When you can’t let a beloved pet go

The Great Green Team

27 February 2023

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Our dog died a year ago and his ashes are still sitting on the mantelpiece in a cardboard container.

At the vets we were offered a choice of decorative urns but turned them down as we wanted to scatter his ashes in his favourite park.  My friend’s parents have had a wooden urn containing their dog Sandy’s ashes on their mantelpiece since 1978. But no, we wouldn’t be doing that.

After receiving the ashes, we decided to wait until Easter to return to Oakwell Park with him one last time.

Easter came. ‘When are we going to take Rocky to Oakwell?’ I asked my husband. He took so long to reply I thought he hadn’t heard me. But then he said quietly, ‘I can’t let him go.’ 

It’s strange. We know the cardboard box is not ‘him’.  It’s not rational, it’s not sensible, there’s not a single intelligent reason for his ashes to remain on the mantelpiece in a green and purple cardboard cylinder – and yet remain they do. Along with his photo, his pawprint, a tiny bottle with some of his golden fur and a large portrait display my son bought us saying, No Longer By My Side But Forever In My Heart.

What’s normal?

Last week a friend contemplated the mantelpiece shrine and asked if we had thought of adding Rocky’s ashes to the compost bin.

His comment made me wonder what other people do. What’s normal in these circumstances?

An internet search showed that, as you might expect, many people want to return their pet to nature by placing their ashes in the garden where they roamed and played. But cremation ashes contain high levels of calcium and increase the pH level in the soil so they should be mixed with manure, compost, organic nitrogen fertiliser or coffee grounds.

Alternatively, there are biodegradable urns for ashes that gradually decompose, and biodegradable tree urns made from natural plant fibres that enable you to grow a tree in memory of your pet.

I came across discussions on the ethics of burying a pet in the garden, with stories of people being horrified to discover animal skeletons while gardening. Some think you should have to disclose if you have buried a pet on a property before selling it.  There’s also the matter of leaving behind your pet’s burial site if you move house.

In some countries it’s illegal to bury pets in your garden, and there are environmental concerns about burying a pet that’s been put to sleep with euthanasia solution.

Then I came across a story about two vets from Columbia, where it’s illegal to bury pets, who wanted to come up with a more environmentally-friendly way of disposing of a pet’s body than burial or cremation. With cremation 96 per cent of the body is released into the atmosphere as pollution.

Their solution was to create organic compost from the animal’s body, inspired by the natural way that a body decomposes after death. Owners can then have this compost returned to them (after about 60 days) in a pot with a plant of their choosing. 

From pet to plant

I struggled to find examples of pet ashes being added to a garden compost bin but I don’t feel particularly motivated to find out more.  I feel my beloved dog is not a plant or a tree but then he’s not a cardboard box either. What he is to me is a cocky little character who races into the room at cartoon-speed, head tilted to one side, with a wild, dramatic stare that says ‘Mum, what the heck are you doing sitting comfortably when you should be getting my tea ready!’ Or who ostentatiously takes on the task of guarding our territory from a squirrel invasion, looking round self-importantly every now and again to check we’re impressed by his skills.

But that’s never going to happen again.

To think I never wanted a dog. For years my husband and sons had argued for one and I always said no. I had never had pets growing up. But two things happened to change my mind. The first was a chance meeting in a park with an adorable bundle of golden fluff that came running up to my eight-year-old son. My son was captivated as the bundle of fluff, a Norfolk Terrier called Rosie, nestled in his arms.  Walking away, I said the fateful words: ‘I could have taken that dog home with us.’

As soon as we got home my husband was straight on the internet looking up Norfolk Terriers.

A boy and his dog

But I still might have said no, if it weren’t for a psychology book I read that said having a pet in childhood leads to psychological resilience in adulthood. I could see the sense in that – if you have to deal with the nitty gritty of life early on it helps prepare you for what we all have to face later.  Life isn’t clean, calm and controllable; having a dog shows you that. It forces you to deal with poo, wee, blood, vomit, sacrifice, suffering, death – like a cross between an A and E department and a Russian novel.

 I liked the idea of our sons developing psychological resilience and I liked that Norfolk Terrier.

 So we got a dog. The night before we were due to go pick up our Norfolk puppy from a farm near York, I sat surveying the living room. Our youngest was eight; we had passed the stage of domestic chaos and our house was on the way back to resembling an adult-friendly refuge. And we were about to blow all that. I looked fondly at the stain-free carpet. In 24 hours, I would have a living creature crawling about on that carpet and it would be here for years and years and there’d be no going back. I felt afraid. What on earth had I agreed to?

You know where this is going.

Before long the dog wasn’t just a ‘dog’ anymore, it was ‘Rocky’ and Rocky took over our lives. At first he was anxious around other dogs until puppy training classes,  dog trainer sessions and a dozen books helped us to help him.

Keeping calm

He had one unhappy experience at the vets and for the next few visits was very stressed, but I realised that I was able to soothe him with my own reaction. If I kept completely calm, reassuring him in a cheerful voice, he would fix his eyes on mine and be guided by me. He would remain calm even though he wasn’t happy. I realised to my astonishment that he trusted me more than he trusted his own sensations. It was as if he thought, If Mum says this is ok, it must be.

 It took me by complete surprise that I, who had never had a pet in childhood, could form a bond with an animal; that this animal could like me and want to be with me and place all his trust in me. I was completely blindsided by this love, unconditional and often undeserved. I understood why animal lovers often say their pet rescued them rather than the other way round.  

So it proved during the pandemic, when this funny little furball was our tower of strength. By day, we took him for long walks round Oakwell Park, standing to one side to give other dog walkers and joggers two metres’ space. By night we watched the daily updates on TV. Rising panic was held in check thanks to having a yawning dog sprawled across my lap, sighing contentedly as I stroked his tummy.

 He hasn’t a clue what’s going on, I thought. He is just here in the moment enjoying a tummy rub. I resolved to try to Be More Dog. What use to anyone was my personal panic?

I try to blank out the day I took Rocky to the vet about a limp, only to find out it was lymphoma. And the day a few months later when for the first time he refused all food and the vet said, I think it might be time….

The next 24 hours were like nothing we could have imagined. The son who was eight when we got Rocky, and who named him after the Rocky films, got the next train home from Newcastle where he was at university.

A man and his dog

I’ll always be grateful that lockdown was over, so the vet and her nurse could come to the house.

And I’ll always be grateful that I was able to do one last thing for Rocky. The vet explained that she needed the nurse to hold Rocky very still as the line was inserted into his leg. Then he would be able to come on to my knee. But inserting the line could make a dog become very agitated and upset and she might need us to leave the room if he did.

I will never know how I did it, but somehow I was able to hold Rocky’s gaze and keep my voice calm and reassuring, just as I had learned at the vets years earlier, telling him what a good boy he was, what a good boy he had always been. I never stopped repeating those words. He was afraid but his eyes never left mine for a second and he remained still as the line was put in. If Mum says it’s ok, it must be.

A dog is a child that never grows up. Your four-year-old child wants nothing more than to be with you and shower you with affection. Your 14-year-old, not so much. Your dog always thinks you’re great, even when you can’t think of a single good thing about yourself.

So, to go back to my friend’s question. No, we haven’t considered adding Rocky’s ashes to the Green Johanna.  We know that this would be the circle of life and he’d be going back to feed the soil and create new life and all that.

 I really don’t know what we will end up doing. But, right now, as my husband said, we just can’t let him go.


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