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How a Pet Memorial Keeps My Memories Alive

I never considered a pet memorial. Frankly, the idea didn't occur to me for a long time. This is the story of how that changed, and how I eventually came to understand the value of pet memorials. But in order to explain my change of heart, I need to tell you about Larry, The Best Dog Ever.

Larry: The Best Dog Ever

pet memorial portrait - Larry

This is my second pet memorial of Larry, because he deserves at least two.

Larry was an exceptional dog. On this there can be no dispute.

Now, I know that every dog is the “best dog in the world” to someone, but I’m pretty sure that’s just because they never met Larry. Really, if only you had known him, I’m sure you’d agree.

I loved that dog like no other. We both did, the Missus and I. We took him everywhere, which wasn’t always easy with a 95lb. mutt. Just ask our daughter, who never got a full backseat to herself whenever we went to the ocean, which was seven hours away.

She complained, but we told her to be quiet because Larry was sleeping.

Sleeping. On. Her.

Good times. Good times.

That dog was a frickin’ genius. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I caught him reading books and doing crosswords; he was that smart.

And considerate. He loved to swim and fetch, and whenever he came back to shore carrying his prize, he’d walk a safe distance away from me, drop his toy, shake the water off, then pick up his toy and bring it over to drop it at my feet. I NEVER TAUGHT HIM THAT. He just did it on his own.

I never really appreciated fully what a great dog Larry was until he was gone.

What I mean is that we were so busy living our lives with Larry, taking him places, enjoying his love and affection, we didn’t give much thought to just how wonderful a dog he was. We lived in the moment and didn’t bother to analyze it beyond that.

He was our first dog as a married couple, and it never occurred to us that Larry wouldn’t always be part of our “pack”.

My Dog Died – Our Sad Goodbye to Larry

Larry's last photo

This is the last photo I took of Larry. A week later, he would be gone.

That all changed one morning when we found Larry laying oddly near the front door, confused, and unable to stand.

He had suffered a stroke.

At the vet’s office we learned the extent of the damage to his brain, and it was clear Larry would never recover.

There was nothing anyone could do.

So we laid him comfortably on a blanket in the back of our Jeep, and the vet came out with a needle.

I leaned over him, holding his head in my hands. He watched me and in his eyes I saw love and a deep trust. I whispered comforting words to him and watched as the life drained from his eyes.

We took Larry’s body home.

Living out in the country on a few acres, there was never a question what to do with the body. Of course we would bury him here, so he would always be home. I walked a little way down the hill in front of our house and dug a grave near the spot he loved to lay and spend his afternoons, keeping lazy watch on his kingdom. As I dug, I cried so hard it was nearly impossible to see what I was doing.

We buried him there, wrapping him in an old sheet, and laying one of his chew toys next to his head.

That evening, we didn’t feel like cooking, so we went out to our favorite restaurant, partly to try to forget for a moment or two the utter emptiness we felt. We both picked at our meals, and what we did eat had no flavor.

The crushing sadness (and guilt) of losing a pet

Of course, losing Larry was hard. Part of the pain was due to the fact he was “our” first dog, and it was the first time the decision to put a dog down was all on us.

Guilt? Oh, yeah! I felt guilty. I asked myself, “Did I do enough to help him? Could we have tried to bring him home for care? Was there really no hope of recovery?”

Of course, we were relying on the word of the veterinarian, but the final decision, and accompanying guilt, was all ours.

The only comfort I had was in the knowledge that any life Larry would have had after the stroke, would have been a pale miserable shadow of his life before. And keeping him alive would be a selfish act on my part. And cruel. Because I would not be acting in consideration of what was best for him. I would be acting out of a childish desire to avoid my own suffering. In other words, I wouldn’t be doing it for him; I would be doing it for me.

Frankly, those thoughts, however proper and ethical, didn’t help much in the short term. We still had that massive hole in our hearts.

Professional Help:

The death of a pet is a difficult experience. In the online site of Psychology Today, Dr. Ralph Ryback suggests the grief can be the same as for losing human members of our family in Why Losing a Pet Hurts So Much.

He also says it's common to experience what is popularly referred to as The Five Stages of Grief, based on the book On Death & Dying, by Elisabeth Kubler-Ross:

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

He also points out that everyone grieves differently, which to me is a reminder not to have unreasonable expectations, but to simply "embrace" the process.

My first pet memorial

Later that year, as Christmas drew near, I had an idea to create, as a gift to my wife, an image of Larry that reflected our love and loss at his passing. Even though I make my living as an artist, I wasn’t doing much painting at the time, so what I did was scan a photo of Larry, digitally adding text around the image, and played with colors to give him a golden glow. To hold the print, I built a wooden box-frame that I covered with textured bronze acrylic paint.

It was a nice little project. It seems silly now, but I remember tears flowing several times during the construction of the frame whenever I thought of Larry.

pet memorial of Larry

My first pet memorial of Larry

I suppose it was cathartic in a way to translate my grief into a physical activity.

When she opened the gift on Christmas morning, the Missus cried. So did I, actually. But I swear it was all her fault: She started it.

That morning we talked about Larry – how much we missed him, and what a great dog he was. We shared our favorite Larry stories. And through the sadness and tears, something else happened.

We smiled. A lot.

We were able to talk about Larry, remembering the joy and pleasure he gave us, because the gift reminded us of Larry in his prime. Our stories were tinged with the sadness of loss, but also enfused with the love and affection that was so much a part of our relationship with Larry.

