Grieving Over Pets Becoming Common, More Public

February 17, 2014
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In 30 years of publishing as a professor at Princeton Theological Seminary, C. Clifton Black has never received such an outpouring of reader support as he did when he wrote a lament for his dog Pinky, who had died at age 16.

Pinky was “a member of our family” and brought it a “holy joie de vivre,” Black wrote in a 2011 essay in The Christian Century magazine titled, “Unexpected grief: Elegy for a border collie.”

Pinky taught his family about selfless dedication and focusing on the moment, rather than “an unfetchable past and an uncertain future,” Black wrote.

And, the theology professor added, he hopes to see Pinky in heaven: If the biblical Psalms call for all creatures to sing praise, “Who’s to say that God does not accept the bark of a border collie as praise?”

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In such responses to the loss of a faithful pet, Black is far from alone.

Pet bereavement, a topic many people in the past were reluctant to admit for fear of cold-hearted dismissals, is now out in the open, widely shared and catered to by an array of grief counselors, funeral homes and other service providers.

Few animals will receive the full police honors (that were) conferred on Rocco — the Pittsburgh police dog who was stabbed to death in the line of duty last (month) — whose funeral (was last Friday) at the Soldiers & Sailors Memorial Hall and Museum in Oakland.

But pet memorials, pet bereavement and speculation about animals in heaven have become increasingly common.

The Beinhauer Family Funeral Homes, for example, opened the Peaceful Pastures pet cemetery in the late 1990s in Canonsburg, and it has cremated or buried thousands of pets ranging from dogs and cats to rabbits, guinea pigs, alpacas, horses, turtles, iguanas and a llama.

“We treat any pet losses as if it was the loss of any family member,” said director of operations Scott Beinhauer.

And the Good Grief Center for Bereavement Support on Murray Avenue in Squirrel Hill offers peer support, reading materials and other help for people grieving losses of pets as well as humans.

“Years ago, people didn’t even want to share the depth of their loss because people didn’t understand or they would say, ‘It’s only a dog,’ ” said Karen Litzinger, a career counselor who formerly conducted pet memorials, counseled the bereaved and created a CD, “Heal Your Heart,” with music and meditations for those in grief. Scorn for pet bereavement is less frequent today, she said, “and more people feel the bond of a family with animals.”

More than three-fifths of Americans own pets — mostly dogs and cats — and virtually all owners consider their pets to be family, according to a 2011 Harris Poll. More than half of pet owners allow their animals to sleep in their beds, according to Harris. With such familiarity comes an explosion of products and services that continues literally to the grave.

And these trends reflect revolutionary shifts in American lifestyles, family structures and spirituality. Average (human) household population has shrunken by nearly a third since 1940, and the percentage of single-person and nonfamily households has risen, according to U.S. Census figures.

“Western society is at a paradoxical juncture: At a time that we’ve never been more technologically interconnected, many say they’ve never felt more alone,” Black said in an email interview. “Dogs don’t use Twitter; they need food, exercise, and affection. Parakeets tweet, but not in 140-character shorthand. They sing. Isn’t that better for our souls?”

And when a pet dies, the grief is deep — and so are the spiritual questions.

“Let’s be clear — the vast majority of time it’s not on the level of a family member, but it is real and it is bereavement,” said the Rev. Jeff Lukacs, pastor of Mary S. Brown-Ames United Methodist Church in Squirrel Hill.

Lukacs was a former police officer, and his dog, like Rocco, was a trained police dog who went to work with him and was always prepared to defend him with his life.

When his dog was terminally ill, Rev. Lukacs recalled his long, sad drive to the veterinarian for him to be euthanized, holding the dog in his arms when it died. The grief that followed was intense.

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