Sense of Presence

It is not easy to stop and be present. Our sense of presence is the most powerful gift we can offer, and in turn, we can draw out that quality in others. There is a tremendous value in simply being able to sit still and be with another. Being present has a quality of stability that can communicate in the midst of activity as well as when we are sitting still. No matter what is swirling around, no matter how chaotic or difficult the situation is, the sense of presence is a stabilizing force. When we lose contact with what is going on, we can touch back in through that sense of presence. It is completely reliable…. like the earth.
~ Judith L. Lief, Making Friends with Death

The Vigil

There is both ancient and modern wisdom in natural, after-death care that reminds us of the potential for reverence, beauty, meaning, and healing in honoring our loved ones who have gone on before us. Bringing death care for animals, as well as humans, into the awareness and reach of our families, friends, and communities allows us to connect with, heal, and benefit from this ancient wisdom while paying homage to our deceased loved ones. Although there is no time limit to keeping vigil, one often lasts between one and three days

Just as there is no limit to the amount of time one holds vigil, whether it’s a few hours or a few days, there is also no limit on what you can do to prepare the space. When suitable, you can begin setting up the space where the vigil will take place before death occurs. Vigils may or may not include the body of the deceased. The following list shares some examples of how a space can be created. The important thing is that the space is meaningful to you in honoring your loved one:

  • If you plan on keeping vigil with the body of the deceased present for longer than 24 hours, you will want to purchase dry ice to keep the body sufficiently cooled. Dry ice can be purchased from many grocery stores year-round. Call the grocery store ahead of time to confirm it is in stock. You will want to purchase enough dry ice, according to the size of your pet and the length of time you plan on keeping vigil. Typically, in a 65 – 75 degree space, the dry ice can last about 12 -24 hours before evaporating. You will want to purchase new dry ice for each day of the vigil if it is evaporating quickly.
  • Purchase or create an appropriately sized box (cardboard, wooden, plastic) that will be large enough to hold your pet, the dry ice, blankets, flowers, toys, treats, and anything else you may want to include in this space. Cut a side of the box so that it does not hinder the viewing of your pet during the vigil.
  • Line the container first with solid, heavy-duty plastic and then with paper bags or a solid piece of cardboard. While wearing protective leather gloves (never touch dry ice with bare skin, it will burn you – a pair of average leather work gloves will suffice to keep your skin protected) and keeping the dry ice within the sealed plastic containers you purchased it in, arrange the blocks of dry ice in an even layer to cover the area where your pet’s body will be laid. Place another layer of paper bags or cardboard over the layer of dry ice and then another layer of solid plastic on top of that.
  • Depending on the size of your pet, you may want to have the receptacle that their body will be laid upon, placed on a table or other raised surface. Be sure to cover this surface with something to protect it from the cold temperatures of the dry ice, especially if the surface is wooden. A layer of plastic with blankets or towels on top of the plastic will protect the surface.
  • You are now ready to cover the container with blankets, tapestries, and/or any other items you wish to include to create a beautiful space for the vigil. Be sure to create some kind of pillow or raised area to keep your pets head elevated at about a 35-degree angle to help prevent possible discharge from mouth and/or nose. If discharge does occur while the body is sufficiently raised and cooled, you can dab it with an absorbent tissue as needed.
  • Once your pet’s body has been laid in the container you have prepared, you may want to keep a potty pad or other absorbent material to catch any urine or feces that may leave your pet’s body. Change this pad as needed.
  • You may or may not wish to cover your pet’s body with a nice blanket or shroud. Be sure to leave their head out of the blanket if you want to see them. Perhaps you would want to use their favorite blanket if they had one.
  • Again, there is no limit to what you can include in the vigil space such as candles, photos, toys, treats, memorial keepsakes, flowers, etc.
  • You can feel free to keep the vigil private with only close family members and other pets, or you may want to invite others outside of your household who knew and loved your pet to share in the vigil for as much or as little time as you feel appropriate. The peace and presence of this special space can be healing for them too and it may feel good to share treasured memories, stories, tears, and laughter with one another.
  • Once your vigil is complete, you can take your pet for cremation or prepare for home burial as needed. There is no rush to remove the items from the vigil space. In fact, you may want to keep photos, flowers, toys, collars, and other memorial keepsakes either in the same area or create a memorial space somewhere else in your home.
  • If considering cremation services, be sure to check with the facilities staff ahead of time if you would like to have your pet’s body cremated as is along with blankets, toys, flowers, etc.

The tranquility and healing within the sacred space of a vigil can be incredibly profound and life changing. The vigil allows for a time and space to pause, reflect, connect, and simply Be – while honoring the love you and your pet share and tending to your own grief journey by fully leaning into it. Sometimes it can even be a little less painful to prepare for cremation or burial after the vigil as you have had the time to witness and be present with your loved one, now at peace in a beautiful, tranquil space.