The rabbi at Hevrah Synagogue in Stockbridge, Massachusetts welcomed the
congregants to rise for the kaddish, the mourner's prayer. The setting was
cozy, and the rabbi asked each mourner to name the deceased and state
their relationship. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether it was
appropriate to stand for a four-legged creature, my beloved shih tzu, but
my husband nudged me with his eyes. "Chelsea, my dog," I said, when my
turn came. The rabbi nodded, and I collapsed into tears. It had been
months since Chelsea died, but the pain seared through my flesh and bones.
Human death is buffered by a series of rituals, from time off work to
family support to funerals. Not so for our creatures. Dealing with an
animal's death is a far more haphazard event. There are no assumptions
about what a grieving person needs. There is no template for how society
handles the tragedy.
Chelsea died about a year ago. He died on a Tuesday night. I spent
Wednesday alone because my husband felt compelled to go to his
then-tenuous job. His employer would not allow him additional time off
because he'd already taken his personal and vacation days.
I drifted through the day, lingering on the telephone with friends,
weeping. My husband called several times to check on me. He was handling
funeral details, which was the only thing that gave my day purpose. When
the arrangements were made, I called my mother. "Chelsea will be buried at
Hartsdale Pet Cemetery on Saturday," I said. "The funeral will be at 11 A.
"We have an appointment that day," my mother said. She and my father had a
Stung with hurt, I called a couple of close friends and my cousins in New
Jersey. They jotted down the details and said they'd be there. Jack and
Judith, my upstairs neighbors and the guardians of Chelsea's longtime
companion, Chloe, also made a commitment to come. Even my ex-husband
promised to attend. I'd contacted him, even though we hadn't spoken in a
year, because I knew how much he cherished Chelsea. He cried when I broke
Chelsea died six weeks after doctors told me he had a nasal tumor, a rare
form of cancer in animals. I chose not to subject him to radiation
treatment because he was 12 years old, but I expected he would live for
several months following the diagnosis. Except for the struggle to breathe
through his nose, he remained vibrant, sociable and alert.
Chelsea deteriorated rapidly over a span of 48 hours, first showing no
interest in food and eventually rising up and collapsing repeatedly with
labored breathing. The Animal Medical Center in New York gave him oxygen
on Sunday, and his local veterinarian tried insulin on Monday. By Tuesday
he was near death, but the veterinarian assured me he could go on like
this for several days. We asked the vet to come to our apartment to
euthanize Chelsea, and my husband held him to the end. I thrashed in the
bedroom, crying hysterically, aware at times that I was hyperventilating.
My husband clipped a lock of Chelsea's silky hair.
On Friday, we drove to Hartsdale Cemetery, about 40 minutes north of
Manhattan, to pick out a casket, gravesite and headstone. My husband
called his employer and said we had a medical emergency. Hartsdale is an
eternal refuge of love perched on a grassy knoll in Westchester County.
More than 100,000 animals, including one lion cub, rest in this former
apple orchard, today the oldest pet cemetery in America. Tributes to
animals engraved on small headstones tell the story of unconditional love.
Some headstones are festooned with photographs of the departed. For
Chelsea, I chose a pink marble monument inscribed with the words "Chelsea:
My Heartbeat, My Heart," and adorned with his portrait.
The next day was the funeral. My small entourage, including Chelsea's dog
friend, Chloe, gathered first for a private viewing in the main house and
then trekked down the hill to the open grave. It was a chill winter's day
with dim sunshine. My husband read a poem he'd written about Chelsea.
Everybody said a few words. I thanked Jack and Judith, a couple about the
age of my mother and father, for being good surrogate parents to Chelsea,
and to me. Judith gave me a book on grieving. My ex-husband said Chelsea
was a unique soul.
Returning to the car, I wondered why my cousins hadn't shown up. When we
last spoke, they were coming. They never called to tell me they weren't.
Two months later, I let them know that I was surprised and disappointed
that they didn't attend. My cousin told me that they had a very busy
schedule that weekend and just couldn't fit it in...
In the Jewish religion, a funeral is followed by a shiva, a week-long
period of mourning after the burial of a close relative. I didn't expect
family to gather around me. Instead, my husband and I retreated for the
Berkshires in Massachusetts where we rent a place that feels like home. I
brought pictures of Chelsea with me. Darielle, Chelsea's onetime dog
walker and occasional pet-sitter, had heard the news and called. "Sunshine
and Blu (her deceased canines) came down to Earth and took Chelsea back
with them to heaven," she said, assuring me that his soul was still with
me. I think she was right. At night, he appeared in my mind's eye, not so
much in a dream as in a vision. I could feel his presence. I wanted to
For several weeks, I was angry with my parents. In an effort to extend an
olive branch, my mother said she would like to visit Chelsea's grave.
I go to Chelsea's resting place once a month, and of course I'll be there
when the one-year anniversary rolls around in December. As a matter of
Jewish religious tradition, there is an unveiling of the headstone on the
first anniversary of a loved one's death. This is a time when friends and
family come to pay their respects. But our visit to Chelsea's grave will
be a private affair for my husband and me. We will recount the joy that
Chelsea brought to our lives. I will remember with gratitude those who
held me up in my time of grief. I will try to forgive those who made such
a painful moment all the more painful.