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Rabbi Stiefel's Monthly Article

Rituals for when a Pet Dies

by Rabbi Sharon Stiefel

Forty years ago, when I was a teenager and our beloved family dog died, I was bereft. Life went on around me, but I needed to mourn. There was no guidance given for helping me do that.

Secretly I collected dog hairs that had been shed, saving them in an envelope in my desk drawer. I had no place or space to process my feelings. My request for our dog to be buried in a pet cemetery was denied. Just recalling this loss over my first dog can still bring tears.

Contrary to the ditty my son picked up from his Jewish day school:

Yitgadal v’yitkadish,

Please God bless my little fish,

the Mourners Kaddish is not generally recited for animals so as not to diminish its purpose.

However, a lot has changed over the decades. Jewish rituals for saying goodbye to a pet are now relatively easy to find.

Simply go to the Reconstructionist website ritualwell.org and you will find A Burial Service for an Animal Companion and advice for Grieving the Loss of a Pet. Lighting a candle, saying words from the tradition, displaying a photo, singing songs, giving tzedakah to an animal-related organization, gathering with friends and family to share memories and stories of the good companionship that the animal offered can all be ways to memorialize a pet.

The Reconstructionist movement has long recognized the need to add rituals to the Jewish life cycle. Judith Kaplan Eisenstein, daughter of Rabbi Mordecai Kaplan, the founder of Reconstructionist Judaism, became the first Bat Mitzvah in the USA, in 1922. Reconstructionists were also on the forefront of ceremonies, rituals, and liturgies to welcome baby girls into the covenant of the Jewish people. Today there are opportunities to create sacred moments for many heretofore-unrecognized moments of transitions. Kids going off to college, changing one’s gender identity, marking a pregnancy loss, beginning retirement, closing up the family home, just to name a few, are ripe for rituals to mark liminal moments.

Pet owners often feel the need for support that goes beyond what their veterinarian can offer in the clinic.  As our own Mayim Rabim member, Dr. Denise Pasmanter, a veterinarian at Affiliated Emergency Veterinary Service shares, “The loss of a pet can be devastating to a pet owner. Because people often fear others won't understand the depth of their grief over a pet, our company offers free monthly grief support groups.  People also look for ways to memorialize their pet.  Some spread the pet's ashes in a place that is special to them or keep the ashes in an urn, some have a paw print made in clay so they have a permanent keepsake."  

Denise joined with Rabbi Jeffrey Schein last Yom Kippur to teach a Mayim Rabim study session on “The Blurring of the Lines Between the Human and Natural World in the Book of Jonah.”  Rabbi Jeff reflected on the recent loss of his daughter’s dog and how Judaism views the human and animal connection. Together with Denise, space was given for individuals to affirm their spiritual bonds with animals. Rabbi Jeff referred to Perek Shira, an ancient Hebrew text that imagines each of God’s creatures singing out to God in unique ways.

In our time, folk musician Bill Staines sings, “All God's critters got a place in the choir / Some sing low, some sing higher / Some sing out loud on the telephone wires / And some just clap their hands, or paws, or anything they got now.” Perhaps Staines, when he wrote his song, was thinking of Psalm 148 that mentions animals praising the Almighty.

Losing a pet at any age can be hard. Young children, in particular, have challenges. Modeling a loving way to deal with the loss of an animal can prepare children for the eventual loss they will experience of humans. While some may have been taught to “get over” the grief they feel, this is counterproductive for optimal healing.  We cannot erase the pain that comes with death. But given support, we can affirm the relationship we had with our beloved pet and carry those fond memories with us.

Regardless of our age, the loss of a pet can be profound. Fortunately, Judaism is rich with resources for creating space and rituals for saying goodbye to our animal companions.