 years, and in that time have had my own share of losses, 13 to be exact, and while it’s never easy I do have an idea what to expect and use that to help others.
“But I’ve weaseled out of adopting again by simply letting nature bring me more fosters and never making the choice because I never felt comfortable in choosing,” I said, and began a story of my own “loss and redemption”.
I related the story of the loss of my four oldest cats all within one year, then the loss of Lucy to FIP, a kitten I’d fostered during that year who ended up staying with me.
“My heart was broken,” I said, “I was beyond pain, simply numb. My house, usually full of cats, felt empty with only the four still with me, all seniors, one with a serious heart condition, and in my state of mind they simply looked like sources of more pain,” I continued. “I had to do something serious to keep myself from going down that path.”
Lucy’s mother lived across the street, ready to deliver another litter of kittens and appeared in my yard and I decided I should take her in, so I asked my veterinarian how safe that would be, asked the neighbor for the cat and prepared a room.
Cuddling, kissing and loving that litter of newborns and their mother was the perfect healing for the pain of all that loss. “I picked up all four of them in one big handful and kissed them all repeatedly, several times a day, every day, and forgot all about FIP and illness and loss, and just loved them, and their patient little mom understood,” I explained.
I told the audience, “As deeply as you loved, so do you grieve, but after the grief wears away it leaves the only love, shining like a diamond. Look back through your photos and see your lifetime of pets, and what do you remember? Not the grief, only the love,” I finished.
The photos and tributes gathered during the ceremony will be produced into a slideshow with musical accompaniment, “Tribute Scroll 2011”. This will be found on the Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation website, www.ccpc.ws along with the 2010 Tribute Scroll from last year’s Pet Memorial Sunday ceremony.
Another story about this time in my household:
Other articles about Lucy, Mimi and the Fantastic Four:
Other articles about Pet Memorial Sunday:
All images and text used on this site are copyrighted to Bernadette E. Kazmarski unless otherwise noted and may not be used in any way without my written permission. Please ask if you are interested in purchasing one as a print, or to use in a print or internet publication.