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The long goodbye

Edited version published: Sunday Magazine (27 Sept 2009)

Where do doggies go when they die? My six-year-old niece, Stella, asked me this question a few weeks ago after the death of her much loved family pooch, Buster. After a hasty, huddled conference, we told her Buster had gone to roam the big dog park in the sky. Stella pondered this for a moment then, not one to miss a trick, proceeded to hit us with a barrage of follow up questions.

“Then why are we burying him in the garden?” “Will his bowl be there?” “Who’s going to pick up his doo-doo?”, and lastly, in a poignant self reference, “Who’s going to make sure he’s a good doggy?” We did our best, skirting around the questions with typically agnostic flakiness, but we were woefully unprepared. Not only had I not known what to say, I hadn’t really known what to do with Buster - and nor had her parents. I decided to look into it.

Losing a pet is often a child’s first experience of grief and loss, and it can be a confusing time, says child psychologist Dr Kimberley O’Brien. “Let them know that everyone has a lifespan, that pets get sick just like people do, and that they don’t live as long as people do,” she says. “Explain that when they die, they don’t come back. Don’t tell them they’ve gone to a place in the country - they’re just going to expect them to come back one day.”

This is, according to O’Brien, a time for honesty. “Kids often want to know exactly what’s going to happen,” she says. “So if the dog is dead, let them know that he’s not breathing anymore and he’s never going to come back to life. It’s OK to talk about the details of having to either bury or cremate the dog, so that the body doesn’t start to smell. They need to know that we don’t keep dead bodies around, otherwise they might want to take it home.”

Sharon and Brad Dart from Mulgrave (Victoria) know exactly what O’Brien means. When they found out Kramer, their much loved 13-year-old black Labrador-Golden Retriever cross, had a large, painful tumour and would need to be euthanised, they were concerned about the impact his passing would have on their children, Keegan, 11, and Abby, 7.

“The children knew Kramer all their lives. We didn’t want them to come home one day and find him gone, that would’ve been awful for them. We wanted them to be able to say goodbye,” says Sharon. “My daughter is fairly resilient. I knew she’d just have a cry about everything and move on with life, as seven-year-old girls do,” she continues. “But I was concerned about how my son would cope with losing his dog.” 

After googling for information on how to prepare the children, the Darts didn’t just bury Kramer in the backyard; they engaged the services of Ian Robinson of Melbourne-based pet funeral service Pets in Heaven.

A former human funeral celebrant for seventeen years, Robinson exudes an air of calm and compassion. He and former partner Taryn Bock founded Pets In Heaven in August 2005 after realising they both regretted leaving much loved dogs with the vet after having them euthanised, and discovering there were few services on offer for the pet bereaved.

“When I lost my boxer Tyson in 1993, it completely devastated me,” says Robinson. “It opened up a whole new area of grieving that I just wasn’t aware of.”

He puts the intense grief down to the unconditional love pets give, and the lack of post-pet-mortem care society has traditionally allowed for.

“When we lose a family member, we have nearly a week from the passing to the funeral. We go to the viewing then we go to the funeral, and we go through a farewell process. We’ve got that time to come to terms with what’s happened,” he points out. “With a pet we have only a matter of hours. It can be a case of having your pet put down at the vet and walking out of there with a collar in your hand - end of story. But people need closure. They need to get that release out.”

The Darts chose to have Kramer euthanised at the vet’s, then cremated. Robinson suggested the children might like to draw pictures or write poems about their pet to help them say goodbye. Robinson met the Darts at the veterinary clinic. Brad and Abby chose to be with Kramer throughout, while their children stayed in the waiting room with Robinson, who sat and spoke with Keegan, gently drawing him into conversation about his favourite memories of Kramer.

“The hardest thing about it was going to sleep knowing that tomorrow was the day,” recalls Sharon. “We gave Kramer a porterhouse steak - he had the most wonderful last meal. The next morning, putting him in the car and going through it, it was surreal.”

