"...once you've had those times together, they become like a present you can open again and again. Humans call this memory, because they can't open their eyes wide enough to see around time, but real love isn't any less solid than picture frames or colored pencils, and a great deal more durable. Death can't take it from you once you've held it in your hand." – Pam Houston, Sight Hound
Many people find that their animals are the center of daily life, the source of meaningful routines and profoundly rich, mutual caregiving. When those animals die, the griever may feel adrift, utterly lost without the creature who was a companion to him or her through countless significant life transitions.
One of the most pressing fears in the time following a death is forgetting.
It is common to fear losing touch with the sensations and intimate details of a relationship with a beloved animal. A critical part of healing after loss involves finding a way to honor our loved ones. Memorials, rituals and tangible objects crafted in the memory of departed creatures allow us to acknowledge the importance of those beings to our lives.
Finding an anchor after loss
Lisa Havelin, the founder and artist behind Pet Reliquaries, has always had a keen understanding of death and grief. This bittersweet knowledge first surfaced when, at the age of five, she fell deeply in love with her first cat, Miss Moppet. "I was very aware that someday we would have to say goodbye," says Havelin. The two intimate companions had been together for 23 years when Miss Moppet died of kidney disease. Through her intense grief and metal-smithing skills, Havelin honed an interest in crafting reliquaries, ritual objects that have been used for centuries to house sacred objects. Havelin decided to create a piece of jewelry to hold a small portion of Moppet's ashes. In so doing, Havelin found that she was able to give her grief and love form. Using metal and cremains to create a piece of memorial jewelry enabled her to publicly honor her cat and transmute her own pain into something of meaning and beauty.
Making the intangible tangible
The process of creating a memorial gives those left behind a chance to reflect on what that animal provided and taught them. Havelin believes that reliquaries, like the mourning jewelry popular in the Victoria era, allow the griever to acknowledge a deeply felt loss while representing that relationship in a meaningful way. By her own description, Havelin's reliquary for Miss Moppet was purposely crafted as a wearable "reminder of who she was and what she taught me about how to navigate life."
Transforming pain through memories
The creative and spiritual process of creating a memorial may begin in any number of ways. Most people find it helpful to begin by jotting down stories or keeping a running list of favorite memories and nicknames before moving on to create a tangible memorial item. Storytelling can give rise to the symbols, colors, images and lessons that may later translate to a painting, scrapbook, piece of jewelry or memorial garden.
Regardless of what form the memorial may take, it is the process of creating it that engages the healing power many grieving people need. When we engage the fondness of memory, we give the body, mind and spirit a break from the heaviness of loss and can turn our favorite memories into an object of great meaning honoring an animal's life and legacy.
Jeannine Moga, MA, MSW, LICSW is a social worker and human-animal bond specialist at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center, and an editorial advisory board member for Star Tribune Pet Central. www.cvm.umn.edu/vmc/aboutvmc/clientsupport.html
Common ways to create memorials.
- Planting a tree or a garden. Planting a living thing in honor of favorite animals can be a comforting reminder of their vibrancy and spirit. Specially chosen plants or locations may also represent an animal's favorite season or resting place.
- Dedicating a brick or bench to a reflective space. Many hospitals, museums and animal welfare organizations welcome the opportunity to acknowledge a loved one through the dedication of an object that beautifies the space. The University of Minnesota's College of Veterinary Medicine offer multiple options for installing memorial objects and the funds directed to memorials support advancements in veterinary medicine: www.cvm.umn.edu
- Creating a book or scrapbook. From the simple to the elaborate, stories in pictures and words are often a wonderful way to capture an animal's lifetime. Books and scrapbooks can be made by people of all ages to include all family members.
- Crafting a memorial card, portrait or announcement. Greater attention is now being paid to human-animal relationships, and multiple options for pet memorial objects can be found online. My Treasured Pet Memorials is a good place to research. www. mytreasuredpetmemorials.com.
- Creating a reliquary. Launched in 2005, Pet Reliquaries exists to help grievers honor their animals' unique lives. Lisa Havelin collaborates with her clients to create a vessel that captures the essence of that animal - usually a locket or brooch that holds a lock of fur, a twist of mane or tail, a whisker or a portion of ashes. www.petreliquaries.com.