Grieving the loss of an Animal Companion

Many people consider companion animals to be cherished members of the family which makes losing them especially painful. (photo: Mark Brooks)

Many people consider companion animals to be cherished members of the family which makes losing them especially painful.    (photo: Mark Brooks)

For many of us our first experience with death and loss is as a child when we lose an animal companion. At five years old I was mystified when I discovered my pet goldfish floating at the top of her bowl. The questions were endless: What happened? Where did she go? Why did she die? Did it hurt? Was it my fault? Would she ever come back? My parents helped me make a tiny coffin from a tissue box and we had the burial service in our backyard. It was the first loss of many animal companions that have graced my life since then.

We often take them for granted, those whose quiet daily presence brings us simple pleasure. They comfort us with affection, make us laugh with their antics, cause us to ponder about the ease at which they get us to do things for them! They will spend years at our side as companions, outlasting many of our human relationships.

Animals have their own intuitive wisdom and they have taught me loyalty, trust, unconditional love, devotion, and especially how to live passionately in the present moment. When these small creatures leave us, the void in our lives can be unexpectedly immense. Finding support when grieving an animal can be difficult when it feels as if no one understands the deep significance of that relationship.

Following are four ideas for focusing your grief in some creative directions:

  1. Create a memorial in your home or yard. You can remember your companion by planting a tree or flowers on the grave or his/her favorite place to sit or play. Mark the site with a garden statue or memorial stone. Plant colorful bulbs in the spot to surprise yourself with a cheerful memory every spring. Reserve a corner of your home for his/her bed, blanket, favorite toys. Arrange it in a way that brings you comfort.
  2. Make a memory photo album or website. Gather together the photos taken of your pet and create a personalized book or site you can return to whenever you feel the need to visit. There are many online sites where you can put together public memorials with the opportunity to share your companion’s unique personality with family and friends.
  3. Volunteer time or donate to an animal shelter or sanctuary. Continue the legacy of your relationship by donating in your pet’s name to organizations that help animals. It may take some time before you are ready to adopt again but in the interim you may find it rewarding to volunteer at a shelter or sanctuary and be uplifted by being around many different animals.
  4. Treat yourself in honor of your companion animal. You are grieving, be especially kind to yourself! Spend an afternoon at the beach, walking in nature, taking a hot bath, getting a massage. Honor the gift of the relationship you had. Celebrate the generous, nurturing spirit in yourself that enabled you to give your companion such a loving and happy life.

-Singing Luna 11/17/2013

Links to memorial sites you can create:

http://www.justovertherainbowbridge.com/home.html

http://www.critters.com

Find a list of handcrafted and manufactured personalized pet loss memorial markers:

http://www.pet-loss.net/products/markers.shtml

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The Art of the Urn

FUNERIA, Nancy Arthur-McGehee, urn, funerary urn, ashes, memorial, cremation, container,artwork

Funerary urns can be unique and beautiful pieces of art reminding us of a life we’ve honored and loved.
(Photo: Copyright © 2009 Nancy Arthur-McGehee for FUNERIA® LLC. Used with permission)

When the time comes for our spirit to leave the body the shell that remains is returned to the four elements: fire, earth, wind, and water. Many choose cremation as a way of giving the body over to fire, transforming it into ash. The ashes can then be scattered to the winds, the sea, a beautiful woodland floor. It gives some comfort to know that the remains of our loved ones will be surrounded and embraced by beauty. Part of the process may include a period of time for holding the ashes in a sacred container either indefinitely or until the time feels right to disperse them. Funerary urns have been used throughout history to protect and honor cremated remains of humans as well as animals. The urns can be kept in the home or garden, placed in a niche at a mausoleum, buried in the earth or carried to distant places. A funerary vessel offers the option of combining ashes of two loved ones or dividing  ashes into smaller containers for extended family members to have and cherish.

Modern day urns can be a work of beauty and craftsmanship. A gallery in Graton California called FUNERIA works with various artisans to create beautiful urns of heirloom quality. The term “urn” or “vessel” is used to describe vases, bottles, boxes, cabinets, canisters or anything that qualifies as a funerary container for ashes. The vessels can be designed and personalized to be a reflection of the unique qualities an individual had in life. On the FUNERIA website they pose an intriguing question: “What will your urn look like?”. It’s an invitation to think creatively about the vessel you could design for yourself. Do you have a favorite artist or style that would best represent you? For material would you choose metal, glass, wood or clay? What shape, color, texture would your urn have? What visual story would you want it to tell about your life? Would it have a serious and thought provoking appearance or display your whimsical and playful side? Do you see it in your mind’s eye…. what could you imagine for your own beautiful resting place?

