In The County
Mourning the loss of a furry, feathered, or finned family member.
Gone But Not Forgotten
For many, grieving the death of a pet is akin to grieving
the death of a person.
Some people spend small fortunes on their pets, splurging on gem-encrusted leashes, posh sweaters, even visits to the doggie day spa complete with mud baths, aroma therapy, and deep-tissue massage. They treat their favorite four-legged fashion accessories to organic gourmet meals, tote them around in designer bags, and make sure they are never, ever, late for their weekly appointment with their pooch-certified psychologist.
Then there are people like Cortlandt Manor’s Fred and Jennifer Volpacchio, along with daughters Monica and Valerie, who nursed Rocky, their blind and deaf Cavalier King Charles spaniel, through a year of diabetes and arthritis, administering insulin and pain medication, carrying him up and down the stairs, until he died in their arms one night. Or Karen Napolitano from Yorktown, who went thousands of dollars into debt for vet care for Samantha, a stray cat she found wandering around the Bronx Zoo, before she had her put down to end her suffering.
These are but two ways we humans reward our furry friends for taking us on walks, for leaving us smelly little presents on the living room carpet, for greeting us with madly wagging tails. Some of us also memorialize our pets—and our love for them—after they’re gone. A few of us—about 10 each year, according to Hartsdale Pet Cemetery Director Ed Martin—even choose to be buried with our four-legged friends.
Anthony LaMura remembered his canine companion by commissioning a show-piece mausoleum of Vermont Barre granite—a miniature replica of his family’s sepulcher in Woodlawn Cemetery—for Sandy, a stray he came across on a loading dock in the Bronx. He also purchased a child’s copper casket for her interment at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery. It was costly, but the 56-year-old Yonkers resident will tell you that it was nothing compared to what Sandy gave him during their 15 years together.
“She went everywhere with me,” LaMura says. “I used to take her to the drive-in window at the bank. I’d tell her to say ‘hello’ and she’d go ‘woof, woof.’ Everybody loved her.” When I came home from work, if I was tired she’d perk me right up. She just made you feel good.”
But wait a minute—we’re talking about animals here, not human beings. In some cultures, if a creature has four legs, it’s either livestock, a varmint, or just part of the landscape, so its death doesn’t bring on many tears. So how do we explain our adoration and devotion to our pets while they are alive, our heart-rending grief at their deaths?
Consider Annie the Chihuahua. Every night in her White Plains home, Annie sat patiently outside the bathroom while five-year-old Lauren Elmer brushed her teeth. Then she’d trot into Lauren’s room and hop up onto the bed to listen while her father, John, read Lauren a bedtime story. The day Annie died, Lauren lost her little playmate, John lost his lap-mate, and Dawn, wife and mother, lost some sunshine in her life.
“Other people don’t understand the extent of the loss,” Dawn says. “When Lauren was eighteen months old, Annie saved her life. My husband and I had gone out to dinner and my sister was watching Lauren, who had a febrile seizure after she had been put to bed. Annie kept going into the bedroom and crying until my sister looked in.”
Shouldn’t you mourn a dog that did something like that?
No less intense are the emotions of Mary Allen of Cortlandt Manor, who lost her 15-year-old cocker spaniel, Buster Brown, to a brain tumor last summer. “I’ve had dogs since I was four years old,” she says. “But Buster Brown was very special because I got him when my children were all leaving for college.” Allen was single “so it was just Buster and I,” she explains. Alone now, she misses him deeply. “The hardest time for me is when I walk through the door.”
David James, a former Episcopal priest in Mount Kisco who performs about 100 pet funeral services each year says, “The loss of an animal is just as profound as the loss of a person in the lives of many people.”
From dogs and cats to turtles and gerbils, pets are important members of more and more households, with nearly two-thirds of all homes in America having at least one pet. Industry sources say we’ll spend $40 billion on our critters this year, about $10 billion of that on vet care. Even with that, as those of us who’ve had to bury a four-legged boon companion can attest, animals certainly don’t live forever. Eventually, nearly every pet owner has to come to terms with issues like euthanasia, disposition of remains, and choosing memorials ranging from Internet postings to diamond jewelry. Then there is the burden of explaining the family pet’s death to the little tyke who fell asleep every night with the pooch curled up on her bed.
Amy Liebman-Rapp, a clinical thanatologist (a therapist specializing in the scientific study of death and grief) in Larchmont, says you should deal with the problem head-on. “People often think children are too young to understand what’s going on,” she says. “They think if they take the two-year-old to the cemetery, it will scare them. But they should give the child the choice.”
One of the most important things to remember, according to Dr. Ken Doka, a professor at the College of New Rochelle and senior consultant to the Hospice Foundation of America, is that children grieve differently from adults. “Young children often tend to sustain strong emotions for only a very short period of time, so it’s not unusual that their grief is more like outbursts than a sustained sadness,” Dr. Doka says. “What is probably most important is to validate the loss of the pet, and model effective grieving. The old switching the goldfish trick or going out to get a new kitten when the old cat dies really teaches children problematic patterns of grief.”
Grown-ups grieve, too, and also face the added stress that others might think they’re silly for carrying on over a pet. Stories like hotel magnate Leona Helmsley’s $12 million bequest to her dog notwithstanding, those feelings are perfectly normal—and a healthy part of the grieving process. As James points out, “It’s not silly or foolish to acknowledge a life we have lost.”
