Good Grief: Processing pet grief sans Pet Sematary

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Wayside Waifs pet cemetery. // Photo by Lauren Textor

If the idea of your pet’s inevitable death makes you want to be sedated, you’re not alone. Even long-time deathcare professionals have difficulty navigating end-of-life decisions for beloved animal companions. Deciding on how to memorialize your pet—no matter how long they’ve been with you—is an intense and emotional process that can leave a residual impact for weeks, months, or years. 

Parker Amos is a fourth-generation mortician and the president and funeral director of Amos Family Funeral Home & Crematory. Two years ago, his family had to euthanize their chocolate lab. 

“Thinking about having to tell my boys—it’s hard being in this industry and still not knowing what to say to them,” Amos says. “A lot of times, a pet is someone’s first loss.” 

Kansas Citians have been memorializing their pets at Wayside Waifs since the 1940s. The animal shelter provides a full range of services from adoption to burial, with multiple options for tributes. 

Pet Memorial Services Manager Rachael Trader happened upon her job after a stint in food service. 

“I had actually never worked at an animal shelter before or done anything like this in my life, but it had a lot of the qualities I looked for in a job,” she says. “It’s a lot of independent work. I get to make a lot of decisions on my own for my department. I’ve experienced a lot of pet loss in my life, so when I had the chance to make that a little bit easier for other people, I thought that sounded like a good fit.” 

Wayside averages 60 burials per year in the pet cemetery, and it also offers communal or individual cremation services. The shelter serves pets of all sizes, from giant tortoises to doves.

“When someone chooses a burial, we have a full service,” Trader says. “We set the pet up in our memorial room and have an open casket viewing where the owner can invite their friends and family. Sometimes, they’ll have music playing. There have been slideshows. Some families bring party favors, like little bags of dog treats. We do a procession out to the cemetery where we lower the casket into the grave. We allow the family to place ceremonial dirt on the casket before we cover the gravesite. There are a lot of similarities to the way we do people burials.”

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Photo by Lauren Textor

Wayside is relaunching its pet loss support group, which meets on the first Wednesday of every month from 6-7 p.m. in the campus’s Education and Training Center. The session is facilitated by licensed counselor Kimberly Exten. Meetings are free to attend and no RSVP is required. 

If you prefer to mourn individually and non-traditionally, Oracle KC has you covered. Owner and lead taxidermist Alessandra Dzuba started her taxidermy career with bone articulation. Soon after, people began reaching out to her and asking her to preserve the remains of their pets. 

“I felt connected to that, but it wasn’t until the loss of my own pet that I felt completely drawn to memorial work,” Dzuba says. “People didn’t understand the grief that came along with the loss of my tarantula. Tarantulas are lifelong pets. Some species live from 15 to 40 years. It’s a commitment.”

Dzuba says that she’s drawn to her work because every living creature has the ability to show personality and emotion. While she’s well aware that liquid preservation or skeleton articulation is not for everyone, she connects her practices to historical remembrances of those who have passed on. 

“It wasn’t that long ago that we were bathing our dead or doing hair memorials,” she says. “Mourning is a part of life. Bones in the Western world are seen as macabre, but they’re definitely not macabre worldwide.” 

Dzuba also finds it helpful to view death as a transitional phase rather than an ending. 

“Why I’m drawn to the bones particularly is that it’s like accepting our pets’ new stage in life,” she says. “Their memories and their personalities are still with us. In having a skull or a paw or a full skeleton, you’re creating a memento mori or an altar to them.” 

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Courtesy photo

Traditions for honoring the dead are continually evolving, and more than ever before, there is an emphasis on climate-friendly practices while returning the departed to the earth. 

Aquamation is a relatively new alternative to in-ground burial. The water-based process uses warm water and alkaline salts to accelerate the breakdown of organic tissue. It produces the same results as flame cremation without using fossil fuels or producing greenhouse gas. 

Jarrod Hammond learned about aquamation from the YouTube channel Ask A Mortician. When laid off from Cerner in late 2019, he pivoted to the mortuary field to provide greener burials through Heartland Pet Aquamation. 

“Pet grief is a marginalized grief,” Hammond explains. “People seem to apologize for being bereaved. There are times when I almost feel like they are asking permission to process their sorrow. I try to be as explicit as I can that loss is difficult no matter what. Everybody’s version of grief is going to be different. The best thing they can do is to be honest with themselves about how they’re feeling and communicate that.” 

Some people have more difficulty in preparing for and processing loss than others. Death doula AJ Stutzer created Familiar Pet Care to guide families through their pets’ life cycles. Like a birthing doula, they ensure everyone’s emotional needs are met during a turbulent time. 

“I took my death doula certification in 2018,” Stutzer says. “I started with human hospice care. In 2019, when my husband and I moved from Lawrence to KC, our dog was dying. I’ve been through lots of pet deaths before, but this felt new. I wondered if there was a way that I could help other people work through the emotions that I was feeling.”

Stutzer says that their services are more of a passion project than a full-time job, as most people are fully capable of caring for their pets in their last days. 

“Be confident in your love for the animal. Know that you know them the best,” they say. “If you have a vet that you trust, ask those hard questions. Don’t try to go in alone. That tech or receptionist that you’ve been close with for that pet’s entire life— they’re here for you, too. Everyone knows how hard this is.”

Stutzer adds, “My relationship with my animals who have died is not over by any means. I still talk to them. Am I crazy? Who knows. It gives me comfort.”  

Categories: Culture