The return of a beloved pet's ashes to the owner after cremation can be a very delicate moment.
Below is a letter from Laurel Hunt, who edited and compiled two anthologies of memorial pet poetry, “Angel Pawprints” for dogs and “Angel Whiskers” for cats, available at Amazon.com.
| Hi Alice,
Having recently lost Byron, my 14-year-old springer spaniel, I had that experience of dealing with cremains again. I know what an emotionally difficult moment it is and would like you to write about it.
I remember when you were treating Marmaduke and I was silently agonizing over what to do with her body when the time came. I didn't know of any place to bury her so I had gotten as far as figuring we would have her cremated, but then what? I knew we would move from that house and I hated the thought of burying her ashes there and leaving her behind.
One afternoon you asked gently, ‘Have you thought about where you will bury her?’ I said, ’I guess we'll have her cremated, but I don't know what to do with the ashes.”
You said, You don't have to do anything with the ashes. I have all my pets' ashes in a cupboard. When I go, they will go with me.’
Those words were so freeing for me, the idea that I didn't have to do anything, that I could keep the ashes with me. As it happened, we later buried Marmaduke and Molly's ashes in the casket with Chester, at Los Angeles Pet Memorial Park, which was a wonderful solution.
When I was taking Marmaduke for treatments at your clinic, I noticed the little cardboard boxes on shelves in the reception area. I never asked, but I figured they contained pets' ashes. When Molly died, she was cremated and I knew I had to go pick up the ashes from your clinic.
For a couple of months I couldn't bring myself to pick them up. Then I began feeling guilty about leaving them there for so long. I didn't know how to go about picking them up–did I need to make an appointment, or just show up and ask for them? It would be good to explain the whole process to clients when they decide on cremation.
Finally I called, and the receptionist said just to come at my convenience. When I got there, they put me in an exam room and one of your staff–a new woman vet–came in with the box. I burst into tears at the sight of my big, beautiful dog reduced to a box of sand. Even though I had had a couple of months to absorb the loss, it brought it up all over again.
The vet handled it beautifully. She asked a few questions about Molly, got me to talking about her, and reassured me that I had given Molly a wonderful life. Then she suggested that I create some sort of memorial, such as planting a rose bush. I felt understood and validated. It was very comforting.
Since then, I have moved to another state. When I recently went to pick up Byron's ashes, I knew it would be hard but again, I didn't know quite what to expect. I called and told them I was coming. When I got there the receptionist asked me to have a seat in the reception area, which was empty at the time. She went into the back.
I thought she was checking on an exam room to use. But then, as I am sitting there flipping through a magazine, she comes out with a little white shopping bag in her hand and says, "Here's Byron." I burst into tears and she and the other receptionist did try to comfort me and were very compassionate. I don't know if handing me the ashes would have been done in private if there had been other clients in the waiting area; I would certainly hope so.
It is truly the moment that it hits you that your pet is gone forever, and this moment needs to be handled with great sensitivity and in private if possible.
It is true–we don’t have an instruction book to tell us how to return a beloved pet’s ashes to family members. Anyone operating on the old utilitarian perspective for pets or with “cheerful efficiency” during moments that require compassion and sincerity would come off as harsh and insensitive, as Laurel so eloquently stated in her letter.
The best way to create positive feelings during delicate moments, such as handling cremains, is to train your staff to openly communicate compassion and understanding of the human-animal bond.
Teach staff to say something like, “We know that you loved Byron very much and that you will always miss him. We understand that seeing his ashes in this box might make you feel very emotional. We know that he was very special to you. The human-animal bond that you shared with Byron will always be part of your life.”
Teach your staff to ask questions about the deceased pet so that the family member can find comfort in talking about the good old days for a few moments. There is no wake for pets or supportive services surrounding euthanasia and very little social support during pet loss.
Pet hospitals are places that should expertly and openly offer condolences and pet loss guidance for grieving clientele.
Teach your staff to end this delicate conversation with optimism. They might say something like this:
“We will miss seeing you and Byron. We are looking forward to when you feel like forming a new attachment, maybe for a homeless pet. We would love to see you back in the love cycle of the human-animal bond.”