When the time came, Robinson and Brad took Kramer out to his waiting vehicle - Melbourne’s only pet hearse, complete with white satin lining, lace-trimmed basket and music. “Kramer was lying in the basket with a rose,” remembers Sharon. “It looked like he was sleeping. It was just beautiful.”

Robinson collects just one pet at a time, and will pick them up from the vet if an owner doesn’t feel up to it. Individual cremation is guaranteed, and he can also assist with home or pet cemetery burial. He’s organised and professional, but his real skill is talking.

David Brown, a senior manager with ANZ, lost his cats Chester, a tan coloured Burmese and Mac, a stray tabby, within three months of each other in late 2008. Chester was nearly 12 years old when he succumbed to ageing related respiratory illnesses, while Mac died of heart failure at 11.

“The biggest thing Ian helped me with was the guilt I felt at putting someone I loved to sleep,” says Brown, who admits the decision to euthanise his beloved cats was one of the toughest he’s ever had to make. “Ian was wonderful, talking me through it and helping me rationalise it. He helped me understand the pain I was feeling.”

By tapping into the petcare industry, Robinson and Bockand other companies such as Pet Funerals in Sydney and Pets in Peace in Queensland have tapped into a growing market. Giving your pet a proper send-off is the logical continuation of a lifetime of devoted pet ownership, from gourmet pet food and fashion to costly veterinary services and doggy day care. It’s hardly surprising there’s a new term for pets – fur children, or fur babies - that was included in the Macquarie Dictionary’s 2008 edition.

“If people are in nesting or nurturing mode, it’s possible to transfer those feelings onto an animal,” says O’Brien. “This whole industry is particularly big in the gay community - a lot of gay couples have a real, instinctive yearning for children, and it’s something they need to deal with. Buying a pet can be a great way of transferring those feelings.”

Brown agrees, acknowledging that he and his partner have quite a brood, encompassing three dogs and a cat, now that Chester and Mac have passed away. “I don’t think twice about spending money on them,” he says. “One of the dogs is injured at the moment, so I spent $2000 on that. I probably spent about $6000 on Chester when he was ill.”

The difference, as Brown points out, is that these are ‘children’ you’re almost certainly going to outlive. When that time comes, says Bock, who now runs her own company, Angel Pet Cremation, it’s understandable that people go into a panic. “The over-the-phone counselling is really important. If it’s a sudden loss – perhaps their fur baby has been hit by a vehicle or they’ve come home to find it’s passed away – they’re quite traumatised.”

On the other side of the coin are those cases where the family has been forewarned. “I’ll have people ring who are preparing for an aged or ill fur baby to go, and they’re a lot calmer,” she says. “They’re getting everything prepared and ready. If they’re facing a decision like having to euthanise their baby, they can often feel a lot of guilt. I just let them know they’re not alone.”

Once that day has passed, of course, it’s all a question of moving on. Many people rush out to buy a new pet, to fill that empty space in their lives, but psychologist O’Brien says it’s a mistake, particular with young children.

“It’s better to let the kids go through the natural process of grief first,” she says. “It can be harder for them to understand their feelings of loss if there’s a new puppy around. They might feel guilty for enjoying a new puppy if they haven’t resolved any issues around the death of an older animal.”

Brad and Sharon Dart are pleased with the way their children have coped with Kramer’s passing. “It’s surprising how easily they talk about him now. I thought it was going to be horrendous, that we’d go outside and he wouldn’t be there and it would be awful. Our worst fear was that he was going to be thrown in the pile with a thousand other dogs. After the thirteen years he gave us, how could we do that? But we knew he’d been taken care of in such a dignified way, it made it that much easier.”

And Stella? She misses Buster, but she reckons he’s still around. Sometimes she plays near his headstone in the back garden, alternating between talking quietly to him, babying him or bossing him around – just as in life. So much for letting him rest in peace, say her parents. They’re thinking about getting another dog. One day.