‘The Rainbow Bridge’

Funerals provide closure for pet owners

In this Sept. 15, 2016 photo, Bryan Clancy, a 10-year-old golden retriever with terminal cancer, spends one of his last visits to to the John Stiff Memorial Dog Park with his human companions Joyce Conner, from left, Shirley Cole and Tom Cole in Amarillo, Texas. The day will come. There will be a final romp at the dog park, a final hunting trip, a final scratch at the bathroom door, a final mouse left on the porch or a final snuggle before bedtime. For many pet owners, this is the day they refuse to consider. It is the day when life turns painfully upside-down from when paws pattered contentedly through the home. It is the day when a beloved pet leaves this world. (Lauren Koski/The Amarillo Globe News via AP)

AMARILLO, Texas — The day will come. There will be a final romp at the dog park, a final hunting trip, a final scratch at the bathroom door, a final mouse left on the porch or a final snuggle before bedtime.

For many pet owners, this is the day they refuse to consider. It is the day when life turns painfully upside-down from when paws pattered contentedly through the home. It is the day when a beloved pet leaves this world.

As pets take a more central role in our lives, concern regarding the quality of their lives and deaths has increased.

Acupuncture, special diets, in-home euthanasia, online pet memorials and expensive funeral rites have, for many people, taken the place of the traditional, matter-of-fact backyard burial.

“Pets are family now, and they deserve all the dignity and respect of their aftercare,” Cheryl Robertson, co-owner and director of Heaven’s Rainbow Bridge Pet Cemetery & Crematorium, the Amarillo Globe-News.

Two years ago, Dr. Jenna Beyer’s dog, Allie, turned 10. She was healthy, but starting that day Beyer began to consider Allie a senior.

“I went through this stage of what I now know is anticipatory grief of her passing away one day, and she hates going to the vet clinics when I have to take her in for things,” Beyer told the Amarillo Globe-News.

“My heart was just breaking for the thought of her last moments, being like, ‘I am so terrified of being here, why are you taking me here?'”

Beyer, a veterinarian in Amarillo, began searching for other available end-of-life options for Allie. But not much else was available besides the traditional in-clinic euthanasia.

So Beyer began Caring Hands Vet Services, an in-home acupuncture and euthanasia business. She brings the necessary clinic equipment, minus the stress and chaos, into the comfort of a pet’s own home, the arms of their parents or their favorite park.

Beyer said she thinks this is a “kinder” end for the animal, and encourages pet owners to consider its benefits.

“It is an option. It’s not just some quackery where this vet comes over and puts your pet to sleep,” said Beyer. “I feel like most people don’t know they have a choice when it comes to letting their pet go peacefully.”

She recalls one client with a therapy dog who used the euthanasia time as a community memorial service for the dog that had touched many lives.

A community of close friends gathered around the dog as she lay peacefully in her backyard, and the owner pressed the canine’s paw-print into clay as a memorial. Friends stayed and offered stories from the dog’s life, accompanied with tears and laughter, as her heart slowed.

“It was just such an honor to be a part of that,” said Beyer.

Sharon Ellis found herself at the vet’s office in early September, preparing herself and her husband, David, to say goodbye to their beloved dog, Peggy Sue. They had rescued her years ago. Now, she had congestive heart failure and the time had come. Ellis said she took a few days to prepare accordingly.

“I started making phone calls because I was not going to just throw her body away; I wasn’t going to do it,” said Ellis.

Normally, pets euthanized at a veterinarian’s clinic are picked up by Amarillo Animal Management & Welfare for disposal, said Richard Havens, AAM&W director.

The pets are taken to a landfill and naturally composted along with those euthanized in the city’s shelter and domestic and wild deceased animals off the streets, Havens said

For Peggy Sue, Ellis said she decided upon another option: cremation.

Burial at a pet cemetery, and especially cremation, have become popular options for pet owners.

