BY MARTA HEPLER DRAHOS
Traverse City Record-Eagle
---- — TRAVERSE CITY — Kerri Collier knows better than most the grief that can follow the death of a beloved pet.
She sees it all as owner of Great Lakes Pet Memorial and Crematory in Traverse City.
"Most people are sad when they're here. There's a lot of tears shared," said Collier, who opened the business in 2007 with her husband, Dustin. "Most people just want to talk about their pet and what they meant to them. Sometimes it's a tragedy — they were hit by a car. If they were taken before their time, it's just a little harder."
The business will sponsor a “Pet Celebration of Life" Remembrance & Healing Ceremony May 30 to honor the memories of pets loved and lost. The 7 p.m. service at Living Hope Church will feature guest speakers, poetry readings, a remembrance slideshow and a "Rainbow Bridge" video tribute to animal companions. The Rainbow Bridge is a popular poem among animal lovers which refers to a mythical place "just this side of heaven" where a pet goes upon its death, eventually to be reunited with its owner.
Collier said the service is modeled after others many successful pet memorial businesses organize annually for their clients. It's a chance for people who have experienced the death of a pet to meet others, tell their stories and "know that they're not alone."
"It's to honor the memories of people’s pets, to acknowledge that this is a real loss and that people can be sad for a long time," said Collier, who lost her own pet — Dexter, a Dalmation — in February. "Non-pet people don’t understand the loss. They say, 'Aren’t you going to get another dog?' 'I can’t believe you’re crying over a dog.' They don't understand that pets provide that unconditional love and acceptance. We don’t get that from most people."
Veterinarian and pet foster volunteer Valerie Prettyman knows the profound joy pets bring and the equally profound sorrow owners feel at their loss. She'll read a poem at the ceremony and talk about euthanasia and what it means to her to be able to provide the service for her patients.
"I have a background in human medicine so I see a lot of end-of-life issues and suffering," said Prettyman, who works at Animal Medical Center and is a volunteer with the pet rescue group AC Paw. "With my patients I don't have to let them suffer ... I can let them go and I can reassure (their caretakers) that it's the best thing for them. It's not quantity of life, it's quality of life. It's a little different from some of our other medical colleagues."
Barbara and John Peters lost six dogs since moving to northern Michigan in 1996. The retired Long Lake Township couple are members of the Grand Traverse Kennel Club and leaders of a 4-H group that trains kids to train their dogs. They also compete in dog agility events around the state.
They buried three of the dogs in a small wooded cemetery near their home and keep the ashes of the others in urns. A few ashes of two of the dogs, Rainy and Brae, also are sealed in urn keychains and Brae is memorialized in a pawprint keepsake.
"It's hard," said Barbara Peters, who sent photos of the dogs to Collier for inclusion in the remembrance ceremony slideshow. "The ones you have to take to the vet, it's very hard. It got so hard emotionally for John to dig the graves that we stopped doing it. That’s why we have them cremated now.
"I know there are people out there who don’t have dogs, who say, 'They’re just a dog.' But that’s because they don’t have a dog. If you have a dog, you're going to love them. Our dogs are our family. They go everywhere with us."
Collier believes the pet remembrance service is the first of its kind in the area, though "Blessing of the Animals" ceremonies have taken place at other churches. Living Hope Church agreed to host the ceremony because she attends services there, but when she approached senior pastor Carey Waldie about speaking at it, he told her it would be a first for him.
While many faiths believe that animals don't have souls, more and more religious leaders are changing their stance. In their "Animals in Heaven?" video, evangelists Jack and Rexella Van Impe assure viewers that they will see their furry and feathered friends again — in heaven. On the website billygraham.org, evangelist Billy Graham says, “If animals would make us happier in heaven, surely there will be a place for them there.”
Collier said she hopes the service will become an annual event that brings peace and comfort to bereaved pet owners.
"I've had some people say they went to a Christian school and they were taught that grieving over animals is wrong," she said. "How is that wrong? We grieve for whatever was important to us."
Living Hope Church is is located at 3050 S. Airport Road W. There is no charge for the service, but those who plan to attend should RSVP and send photos and names of pets they want to be included in the slideshow to info@GLPetMemorial.com.