Question from a reader: I am writing in hopes that you may be able to provide advice or support that I can give my parents who just had to euthanize their 12-year-old Golden Lab, Baxter. He had to be put to sleep because he could not walk anymore. It was a very sad event for the whole family, especially for my mother who was home alone a lot with him. Since he was buried last Sunday, my mother has not been able to let go of the fact that neither the vet nor my mom closed Baxter’s eyes before he was buried. I know it sounds silly, but it really has been bothering her. Do you have any advice or comfort I can give her so she can let this go? Does this matter that he was buried with his eyes open?
Marty Tousley, RN, MS, FT, DCC, responds: I’m so sorry to learn of the death of your mother’s beloved companion, Baxter. You ask if it matters that he was buried with his eyes open, and all I can say in response is that it probably does not matter at all to Baxter, whose spirit no longer lives in that body – but obviously it matters very much to your mother. Feelings associated with grief and mourning don’t always make a lot of sense, either to the one in mourning or to the rest of us, but still those feelings are very real and need to be expressed. Once expressed, they can be exposed to the light of day, carefully examined, worked through and then released. It’s only when we work hard to deny or to repress our feelings that we get ourselves into trouble.
What I suggest is that you simply let your mother lament the fact that this happened. Let her express all of her regret and remorse about it, however long that takes. Unfortunately, guilt is one of the most common reactions in loss, and I suspect that if your mother weren’t feeling guilty about this particular “failure” on her part, she would be feeling guilty about something else she did or failed to do. It’s just part of the process, unfortunately, that we humans tend to beat ourselves up like this in the wake of the death of a loved one.
Your situation reminds me of a similar one I encountered in one of my pet loss support groups. A young mother shared that her six-year old son was really missing their beloved cocker spaniel Suzie, who had died the week before and was now buried in the family’s back yard. The boy asked his mom if he could dig up his dog so he could give Suzie a hug. The mother needed a way to explain to her son that only Suzie’s body was in her grave, and only the physical part of his relationship with Suzie was lost when Suzie died. The spiritual part of Suzie, and the family’s memories of all their happy times with her, would be alive forever.
I believe one of the most effective ways to help children understand such complicated matters is to tell them a story, or read together one of the many wonderful children’s books available on this topic. Some of my personal favorites are listed on the Articles ~ Columns ~ Books page of my Grief Healing website, under the category Books for Children and Those Who Love Them. You can check with your local library or neighborhood bookstore for any of these titles, or e-mail me at TousleyM@aol.com for more information. The story I suggested to this boy’s mother is based on another I found in Bereavement Magazine (“Throwing Away the Wrapper” by Bob Willis, January/February 1998, p. 29). You might consider sharing it with your mother:
A mother was trying to explain to her young son Ben what had happened to his beloved dog Raisin after she died. As he was getting ready for bed one night, the boy asked his mother, “Where is Raisin now?” When she explained to him that his dog had died, the boy asked again, “But where is Raisin now?” Suddenly aware of how helpless she felt to explain, the mother answered, “Raisin is in Heaven.”
With this little Ben seemed satisfied, and he quietly went to bed. Next day, when Ben went out in the backyard to visit Raisin’s grave, he saw the grave site covered with flowers. He looked up at his mother and asked, “Is this Heaven?”
Again Ben’s mother was at a loss to explain the difference between Raisin’s being in Heaven and visiting Raisin’s grave. That night, as she tucked her son in bed, she took a chocolate candy bar from her pocket, carefully removed the wrapper, broke off a chunk and handed it to her son.
“Let’s talk about Raisin,” she said. “Tell me what good memories you have of Raisin.” The boy’s eyes brightened as he told how he’d gone exploring by the river with Raisin, took her to bed with him every night, and played fetch and chase games with her in the backyard. As he shared each happy memory, he munched contentedly on the rest of the candy bar.
When he’d finished with the good memories of Raisin and the candy bar, his mother pulled him close and hugged him.
“Honey,” she said, “your dog Raisin is a lot like this candy bar. You know the good, delicious, wonderful and enjoyable part of Raisin that you remember? That’s the part of Raisin that’s in Heaven.”
Then she held up the empty candy bar wrapper.
“This is the part of Raisin that’s buried in the ground — just Raisin’s wrapper.” Just then a beautiful, peaceful look came over the little boy’s face as he realized what his mother was saying.
This simple story teaches us that the enjoyable part of those we love is never forgotten. We lose only the physical part of the relationship, not the emotional and spiritual parts. What seemed like a puzzle for a boy and his mother just hours before had become a clear picture of the new relationship that’s possible when someone we love has died.
The sad fact is that there is little if anything your mom can do now to change the fact that Baxter’s body was buried with his eyes left open. Perhaps she can be comforted by the knowledge that his body is just a shell, after all, and all that was Baxter no longer lives there. As a wise man once observed, “the best place to bury a dog is in the heart of its master.” I hope that is where your mother eventually will bury Baxter. Please let her know that I am thinking of her, and let her know that she is most welcome to join our online Loss of a Pet forum for grieving animal lovers, at www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com/.
Reach Marty through her Web sites, http://www.griefhealing.com and http://www.griefhealingdiscussiongroups.com. She blogs weekly at Grief Healing and can be found on Twitter, LinkedIn, Facebook and Pinterest.