-Singing Luna

To see a portfolio of urns created by artists and artisans:

http://FUNERIA.com

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Victorian Hair Wreaths

Hair wreaths were popular memorials from 1850-1880. This wreath was created from the hair of the Sherman sisters, Emily (12), Amelia (7) and Helen (5) who all passed away from diphtheria in 1879. Hair Wreath: Petaluma Museum, Petaluma, CA (Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

Hair wreaths were popular memorials from 1850-1880. This wreath was created from the hair of the Sherman sisters, Emily (12), Amelia (7) and Helen (5) who all passed away from diphtheria in 1879. Hair Wreath: Petaluma Museum, Petaluma, CA
(Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

During the Victorian era the custom of making art from hair became a popular form of memorializing loved ones. Locks of hair were incorporated into keepsake jewelry such as brooches, bracelets or lockets. Strands of hair were gathered and hand woven into delicate leaf, vine and floral shapes. These “flowers” were then formed into horseshoe-shaped wreaths which were left open at the upper end to symbolize the spirit’s ascent toward heaven. The wreaths often represented multiple family members and generations with varying colors of hair. Close viewing reveals a spectrum of shades from silver, blonde, red, and brown to black. The wreaths were set into ornate frames with the very center of the piece reserved for the hair belonging to the most recently deceased.

The wreaths were the creations of middle and upper-class women who looped multiple strands of hair around fine wire before fashioning them into intricate botanical forms. The shapes and designs are so graceful and delicate they would have required small hands, excellent eyesight and a great deal of time to make. In those years a woman was expected to dress in black clothing and be in mourning for a year if she lost a child and 2 1/2 years if widowed. The wreath-making was something that the females of the family could do together as they mourned to show affection and respect for their loved ones. They would pour their hearts into creating a work of beauty, a remembrance that could be passed down and appreciated from one generation to the next.

-Singing Luna 11/4/2013

For more information and images:

http://www.pinterest.com/ajylitalomiller/victorian-hair-weaving-mourning-traditions/

http://www.adamscohistory.org/Mourning_Rituals.pdf

http://meredithhost.blogspot.com/2010/05/victorian-hair-flower-workshop.html

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Personal Memorial Altars and Shrines

Creating a memorial altar or shrine in your home can be especially healing if the grave of a loved one is located far away and can't be visited often. (Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio

Creating a memorial altar or shrine in your home can be especially healing if the grave of a loved one is located far away and can’t be visited often.
(Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

Shrines and altars have been associated with ancient religious and spiritual practices worldwide. The terms “altar” and “shrine” carry great historical and symbolic significance but we use the terms here to describe a personal memorial you create in your home. The place you select for your memorial can be a table, mantle, chair, corner, shelf or any place that feels right. It could even be a place in your yard, porch or garden. Decide if you prefer that it always be within sight or someplace you can close off with a cover or door between visits.

Begin the process by clearing the space you have chosen and leaving it empty. The empty space represents the void that is felt when there is loss. Think of the void as the vessel which cradles grief. It is up to you how long you need to leave the space open. The space also signifies the opening of the heart and creates a welcome energy to receive the objects you place there. The first object to consider would be a candle to signify the spirit or the light your loved one represented in life. You can burn sage or incense as an offering or expression of gratitude. Choose any objects to place on your altar that are meaningful to you. These can be photographs, drawings, or poems that bring you pleasant memories. They can be something you found in nature or came across during your day such as a colorful leaf, stone or feather that you want to “share”. Include some personal items that belonged to your loved one. A bell or singing bowl can be used to sound the beginning and ending of any ritual you want to create with your memorial.

Your altar is a sacred space, a place to offer up your emotions and also to honor the continuing presence of your loved one in symbolic form. Once completed your memorial can remain untouched or you may decide to change it seasonally, or as often as you feel called to. Honor the space by setting aside a specific time to clean and dust the objects. By handling each item and focusing in on the details you may find it helps you to process your deepest feelings as they become revealed.

