Animal loss breaks my heart. I’m not alone. Grief related to pet loss can significantly impact our lives. For example, one study found 93 percent of humans reported a disruption in their life such as trouble sleeping or loss of appetite. Over 50 percent reduced their social activities, and 45 percent had job-related difficulties.
While I have yet to find a magic wand to conjure pain away, as an animal chaplain, there are some practices I’ve found that may help. One of them I call a furry wake.
The Role of Ritual
There’s an unattributed quote that goes something like this: “When words are inadequate, have a ritual.” Rituals help us mark moments in which our life changes. They help us honor the past while we consider the future. Specifically, death rituals help us celebrate beloved relationships when someone transitions from being physically embodied to the What’s Next.
What’s a Wake?
We owe this tradition to the Celtic folks of Ireland and the Catholics who have sustained the practice. Originally, tradition suggested that the family and close friends of a departed one should stay awake throughout the entire night near the deceased to offer protection from evil spirits. Once the body was buried, all could relax: the departed was safe.
Wakes tend to be more casual than funerals, prone to meaningful conversations, amusing stories, laughter, and loud singing. (And, in some circles, a lot of booze, but we’ll skip that since self-medicating emotional pain can be very problematic.)
Planning and Giving a Furry Wake
- Consider the people who are most supportive to you. People who “get you.” That may be one person with whom you have a close relationship, a circle of life-long friends, or a mix of people you’ve assembled over your life who don’t know each other.
- Contact them, and ask if they’d be willing to join you for a wake for your animal. Tell them that they won’t need to do anything other than show up. You can either provide a chosen time for the event or use a scheduling app like Calendly or Doodle Polls to find a good time for a group of people so that you don’t become burdened in logistics.
- At the event time, make sure to have tissue and plenty of tea, water, or other refreshing drinks.
- Show your friends a few photos of your animal. Share stories about your relationship. Include a prayer, meditation, or meaningful song. If you worry about getting stuck for words, grab a copy of Blessing the Animals: Prayers and Ceremonies to Celebrate God’s Creatures, Wild and Tame by Lynn L. Caruso, which is chock full of useful poems and prayers.
- If the attendees knew the animal, invite them to share their own stories and remembrances. Crying is―of course!―allowed. Ensure your friend(s) that you don’t need them to say anything to make you “feel better.” Ask them to keep focused on sharing about the animal’s life.
- Conclude your wake with a few words directly to the passed-on. These need not be formal. For example, “Hey, Fido, I hope you are having a most auspicious next lifetime,” or “I miss you, little buddy, come visit me in my dreams” may be enough to open enduring connections once they’ve entered the mystery of death.
Why Grieving With Others Matters
Research suggests that talking about our pet’s death and social support are essential to the grieving process. Speaking with an animal chaplain, therapist, clergy member, or another healing-minded professional can also be beneficial.
Above all, remember, you never need to hide or push away your grief because it’s “just a pet.” Instead, advocate for what you need for your mental wellness, regardless of whether it makes sense to others around you. That’s how the healing journey begins.
© 2022 by Sarah Bowen/Compassion Consortium for Spirituality & Health.