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Ceremony assists in dealing with death of one's pet

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By Gretchen McKay, Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

BRIDGEVILLE, Pa. — The death of a loved one is never easy and, in fact, can be quite overwhelming. And it’s not just the people in our lives we grieve when they’re gone.

Coping with the loss of a dog, cat or other family pet you’ve lived with and loved for years can be extremely hard, too, especially since there’s usually no public way for bereaved pet owners to share their pain.

“Society doesn’t really give us ways to grieve our pets,” said animal artist and writer Bernadette Kazmarski of Carnegie, Pa., who has rescued and served as a foster mom to cats for 25 years. “But sharing grief is one of the best ways to ease it.”

On Sunday, she and her good friend Deb Chebatoris aimed to remedy that, with a pet memorial service at Melrose Cemetery in Bridgeville. With the sun shining, more than 40 pet owners gathered under a large white tent decorated with a garland of fall leaves and vases of marigolds on the cemetery grounds to remember and celebrate pets that have passed on.

The service, which included written tributes, a picture display and a dove release under clear blue skies, was one of many such gatherings held across the U.S. in honor of National Pet Memorial Day. Celebrated each year on the second Sunday in September, the event was established more than 40 years ago by the International Association of Pet Cemeteries and Crematories in recognition of the important role that pets have played, and continue to play, in people’s lives.

Sunday’s ceremony marked the 12th year in a row that Chebatoris, who owns Chartiers Custom Pet Cremation in Bridgeville, has held the memorial service. Speakers included veterinarian Mike Pensenstadler of Pleasant Valley Veterinary Hospital in McMurray, Pa., who talked about how to make euthanasia decisions, and Elizabeth Babcock, a licensed clinical social worker who discussed the grieving process.

“Acknowledge this is a process that takes time,” Babcock said, and will have its ups and downs. But at the same time, she cautioned, it shouldn’t be all-consuming.

“Don’t make your pet’s death more important than their life,” she said. “You have to remember all the good times.”

Grief, she added, “is the price of admission for having a loving relationship.”

In opening the event to anyone dealing with grief over the loss of a pet,. Chebatoris said she wanted to give people a ritual that would help them to alleviate their heartbreak, as well as a place where pet owners could share their pain without fear of being scorned, gain insights and find companionship. Or, as she told the largely female crowd, “This is a safe place to cry in the company of other families who feel loss as deeply as you do.”

And cry they did, with more than a few attendees tearing up when Chebatoris and Kazmarski took turns reading aloud the heartwarming short stories they had written about their pets. There were additional tears after a candle-lighting ceremony and a dove release, with Celine Dion’s “Fly” playing on loudspeakers, to represent the release of deceased pets’ spirits.

“I just loved my dog so much, and knew I’d be in good company,” Jenny Buranovsky of Carnegie said of the ceremony.

Her Welsh corgi-beagle mix Gracie, an Animal Friends rescue, died on June 27.

To honor the day on which so many across the country gathered to mark the 15th anniversary of 9/11, Buranovsky wore a T-shirt naming all of the dogs who helped rescue workers scour ground zero in New York City for survivors.

Sam Poness of Canonsburg, Pa., who lost his Shetland sheepdog Zoe a year ago, agreed that the service helped ease the grieving process.

“We got to remember the departure of our four-legged members of our family with others,” he said.

He attended the event with his sister Tracie Poness of Strabane, Pa., who was there to celebrate the life of Buckley, a Humane Society rescue who died at age 16.

“There was a lot of good information, and others who care,” Poness said.

Pets, she said, provide so much unconditional love. The memorial service “allows us to appreciate them.”

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