-Singing Luna

Find more info about the history of altars used in religious practices:http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Altar

A great resource for creating memorial altars and shrines in more detail:http://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/shrine-altar-grief-healing/

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The Journal as Journey

A journal is your friend or confidant, a refuge, and a sacred space for recording difficult as well as uplifting feelings. (Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

A journal is your friend or confidant, a refuge, and a sacred space for recording difficult as well as uplifting feelings.
(Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

A Journal can be a creative tool for processing feelings of grief and loss by providing a private space for expression. Studies have shown that there are health benefits to keeping a journal as it can be a source for self awareness and understanding. Think of your journal as a vessel which holds your thoughts until you are ready for processing them. When finished you can choose to burn or bury your journal as a ritual of completion. If you feel comfortable sharing your personal life you may decide to keep it for your loved ones as a legacy. When sharing a grief process with children set aside some time to journal with them as a quiet activity. You can share entries with each other or agree to keep them private as a way to assure your child that he or she has a safe place to confide in that will be respected.

A few years ago I came across a bundle of journals I had kept as a teenager. It was astounding for me to read about the girl I was and her metamorphosis into womanhood. I felt a great deal of compassion as I read about her trying to find her identity while balancing between childhood and the adult world. I began to appreciate the wisdom of my young self and understand how I developed some of my core values. In reading her perspective I realized how much time has fogged my current memories and perceptions of past events and has made me more forgiving. At a time when I was needing some clarity the journal became a precious gift of healing.

Following are a few ideas for some types of journals that may be helpful for your own creative process (or your journal could be a combination of them all):

  1. Art or colláge Journal – for collecting pictures, words, sketches, or anything that reflects your feelings and desires. It is best to choose a spiral bound book for this type of journal as the pages will thicken with images as you progress.
  2. Stream of Consciousness Journal – is for writing or scribbling in for ten minutes or more on anything that enters your mind without judging your thoughts or correcting spelling or grammar.
  3. Good Days/Bad Days Journal – to devote a page for writing about your day and venting any negative thoughts or feelings that come up. On a mirroring page write what you can find to be the positive aspects or lessons you derived from the day’s experience.
  4. Uplifting Journal – for collecting positive quotes, listing all your blessings, and writing about what you are grateful for. Include some letters to your future self.      This journal is for you to pick up and read at a time when you are in need of encouragement.
  5. Dream Journal – to tap into your unconscious intuitive self which will offer insightful messages hidden in metaphor and symbology. Focus on what the images mean to you personally and note any strong feelings associated with particular dream imagery.

Write in your journal regularly and leave a space for your future self to add comments. Then pick a time that is meaningful to you (an anniversary, New Year’s Eve, every Equinox or Solstice, etc.) when you read it back to yourself taking time to note any new insights that come to you along the way.

-Singing Luna

Below are more sources of information on the journaling process:

http://www.lifehack.org/articles/lifestyle/6-ways-journaling-will-change-your-life.html

http://tinybuddha.com/blog/10-journaling-tips-to-help-you-heal-grow-and-thrive/

http://stress.about.com/od/generaltechniques/p/profilejournal.htm

http://amanobooks.com/tips.php

http://www.scribetime.net/journal-writing-tips/

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Day of the Dead

In the quanint old town section of Petaluma, CA storefronts are given over to be transformed into memorial altars. This one was created to honor an eight year old pet turkey that had passed away. Altars can be created to remember people, animals and things. (©Skyfeather Studio)

In the quaint town of Petaluma, California, storefronts are transformed into memorial altars during the month of October and into November. This altar was created to honor an eight year old pet turkey who had passed away and included feathers, eggs, photos, and her favorite food. Altars can be made for remembering people, animals, and/or anything lost that is being grieved and celebrated.
(Photo: ©Skyfeather Studio)

El Día de los Muertos (The Day of the Dead) is a traditional Latin American holiday celebrated by joyfully remembering and welcoming the spirits of loved ones that have passed away. It is believed that the souls of the dead return to their families and communities once a year during El Día de los Muertos to renew the bonds of family, friendship and devotion. Departed children (angelitos) return November 1st and are welcomed with favorite toys and miniature offerings of food while the adults wait to be celebrated on November 2nd. It is a time to gather together for a “family reunion” rejoining those in the material world with those who have passed over into the spirit world.

Loved ones are honored with altars (ofrendas) traditionally decorated with offerings of paper flowers, marigolds, sugar skulls (calaveras), candles, water, incense, photos, bread, fruit and other memorabilia. Female skeleton figures (Catrinas) made of paper mache lend a bit of humor and whimsy to the display. Skeleton characters can also be of men, animals, birds or other beings. Colorful paper cut-outs (papel picado) representing the sky are strung above the altar. The altars are created in homes, at gravesites or anywhere that feels like a sacred and honored place. The festivities include processions, music, singing and noise makers loud enough to “wake the dead”. It is believed that the scent and smoke from the burning of incense and candles will help guide the returning souls. The brightly colored and strong scent of marigold flowers is thought to assist spirits in finding their way from the grave back to their welcoming homes. It is a time to gather together in the cemeteries to respectfully tidy the grounds before beautifully decorating it for the night in which many of the living will stay overnight to be close to their departed ones.