To help her cope with her loss, Mary Allen joined Justin’s Club at the Animal Health Center in Briarcliff Manor, a pet bereavement support group that meets Monday evenings at the Briarcliff SPCA. The group, named after SPCA volunteer Mary Prenon’s cat, Justin, who died at the young age of eight of abdominal cancer, is led by therapist Laura Oliver, a certified social worker.
Allen, like many other pet owners, was also helped by Pet Bereavement Counselor Jo Ann Davis of Cherished Pets in Peekskill. “I had the dog euthanized at the vet, but Jo Ann picked him up and took him to the crematorium and brought the ashes back to the house. She sat and talked with me. She’s supported me so much, it’s been wonderful.”
Davis works with a family much like a human funeral director, explaining to the pet owner the options available, which range from group cremation (where a number of pets are cremated at one time) to interment. “I am there to support the family,” she says.
Davis is also a distributor for a unique memorial item, Life Gems, which are synthetic diamonds made from the ashes of your pet. “I got a magnificent diamond ring containing the cremains of my cat, Lovey.” she says, “Whenever I wear it, I think of her and all the good she represented in my life. It’s very poignant.” One of her clients, an 80-year-old woman who was worried about what would happen to the ashes of her five cats when she passed away, had them turned into a diamond and mounted on a locket which she will wear when she herself is buried someday.
Other people choose more traditional ways of memorializing their pets like interment at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery, the nation’s oldest official pet cemetery. The mournful sound of bagpipes from a service at Sacred Heart Church drifted serenely into the cemetery the day I visited and saw the mausoleum Tony LaMura built for Sandy. Some 75,000 animals—and about 700 humans—have so far found their final resting place on this five-acre hillside.
“There are many, many people who don’t understand the relationship between a pet and its owner,” says Director Ed Martin. “We encourage people to remember their pet in whatever way is best for them.”
Hartsdale’s staff will pick up the animal’s remains from your home or the vet’s office and either handle its cremation or prepare it for burial in a casket. The cemetery has a small viewing room where your pet’s open casket is placed so you and others can spend a few last moments with it in private. This also assures you that it’s really your pet that’s being buried.
Martin also explains that some pet owners are there, too. “We accommodate maybe ten people a year who wish to be buried with their pets,” he says. “It’s becoming a little more frequent.” According to law, only human remains that have been cremated can be buried there.
Perhaps only someone who has experienced it can know what it’s like to lose a family pet. “Animals give us unconditional love, which is a rare commodity in our world today,” James points out. “It doesn’t matter what you do—when you come home, your dog will greet you like you’re the greatest thing on earth.”
He likes to tell the apocryphal story of the monument designer who was visited by a woman who ordered two gravestones, one for her husband and one for her dog. She gave him all the pertinent information, then left him to his work. When she returned to inspect the designs, however, she had to explain to the stonecutter that he’d made a terrible mistake: “The big one is for the dog.”
Call It Puppy Love: Sandy (above), a mixed-breed “Bronx dog,” is memorialized in a mausoleum at the Hartsdale Pet Cemetery.
The Ultimate Decision
Accidents happen, as do unexpected deaths from natural causes, but one of the most difficult decisions many pet owners have to make is when—or whether—to euthanize.
Yorktown resident Karen Napolitano made the tough decision for her cat, Samantha, in August. She’d found Samantha, or Samantha had found her, 14 years ago at the Bronx Zoo where Karen works. “She attached herself to me. I’ve had plenty of other animals, but this was a special bond,” she says.
Samantha developed cancer and a mass near her heart, conditions revealed in tests that cost $4,700. Weekly visits for chemo ($210-$800) and other treatments brought the total expense of keeping her alive up to $9,000, but Samantha’s condition finally worsened to the point where euthanasia was the best choice. It wasn’t a financial decision. “If I’d known that the treatments weren’t going to be successful, I wouldn’t have put her through the stress. I still feel some guilt about that,” Napolitano says.
Her vet, Dr. Wendy Westrom at Cortlandt Animal Hospital, helped her make the decision. “There often comes a point where the animal is uncomfortable, in pain, and is terminal,” she says, “We want the animal to pass with dignity.” Euthanasia is usually a two-step procedure. First, the animal is sedated with the same anesthesia used for surgery. When it falls totally asleep, an intravenous state approved “cocktail” is administered to stop the heart and the brain at the same time so there is no pain.
Westrom says 90 percent of her clients stay with their pet while the procedure is being done. “I think it’s a healthy thing,” she says. Napolitano had Samantha put down at her home rather the vet’s office, an option that more and more pet owners are choosing for the obvious reason that they believe the pet will go more happily in familiar, warm surroundings.
Books to Help
Your Family Cope
Suggested by Judith Rovenger, Westchester Library System’s Director of Youth Services
■ Cat Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
■ Dog Heaven by Cynthia Rylant
■ Goodbye Mousie by Robie Harris
■ I’ll Always Love You by Hans Wilhelm
■ The Tenth Good Thing About Barney by Judith Viorst
■ When a Pet Dies by Fred Rogers
■ No Dogs Allowed! by Bill Wallace
■ When Dinosaurs Die: A Guide to Understanding Death by Laurie Krasny Brown
Where to Find Help
Hartsdale Pet Cemetery
75 N Central Ave, Hartsdale
Jo Ann Davis
The Rev. David James
SPCA of Westchester
(914) 941-2896 x 22
Dave Donelson lives and writes with four dogs and one cat (not to mention an animal-loving wife) in West Harrison. They buried Morgan and Lizzie, two great cats, in the woods behind their home.