Grieving pet owners commemorate their furry friends

Saturday, April 26, 2014 | 7:41 p.m. CDT

COLUMBIA — Barbara Novero-Levy has buried 13 dogs in her lifetime.

Since 1967, she has always had at least two dogs in her house, and at one point, she had five. As she flips through one of the three scrapbooks she made in tribute to her pets, she can recall all of their distinct personalities. 

"They are not like my children," Novero-Levy said. "They are my children." 

Novero-Levy, 69, and about 30 other people, grieved their pets Saturday afternoon at the second Companion Animal Memorial Event. The event was hosted by the Research Center for Human-Animal Interaction at the Adams Conference Center at MU.

The event outlined how to emotionally cope with the death of a pet, addressed the scientific advances made in the veterinary field and featured a short candle-lighting ceremony in remembrance of the lost pets. 

Upon entering, guests were encouraged to pick a memory stone, on which they'd write a word commemorating their pet, to take home. "Love," "faith" and "courage" were some of the words the guests chose. 

Tissue boxes were placed on all the tables in anticipation of an emotional next hour. 

After attendees helped themselves to cookies and coffee, center director Rebecca Johnson began the presentation by introducing doctoral student, Francesca Tocco. Tocco designed the Together in Grief, Easing Recovery program, or TIGER, which was created to help people work through their emotions after losing a pet.

TIGER started the memorial event last year to recognize the deep bond that is lost when a pet dies. Tocco said the memorial event was meant to give grieving pet owners another outlet of support during an emotional time.

During her presentation, Tocco outlined the stages of grief then explained how people of different genders and ages can grieve differently. She added that "there is not a right or wrong way to grieve" and that it is important to end the process of grieving by remembering all of the "good times" your pet has given you.

The second speaker, Kim Selting, explained how medical advances in humans and animals could benefit each other. Tocco and Selting both are concerned with how future veterinarians will deal with grieving clients. 

"It can be seen that the response of the veterinary team affects the client," Tocco said. 

Both speakers addressed the profound pain that is felt when one loses a pet and said that the grieving process is different for everyone.  

Novero-Levy liked that the event offered support for a loss that she said is widely minimized.

"People don't understand pets are part of the family," Novero-Levy said. "Here, they recognize that it is a real loss." 

To conclude the memorial event, Lera McDermott performed a candle-lighting ceremony she created four years ago when her dog, Willow, died. McDermott said she started facilitating a grief support group for lost pets and the candle-lighting ceremony was a good way to honor the memory of the pets.

Five candles of different colors, each with a different meaning were lit one after the other. The candles symbolized grief, courage, memory, love and healing. Following each lighting, McDermott recited the phrase "candles for you, Willow" and encouraged the guests to quietly recite the phrase using their own pets' names.  

As Novero-Levy watched the candle-lighting ceremony, she dabbed her eyes with a tissue. 

"You never replace a pet," Novero-Levy said. "Every time you get a new pet, you get a new heart." 

Supervising editor is Edward Hart.

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