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Rites of Passage (Resentment and Gratitude)

By Tina Traster

The rabbi at Hevrah Synagogue in Stockbridge, Massachusetts welcomed the congregants to rise for the kaddish, the mourner's prayer. The setting was cozy, and the rabbi asked each mourner to name the deceased and state their relationship. I hesitated for a moment, wondering whether it was appropriate to stand for a four-legged creature, my beloved shih tzu, but my husband nudged me with his eyes. "Chelsea, my dog," I said, when my turn came. The rabbi nodded, and I collapsed into tears. It had been months since Chelsea died, but the pain seared through my flesh and bones.

Human death is buffered by a series of rituals, from time off work to family support to funerals. Not so for our creatures. Dealing with an animal's death is a far more haphazard event. There are no assumptions about what a grieving person needs. There is no template for how society handles the tragedy.

Chelsea died about a year ago. He died on a Tuesday night. I spent Wednesday alone because my husband felt compelled to go to his then-tenuous job. His employer would not allow him additional time off because he'd already taken his personal and vacation days.

I drifted through the day, lingering on the telephone with friends, weeping. My husband called several times to check on me. He was handling funeral details, which was the only thing that gave my day purpose. When the arrangements were made, I called my mother. "Chelsea will be buried at Hartsdale Pet Cemetery on Saturday," I said. "The funeral will be at 11 A. M."

"We have an appointment that day," my mother said. She and my father had a bridge game.

Stung with hurt, I called a couple of close friends and my cousins in New Jersey. They jotted down the details and said they'd be there. Jack and Judith, my upstairs neighbors and the guardians of Chelsea's longtime companion, Chloe, also made a commitment to come. Even my ex-husband promised to attend. I'd contacted him, even though we hadn't spoken in a year, because I knew how much he cherished Chelsea. He cried when I broke the news.

Chelsea died six weeks after doctors told me he had a nasal tumor, a rare form of cancer in animals. I chose not to subject him to radiation treatment because he was 12 years old, but I expected he would live for several months following the diagnosis. Except for the struggle to breathe through his nose, he remained vibrant, sociable and alert.

Chelsea deteriorated rapidly over a span of 48 hours, first showing no interest in food and eventually rising up and collapsing repeatedly with labored breathing. The Animal Medical Center in New York gave him oxygen on Sunday, and his local veterinarian tried insulin on Monday. By Tuesday he was near death, but the veterinarian assured me he could go on like this for several days. We asked the vet to come to our apartment to euthanize Chelsea, and my husband held him to the end. I thrashed in the bedroom, crying hysterically, aware at times that I was hyperventilating. My husband clipped a lock of Chelsea's silky hair.

On Friday, we drove to Hartsdale Cemetery, about 40 minutes north of Manhattan, to pick out a casket, gravesite and headstone. My husband called his employer and said we had a medical emergency. Hartsdale is an eternal refuge of love perched on a grassy knoll in Westchester County. More than 100,000 animals, including one lion cub, rest in this former apple orchard, today the oldest pet cemetery in America. Tributes to animals engraved on small headstones tell the story of unconditional love. Some headstones are festooned with photographs of the departed. For Chelsea, I chose a pink marble monument inscribed with the words "Chelsea: My Heartbeat, My Heart," and adorned with his portrait.

The next day was the funeral. My small entourage, including Chelsea's dog friend, Chloe, gathered first for a private viewing in the main house and then trekked down the hill to the open grave. It was a chill winter's day with dim sunshine. My husband read a poem he'd written about Chelsea. Everybody said a few words. I thanked Jack and Judith, a couple about the age of my mother and father, for being good surrogate parents to Chelsea, and to me. Judith gave me a book on grieving. My ex-husband said Chelsea was a unique soul.

Returning to the car, I wondered why my cousins hadn't shown up. When we last spoke, they were coming. They never called to tell me they weren't. Two months later, I let them know that I was surprised and disappointed that they didn't attend. My cousin told me that they had a very busy schedule that weekend and just couldn't fit it in...

In the Jewish religion, a funeral is followed by a shiva, a week-long period of mourning after the burial of a close relative. I didn't expect family to gather around me. Instead, my husband and I retreated for the Berkshires in Massachusetts where we rent a place that feels like home. I brought pictures of Chelsea with me. Darielle, Chelsea's onetime dog walker and occasional pet-sitter, had heard the news and called. "Sunshine and Blu (her deceased canines) came down to Earth and took Chelsea back with them to heaven," she said, assuring me that his soul was still with me. I think she was right. At night, he appeared in my mind's eye, not so much in a dream as in a vision. I could feel his presence. I wanted to smell him.

For several weeks, I was angry with my parents. In an effort to extend an olive branch, my mother said she would like to visit Chelsea's grave.

I go to Chelsea's resting place once a month, and of course I'll be there when the one-year anniversary rolls around in December. As a matter of Jewish religious tradition, there is an unveiling of the headstone on the first anniversary of a loved one's death. This is a time when friends and family come to pay their respects. But our visit to Chelsea's grave will be a private affair for my husband and me. We will recount the joy that Chelsea brought to our lives. I will remember with gratitude those who held me up in my time of grief. I will try to forgive those who made such a painful moment all the more painful.

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