For young and old(er) alike all one has to do is mention such names as Cheeta the Chimp from Tarzan, Lassie, Ole Yeller, Benji, Turner & Hooch, Flipper, Gentle Ben, Black Beauty, Misty, Rin Tin Tin, Mr. Ed, Wilbur & all the Charlotte’s Webb gang, Beethoven, 101 Dalmatians, Frank the Pug, Marley & Me, Shadow, Chance, & Sassy, Free Willy, Milo & Otis, and the list goes on… and our emotional nostalgic heartstrings come alive. The same is true, if not more so when we stop to remember the real-life pets who have shared life’s journey with us. It really is amazing just how close we become to our special friends, and for many of us, our pets are our children.
In the good, wonderful, fun, joyful, & happy times we share with our pets and yes, even when they drive us insane or caring for them feels like as much work as if they were a real child… the relationship and life we share is truly a divine gift. From simple companionship, love, loyalty, devotion & affection in our everyday lives to the miracles that happen in interaction with developmentally & differently-abled and challenged children and adults to nursing homes and senior and assisted living centers during later seasons of our lives and even in transitioning from this life to the next… the presence of our special friends can mean so much that adequate words to describe what we feel escape us.
While I would never do this, nor in any way suggest anyone else try this, there is perhaps a grain of truth in this humor: If you want to see who loves you more, your spouse or your dog…lock them both in the trunk of your car, come back two hours later and see who is happy to see you! I think we all know the answer to that scenario LOL Again, DO NOT TRY THAT AT HOME!!!
All joking aside, as much as our special friends mean to us in life, when it comes time to let them go “over the rainbow bridge”… and no matter one’s theology or spiritual tradition about heaven or an afterlife, one thing that happens for sure on our side of their passing is grief. Our hearts are surely broken and there is a void and empty space physically, emotionally, and yes, I believe spiritually in us – that hurts sometimes as much as losing a family member – because that’s what our beloved pets become.
Every year in early October, what began as a Catholic celebration of St. Francis of Assisi – patron saint of both animals and the environment, has been picked up by other faith traditions offering pet and animal blessings. These are usually simple ceremonies with prayers asking for the blessings of the Creator of all life upon our pets and their human companions and giving thanks for our special friends. This year at New Life Metropolitan Community Church in addition to offering our annual pet blessings (drop-by anytime 10 am-noon Saturday, October 5), we decided to also do a Pet Memorial Service (4 pm Sunday, October 6). Personally, I have never been to, or officiated, such a memorial service before. Nevertheless, given just how much our special friends come to mean in our lives, the grief we go through in letting them go, and the number of folks in both our congregation and community who have said good-bye to their special friends this past year, it is something I believe we need and hope to be both meaningful and healing. (Editor’s note: links to both services can are found above and at the end of this post.
In this service (open to everyone) we will celebrate and give thanks for our special past passed friends. Folks are invited to submit pictures of (and/or with) their pets to be included in a video slide presentation (see email below); to bring cremains and/or a memento to be placed at the front of the sanctuary as space allows; and will be invited to light a candle and say the names of their pets aloud during the service.
May we never take the beauty of creation around us, nor the beauty of how each of us (no matter how we may self-identify) is created, nor the gift of life together both in community and with our special friends for granted!
Rev. Mark Byrd (he/him/his) is the Senior Pastor of the New Life Metropolitan Community Church of Hampton Roads located in Norfolk.