After 66 years, a woman lays her childhood dog to rest
By Ruby R. Benjamin, Ed.D.
It was summer, during my early childhood, and we were driving home to Brooklyn from a visit to my cousins in Atlanta, Ga. My parents had also decided it was time again to have a dog in the family, so coming back through Virginia, we stopped at a kennel that bred Rough Collies. We looked over a litter of adorable pups. I wanted the shyest one – the one who stayed behind when his siblings were clamoring to be chosen. We named him Peter, after Petersburg, the city of his adoption. I can still feel this little ball of fur crawling on my lap and behind my back as I was sandwiched between my parents in the front seat of the car.
Peter grew up to be such a beautiful Rough Collie that he could have been an understudy for Lassie. He was gentle and affectionate, but he hated bath time. The bathroom got a washing when he did. The running joke in the family was that if a thief entered our home, Peter would lick him to death. I loved Peter. He was my playmate, my furry friend who was always happy when I came home from school, my silent counselor when I was upset – our family pet, but my dog.
One day when I was about 11, I came home from school and looked in the backyard for Peter. He was nowhere to be found. I asked my mother where Peter was and she answered tersely that she’d had to put him down because of worms.
I was bereft. She had never told me she was going to do this. I didn’t have a chance to say goodbye. I wasn’t there at the end. Compassion and sensitivity were absent in my family and I was not allowed to grieve. My mother didn’t believe that euthanizing Peter warranted tears. It was only a dog. But to me, Peter had been my best friend. I buried my feelings then, and for years and years – for 66 years, to be exact. That’s a long time to grieve. Whenever I told this story, my heart would ache and I would choke up with grief.
Now that I am a psychotherapist, patients often ask me how long it’s normal to grieve. They’re usually talking about the death of a beloved relative or friend. But increasingly pets are seen as part of the family too and the idea that their pet is “just a dog” is going the way of the rotary dial telephone. People are opting for hospice care for their pets, hoping for any extra time with them without their having to experience pain. What is more loving than being there for your pet when he can no longer be there for you? Being there is what always sustains a pet. What haunted me was that Peter had died alone, without his loving person, and in a strange, antiseptic place.
A few years ago, while I was having a volunteer vacation at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary*, in the canyon country of Southern Utah, I became quite attached to an older dog called Noble who needed special care. One day, Noble suddenly became seriously ill. His caregiver and I took him over to the clinic. His diagnosis was grave. I asked the nurses to keep in touch with me about him. The next day, they called to tell me that Noble’s organs were failing and that they were going to have to euthanize him. I hurried over to the clinic and cradled Noble while the sedative was injected. He lifted his head to be sure I was there, and he passed away quietly.
I was inconsolable – my grief out of proportion to the time I had known him. It was only recently that I realized I was grieving not only for Noble, but for Peter. I was there for Noble as he took his last breath and again when he was buried … as I should have been for Peter.
More and more, people are asking to be buried with their pets or even co-mingling their ashes to be together for eternity. This speaks to the deep connection that develops between animal and human.
Grief is the result of lost attachments. Everyone grieves in his or her own way. The grieving process itself is an essential part of living – a natural life event. For some, grief never ends; it is revisited repeatedly. Denying or minimizing the importance of the loss can result in long lasting repressed grief, impaired health, and acting out in a dysfunctional way to cope with the pain of the loss. The move toward healing occurs when we begin to gain perspective by facing what was lost.
Humans have rituals to signify their willingness to finally let go of a beloved one. However, there are few rituals to give closure when we lose a pet. I was fortunate to find mine at Best Friends Animal Sanctuary while attending the funeral of another dog. The cemetery, named Angels Rest, is a sacred, peaceful area where each animal is laid to rest individually and graves are marked with symbols of love, devotion and gratitude for the joy the animals brought to their guardians. There are trees with hanging chimes of pets’ names, and heartfelt words that make music with the wind. I have witnessed many burials at which the chimes come alive as an animal is interred and then give way to silence. It’s eerie and joyful at the same time.
It became clear to me that at Angels Rest that I could finally put an end to my grief among the spirits of my animal friends whom I visit annually. I hung a chime for Peter.
* Note: Best Friends Animal Sanctuary, near the Grand Canyon, is the nation’s largest sanctuary for homeless pets. It was co-founded by Michael Mountain, who was its president and is now the editor of Zoe.
Dr. Ruby Benjamin is a psychotherapist in private practice in New York City with individuals and couples. She specializes in relationship issues with self, others and, sometimes with canines. She is on the Board of Directors of the Metropolitan Center for Mental Health, the Metropolitan Institute for Training in Psychoanalytic Psychotherapy and is a consultant to Doctors without Borders, Peer Support Network.