As Ellis searched for cremation options, she met Robertson at Heaven’s Rainbow Bridge. Ellis said she knew that was where she would take Peggy Sue, who was dying.

“I called several (crematoriums) but (Robertson) was the only one that acted like she cared,” said Ellis. “She knew how emotional I was on the phone. She knew I was having a real hard time, and I called her three or four days before I ever even decided to take Peggy Sue to the vet.”

Ellis said one of the best parts of the experience was Robertson’s little black dog, Bryn. The dog was at the office to offer Ellis canine therapy, as she does with most of the pet cemetery and crematorium’s clients.

“To me, my philosophy is always ‘one more,'” said Robertson. “One more. Make sure that I sweep out (the crematory) one more time. It looks empty, it looks clean, but what if I missed one little, small tooth? I want them to have that tooth. One more hug, do you look like you need just one more hug?”

Robertson said she carries the grief of her clients day in and day out; she’s gathered their stories.

She’s seen thousand-dollar headstones — tall and magnificent — tower over the cemetery behind the crematorium. And she’s had clients dig up pets from their backyards and bring them to her for cremation before they move away from their homes.

“Just like people,” Robertson encourages pet owners to plan in advance of their pet’s death and whatever plan will be best for their care.

“It’s just, to me, not any different than a person,” said Robertson.

“I want (clients) to come in here and feel the same treatment as if they had gone to a people funeral home and been treated the same way because they feel the same way about that pet. . You wouldn’t say, ‘Oh, that’s just a husband; go get another one.'”

Others share similar sentiments, sometimes balking at everything from cremation and burial to replacement.

Frank Williams, owner of Trophy Taxidermy of West Texas, said he’s had a few pet owners inquire about hide tanning and freeze-drying options. One grieving Amarilloan brought his German shepherd to Williams asking that the dog be freeze-dried.

“He wanted it with his head coming up,” Williams said. “When the customer’s sitting in his recliner, the dog’s eyes and his eyes are together, so he ain’t lonely no more.”

Just as with a human family member, grief is a natural occurrence with the loss of a pet, according to Dr. Diane Pomerance, a grief recovery specialist and a volunteer with the Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals of Texas.

All grief is cumulative, Pomerance said, and the grief associated with losing a pet might be stacked upon grief that has been held onto throughout a person’s life.

Pomerance said losing a pet that has never judged and always offered unconditional love can create real emotional damage and can be a catalyst for examining other areas of one’s life.

Searching for grief recovery resources in the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex after her dog, Caesar, died in 1998, Pomerance said she found little. But she read much literature on pet-loss grief.

In 2000, she began the Pet Grief Counseling Program through the SPCA of Texas. With grief recovery groups in the Metroplex, and grieving pet owners calling the program’s hotline from as far away as South Africa, Pomerance and other volunteer counselors help individuals walk through the aftermath of losing a pet.

She recalls a medical doctor who attended a grief recovery group burdened with years of sadness over losing his Dalmatian.

“The dog had been dead for 25 years and he had never discussed it,” said Pomerance. “He was never able to discuss it. He was a member of the scientific community; he would have been laughed at or ridiculed. Each griever is different and brings with them a different story, depending on their past.”

Pomerance said she has been on the hotline with grief-stricken pet owners for up to three hours as they process their loss.

Susan Fox, a licensed professional counselor in Amarillo, said she’s received about 20 clients in the past 30 years who have come to her specifically with grief associated with pet loss. She said she even had a client who grieved as if she had lost a human child.

“Any time we’re grieving over something, it affects most of our lives, all areas of our lives, and, as a matter of fact, people can get in the depression stage of grief and if they don’t process, they get stuck there,” said Fox.

No matter how deep an individual’s grief might be, Pomerance and Fox agree losing a pet requires some sort of recovery.

“Conduct your own ceremony,” said Pomerance. “Make it a candlelight ceremony, but a celebration of life. There’s a lot of closure to that when you do that.”