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Farewell to a Friend: Celebrating a Pet's Life

This article was written by Pet Community Center Board of Directors member and Marketing Committee Volunteer, Maryglenn Warnock. You can learn more about the author at the end of the post.

I’ve gotten more than one quizzical look when someone finds out that I officiate pet memorial services. One common reaction I hear is this: I had no idea there was such a thing as a memorial service for a pet.

If you fall into the category of people who “had no idea there was such a thing as a memorial service for a pet” you are not alone.

Memorial services for pets not only provide owners a wonderful, meaningful way to celebrate a pet’s life but can even help owners in their healing process.

I know this first-hand, as I came into this line of work as a result of a personal experience: losing my beloved Old English Sheepdog Garcia.

I am neither hesitant nor ashamed to admit that I struggled mightily after Garcia’s death. At first, I was in shock, then I was numb, sad, and heartbroken. I felt alone. The big, beautiful creature I had shared my life with was gone. I felt lost. My life had centered on Garcia for so long, and suddenly, all of that time and energy I devoted to the care and maintenance of Garcia was no longer spoken for. How was I supposed to fill my days without him, without our routine, without the series of weekly appointments? I felt isolated. I had found so much comfort in the wonderful group of people—veterinarians, specialists—who cared for Garcia as his health failed, and I missed them. I missed the routine. I missed Garcia.

As I muddled through the shock, the sorrow, and the silence, I felt compelled to do something. Ultimately, I decided that Garcia’s life was something that warranted celebration, so I made a decision—one that would, much like Garcia himself, change the course of my life. I began planning a memorial service for Garcia.

What I found was this: both the ceremony and the planning were tremendously healing for me. The planning afforded me an outlet for my grief—and I make a distinction between “outlet” and “distraction,” as I felt I was working through my grief in the planning and not just avoiding it. I spent a great deal of time coming up with a list of people whose lives Garcia had touched. I spent hours combing through pictures I would display at the event, and making plans for the service. I spent time remembering Garcia, and the time we had shared.

Did I go overboard? Absolutely. Do I regret any of it? Not in the least.

As I worked to plan the event, I felt like I had a purpose again. I was doing something constructive. Something to honor Garcia. Something to celebrate his life. Something to acknowledge the loss. Something that allowed me to accept that he was gone.

Garcia’s funeral/memorial service/celebration of life was an incredibly healing experience for me. And here’s why:

  1. The planning and the service itself allowed me a way to honor Garcia in my grief.

  2. I felt so much love and support from the people who attended the service.

  3. That service is now among my cherished Garcia memories

  4. People who attended shared stories about pets they had lost, which made me feel less alone in my grief.

  5. It gave me a space to begin processing the loss.

  6. And it showed me that Garcia had touched so many people. Garcia meant so much to many people—and that was comforting beyond words.

Having a house filled with people who loved Garcia meant everything to me. So many people had stories of Garcia to share, and I was overwhelmed by just how many people had taken time out of their lives to celebrate my big shaggy dog.

Based on my personal and professional experience, I believe in the healing power of holding such a service. While I understand that this type of event is not the right choice for everyone, I do think it can be healing for those of us who feel lost, isolated and alone after the death of a pet.

And if you fall in that category, here are a few tips that might be helpful:

  1. Consider holding the event in a place the pet loved. Whether an outdoor space, a home, or another location, honoring the memory of a beloved companion in a place that holds special significance can add a meaningful dimension to a service.

  2. Invite people who knew and loved the pet. When planning a service, take some time to think of the many lives your pet touched--from neighbors to friends to dog walkers, veterinarians and staff, co-workers, groomers, pet sitters, and others who knew and loved your pet.

  3. Be mindful of inviting people who “don’t get it.” 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. Remember that this event is a way to promote healing, and people who are not sympathetic to your mourning have no place there.

  4. If you have children, be sure to include them in the ceremony and in the planning. Taking part in a ceremony can be tremendously helpful for children, as it allows them space to acknowledge their loss, and also shows them how to grieve in a positive, healthy way.

  5. 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.

  6. Consider using an officiant for the service. 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.

  7. Remember that it is okay 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 you. Just as there is no right or wrong way to grieve, there is no right or wrong way to memorialize a cherished companion.

  8. Know that there are no rules. For human funerals, there is a trend towards 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. In fact, Garcia had been gone several months before we held his service. 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. For Garcia’s service, we raised a glass and toasted Garcia. We had a rainbow bridge cake. We told stories. We remembered. We celebrated a life very well lived.

And when I think back on that beautiful evening, that’s what I cherish the most: celebrating a life very well lived.

About the Author: Maryglenn Warnock

(Photo Credit: Lacey Maloch, Strays to Baes)

Maryglenn Warnock is the founder of Paws to Remember and is a certified pet bereavement counselor. She is also a pet funeral officiant/pet chaplain who is ordained through the Universalist church.

A lifelong animal advocate, Maryglenn serves on Pet Community Center's Board of Directors and volunteers for their Marketing Committee. Additionally, she has served on the executive board of the Nashville Humane Association and volunteered in animal rescue for 20 years. Maryglenn graduated from Vanderbilt University with a BA in English.

Maryglenn is a native of Munfordville, Kentucky who lives in Nashville with her husband Tim and their Old English Sheepdog, Major.

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