It would be difficult for me to imagine anyone in the death care profession who doesn’t recognize how terribly valuable it is to help families create meaningful experiences in order to honor, mourn and memorialize the lives of loved ones so now
deeply missed.

For nearly 65 percent of Americans, the lives of loved ones deeply missed will also include their pets. For even the most caustic of my funeral industry brethren who are critical of pet death care, the market size this represents is a staggering figure. For those of us who have taken the time to help a grieving pet-parent create a meaningful tribute for their beloved pet, it is a most amazing experience and one that builds a special bond that won’t soon be forgotten. You care when, all too often, few others do.

It’s not all that hard. It takes a couple of questions and a bit of listening. Walk with me as I guide a family through creating a simple, but very meaningful, tribute for their beloved dog Gretta.

Gretta is what I call a “Canardly.” That’s the type of dog where you “can hardly” tell what breed it is because it looks like a little bit of everything! No doubt, though, every part of Gretta’s scruffy being was filled with the most amazing unconditional love. The family that cared for her in life, and loved her dearly, was truly grieving and they wanted to remember some of the special memories that they shared together with their energetic girl. But, they didn’t know how.

As we began talking about Gretta and how we might like to meaningfully remember her in special ways, Gretta’s pet-parents begin to do what most do—they automatically think in terms of “chiseling out” something with Gretta’s name; her full name, Gretta Gabo Rea.

Then they remember her “gotcha date” from the animal shelter. That’s the date that  she came to live in her “forever home” with them. On a side note, for many of us pet parents this is equally as important to us as their birth date. And, of course, they  then quietly say the death date. It’s still too fresh to say very loud; it’s too much of a stark cold reminder of reality.

This is where I help them personalize. As in the poem, “The Dash” by Linda Ellis (no relation, by the way), I begin to ask them to think about the time between those dates they’ve given me; that “dash” between Gretta’s gotcha date and her death date.

I want them to tell me about Gretta’s “dash” across their hearts. I ask, “What is it that you think of when you think about Gretta?” And, “If you had to sum Gretta up in one sentence, what would that sentence be?” And, “Tell me about the color that Gretta brought to your life!” Well, the flood gates open! The stories start! The memories come flooding back. Ah, this is the most special part of what I do! THIS is what warms my heart! I sit back and listen and take copious notes. I don’t want to miss a detail!

This is a beautiful time of remembering for Gretta’s family. They start all the way back to when they found Gretta in a shelter; how she demanded their attention that day, the mischievous, but sweet, look in her eyes, how that mischievous suspicion proved true time and time again and suddenly Gretta’s “mom” said “I know what I want to do!”

“It just hit me that I want to put a rock in the garden where she always tore my flowers and beautiful hosta plants up. And I want it to say what I always said to her when she  did something that would test my patience! I would say, ‘Gretta – you’re my little Peter Pan mixed with Dennis the Menace.’”

That was all about who she was, all twelve years of her life. She never grew up. She was always a puppy. She was always mischievous. That’s what they loved about her!

They talked about how she’d be ornery and then she’d look at them and they swore they saw her smile. And, in an “I’ll make it up to you” action, Gretta would then come over  to them, dip her head in a submissive move and place a gentle little lick on their hand. As if to say, “I know I shouldn’t have, but, aren’t I cute?!” They’d playfully reprimand her and then kiss her on the nose and tell her how much they loved her. Oh, yes. Her nose. I made a mental note.

As they recalled the life they shared together with Gretta, they also worried about her four-legged sister Lilly. Lilly and Gretta were inseparable. And, with Gretta being the  alpha in the relationship, Lilly was really struggling with how to get through her days without someone telling her what to do. That was Gretta’s role in their relationship. In fact, Mom and Dad referred to them as “The Girls.” They said that’s how their friends would ask about them, “How are The Girls?” Now, there was just one.

I went on to suggest that it might be special to have a family urn for “The Girls,” one that would be large enough to hold both of their cremains, so when the time came, they would be together forever. And, someday, it could be personalized to tribute both of their beautiful spirits with an engraving that, perhaps, summed up both of their “dashes.” And so the stories for today came to an end. It was my turn to begin to creatively guide them through some of the items that seemed just perfect to honor the life that they all shared.

From selecting and ordering the perfect rock and inscription: “My Little Peter Pan mixed with Dennis the Menace”—the very one that would soon be strategically placed in the garden that was now full of healthy flowers and hostas—to taking an inkprint of Gretta’s nose, the one they used to kiss all the time and ordering the necklace that would carry her nose-print charm with “My Girl” engraved on the back, to helping them select the beautiful urn that was just enough “girl” to be Lilly with just enough “ornery” to be Gretta—it was perfectly sized for them to be together forever when it was Lilly’s time to go—to the engraving of “Gretta,” “Lilly” and “Our Girls” on the front of the urn.

It was all perfect. Every piece of it was an amazing memory of the “dash” across their hearts that was shared together.

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