El Día de los Muertos is a colorful festival which treats death as simply a transformation. It also serves as a reminder of the fleeting time we have here on this earth and gives reassurance that we too will be remembered and celebrated after we are gone. It is a beautiful ritual of honoring the ancestors and the importance of passing down the legacy of remembrance from generation to generation.

-Singing Luna

Sources and for more information:

http://www.celebrate-day-of-the-dead.com

https://petalumaartscenter.org/2013/el-dia-de-los-muertos-petaluma-2013/

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Six Ways to Help Someone Who is in Grief or Depression

Beautiful flowers can be an uplifting gift. When giving to someone who is grieving make sure the item is something they can enjoy or is useful and does not require a lot of extra care or maintenance. (Photo:©Skyfeather Studio)

Beautiful flowers can be an uplifting gift. When giving to someone who is grieving make sure the item is something they can enjoy or is useful and does not require a lot of extra care or maintenance.
(Photo:©Skyfeather Studio)

“Let me know if there is anything I can do”.

It’s a phrase well meant, but in a culture that doesn’t support grieving it has become uncomfortably hollow. It may be more helpful to ask: “What do you need right now?”. A person may not know what they need or they may surprise you with a very direct answer: “a hug”, “money for groceries”, “please call me every week just to make sure I’m okay”. This is your opportunity to support them with a commitment of help (and following-through is very important).  Many people who are suffering loss whether it be of a loved one, health, home or relationship also suffer the compounded loss of friends and family who “disappear” during crisis. Don’t allow your worries about saying or doing the wrong thing prevent you from reaching out and giving in a heartfelt way.

Be mindful, be generous, and of course be creative!

  1. Stay in Touch- Whether it be by phone, mail, social media or in person let people know you are there for them. Often when one is grieving it is difficult to return calls or respond to invitations. If that is the case, just know that their receiving a message of, “Hi, I’m thinking about you today”, can be powerfully uplifting to the spirit. People who are in sadness often feel foggy and you can help anchor them into a pleasant routine by reaching out to them at regular times during the day, week or month.
  2. Extend an Invitation- The old saying “A change of scenery will do you good” still rings true and you can help by treating a person who is feeling down to a concert, film, walk in nature or trip to the museum. When someone is depressed it is often difficult for them to be around crowds, noise or a lot of activity so be sure to check in with them first about their needs. Organize the details ahead of time so the recipient is not burdened with excess decision making.
  3. Listen- Grief contains a spectrum of emotion and it is important to honor it in a holistic way by listening. By listening we allow grief to come into expression. By listening to someone with love and an open heart we give sacred space to their grieving and serve as a witness to the process. Avoid your need to offer suggestions or try and fix their pain. The time you spend being fully present and hearing about how sad, fearful, guilty, relieved, angry or resentful they are is valuable healing time.
  4. Acknowledge Significant Dates- Time progresses in an surreal way for those in grief. A month can seem like a year. Years pass by in what seems like days. Most of their support will dwindle after the initial crisis so it is important for you to remember significant anniversaries and dates. Make a call of support one week after a funeral, send a card on the date a year after a loss, bring flowers to a friend a month after her break-up. A widow will find much solace receiving a supportive call on her late husband’s birthday. Much of grief is the fear that what we have loved and cherished will be forgotten. Let people know that you too are holding and honoring their precious memories as they grieve.
  5. Share a Meal- When one is consumed by sadness it is difficult to complete basic tasks. Make an offer to prepare food and bring it by their home or suggest cooking a meal together. When you create a handmade meal you are putting your life energy and love into that food and making it life affirming nourishment for both body and spirit.  If meal prep is not your skill then offer to pick dinner up at a restaurant or take them out to a meal if they are feeling up to it.
  6. Be of Service- To provide service to someone is to honor them with a gift of your time. Offer to tasks such as yard work, housework, washing the car or caring for their pets or children while they rest. Those who are suffering a loss of health may need help with transportation to appointments, buying groceries or running errands. Suggest setting up a donation site to collect funds for those who are suffering financially due to loss. Organize others so people know they are being supported by community. Don’t expect those who are grieving to ask for help, they are feeling low enough without having to summon the energy to request assistance. Find out what they need, be specific about when and what you will help them with and follow-through. Do each task from the heart, with gratitude and know that it is healing you as well.

-Singing Luna

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