Some of the stories were pretty funny…

Like the time, when Larry, one Summer evening, was sitting on the porch and heard a suspicious sound. He darted down the walkway and around the corner to the garage. I saw him make the turn and disappear from view. Seconds later I heard a hiss, a bark, then a crash of garbage cans falling over.

Larry soon came back around from the garage, working his mouth as if trying to remove a bad taste and it was then, at thirty feet away, that the smell hit me.

“Skunk!” I yelled, and moved inside, shutting the door behind me and running from window to window to shut out the smell. It almost worked. Larry had to spend the night outside that night. It took several baths using a special recipe over the course of the next two weeks to fully eradicate the skunk odor. Here’s the recipe, in case you’re interested.

Anyway, the point is, on that Christmas morning, four months after Larry’s death, the healing had begun, with the help of a piece of art.

Seeing the effect my gift had on the Missus and me, I understood for the first time the incalculable value of a pet memorial.

Never Forget, and Love Them Forever

Reggie pet memorial

This is Reggie. She was Larry's adopted sister and deserves a whole page of her own…

When it comes to saying goodbye to a beloved pet, my greatest fear is that my memories won’t last; that I might forget that special bond and the experiences we shared. Even worse, I fear I might one day forget what my pet looked like.

Life goes on, and our busy lives push memories into the background, and slowly we start to lose the details. We may remember the generalities, but over time the specifics fade to almost nothing.

That’s where pet memorials can really help.

Pet memorials remind you of the relationship and deep affection you and your pet shared.

They help you grieve. But even more than that, when enough time and tears have passed, a good pet memorial will help keep your memories fresh, so that you will always remember their lives, and never forget the bond you shared.

Every day in our house I am surrounded by portraits of my dogs, both those that are still with me and those that have passed. So I’m never without visual reminders of “my pack” both past and present.

Those that are gone are not forgotten because I still see them each day. They will never be forgotten because a pet memorial (in my case a portrait) is always nearby, reminding me of our bond and triggering great memories. All my dogs, both living and dead are still part of my pack. They are still my family. And I never forget family.

Your pet memorial is a personal decision

If you are thinking of a pet memorial, give some thought to the method or process that suits you best. To get you started, Moira Anderson Allen, M.Ed., at Pet-Loss.net has a short list of some popular pet memorials. Additionally, Lila Noffsinger at Your Dog Advisor has a good list of Pet Loss Sympathy Gifts that is definitely worth a look.

diesel pet memorial

This is Diesel, a memorial portrait for Jim in New Jersey.

It’s important to remember that everyone grieves differently. What works for one person may not work for you.

The great thing is there are many ways to memorialize your pet, limited only by your imagination and desire. And don’t worry about your wallets! Many options are completely free and only require your time and attention.

Look, I’m not a doctor or mental-health professional. I’m just an artist who loves dogs, and who’s been through the Trough of Hell that is losing a pet. So my opinion carries the weight and expertise only of someone who has experienced this particular loss. I’m just a fellow griever, as it were.

That said, I think that giving time and attention to your feelings of loss and sadness in some constructive way is helpful. When I was creating the picture and frame for Larry, I bawled my eyes out. Afterwards, I felt the weight lift somewhat. The process of creating something as a memorial has some sort of healing power (I’m sure a shrink would have a better way of putting it, but that’s my take).

I don’t think the grief ever really goes away, but the sting fades with time and is overpowered by the fond memories.

I’ll tell you, every so often when I’m painting a portrait and I know it’s a memorial, the sadness over my lost pets all comes back to me and sympathetic tears well up in my eyes. All this while I’m painting a portrait of a pet I never even knew! I guess it’s continuing grief therapy for me as well. Either that or I’m just a big baby.

Probably both!

The Therapy of “Doing Something”

pet memorial of Derry Darbie and Dreamer

Memorial portrait of Derry (in back) and his surviving pack, Darby and Dreamer. Created for Jim in Wisconsin.

In the immediate aftermath of losing Larry, I spent a lot of my spare time sitting around doing nothing.

That only made things worse. Sitting around doing nothing except thinking about how sad I was only made me more sad. It became a vicious cycle.

Doing something positive helped to re-align my sadness away from self-pity towards healing. By creating a pet memorial, I helped keep Larry’s memory alive. Every day when I look at his face on my wall I remember his life and how much we loved him. I remember funny stories. Like the time the neighbor’s llama got lose and showed up at the end of our walkway, which scared Larry so bad he barked in a high-pitched yip and squeezed out a Fear-Turd right there on the porch steps.

We always laugh at that story.

You too can keep happy memories fresh by simply doing something: Create your own pet memorial! Make an image collage. Plant a tree. Carve a wooden marker. Write a poem or a story. Do whatever works for you.

It’s the therapy of Doing Something, and it certainly worked for me.

A Shameless Plug

So that’s my story of Larry and how his pet memorial helped me through the grieving process. I hope what I have shared helps in some small way when you find yourself grieving the loss of your pet, and I would love to hear your stories.

My focus in this article is on actions you can take to make your own pet memorial and why doing so is a good way to work through your grief. That’s all true.

At the same time, I’m in the business of creating custom pet portraits, and if that’s something you are interested in, please consider placing an order. A beautiful pet memorial portrait could be a helpful complement to your own personal memorial.

Steve Merryman