“You Killed Lilly!”: Losing a Childhood Pet

“You Killed Lilly!”: Losing a Childhood Pet

It was the summer of 1979 about 5:30 in the afternoon, that warm time of day when all the neighborhood kids were outside playing basketball and skateboarding. Life was good, we were a bunch of clueless kids without a care in the world, enjoying one of those long, California, summer afternoons.

comstinkyquotespet-1-1-1At the bottom of our driveway was Lilly, the family dog & neighborhood mascot. Our 12 year old black Cocker Spaniel was relaxing in the sun and keeping an eye on us . . . she had no idea she was about to meet Mr. Goodyear.

Little did we know that inside our house a storm was brewing between my sister and my Mom. My sister (she is still in the witness protection program ; ) wanted to borrow the car to go out with her girlfriend, but Mom had said “no”. After much pleading and begging, my Mom finally gave in and let my sister have the keys. As it turns out these were the keys to the Pearly Gates for Lilly . . . you can see where this is going! My sister backed down the driveway without knowing Lilly was there. Bam, bam, bark bark, yelp, bye bye, Lilly! To our amazement Lilly was still in one piece without looking any different, she must have had a heart attack just seeing the car coming at her.

The neighborhood skateboarders where ready to mob Colleen as she ran into our house crying. We all stood around Lilly, in shock that the neighborhood dog was dead and no longer with us, we had no clue what to do from here.

As a kid you never really appreciate your parents until life starts handing you some life lessons. My Dad, Joe O’Connor, a third generation funeral director rode up to save the day, and no, he was not driving the company hearse.

If you know my Dad, he is a no-nonsense type of guy, I call him my “John Wayne cowboy.” Dad assessed the situation and immediately took charge. “Joey go get the shovel,” “Neil go get a blanket,” he went and got two 2x4s. Dad took off Lilly’s collar and carefully wrapped her in the blue blanket. The whole neighborhood stood watching as we began preparing to say goodbye to our well-loved dog.

You could sense the WOW factor – this crazy Irish family was going to town on a home burial. As my Dad dug the grave in our front yard our friendly neighbor poked her head out and yelled, “ You are not going to bury that dog in your front yard!” My dad slowly turned to look at her, and without losing his digging-rhythm, said, “Yes we are, and you need to go back into your house.” She took his advice and went back inside her home without another word.

Pet Grave

Photo Credit: www.flickr.com | St. Andrew’s Cemetery, Rozellville, WI.

Once the grave was dug, we placed dear old dead Lilly in her new earthly home. We all took turns with the shovel, slowly covering Lilly with the earth. We built a cross with the 2x4s, wrote Lilly’s name on it and marked where she was buried. We all gathered around the grave, held hands and said a quick prayer, then placed Lilly’s collar on the cross.

That was that, and Lilly was gone. We all had the look of what is next? Not sure what to do, we slowly went back to our houses in tears.

Looking back in time I realize that my Dad helped all of us process Lilly’s death. The ceremony we held provided stability and order in the chaos of our early grief. Lilly was not only a family/neighborhood dog; she was a valued member of our family and our surrounding community.

Life Is Short, Play with Your Dog

Photo Credit: www.puppykisses.com

I learned from Lilly’s death and my Dad’s direction that the ceremonies we observe when a loved one dies have an important purpose, not only for the immediate family but also for the entire community of friends and associates.

We were given a place to say goodbye, we all got to play a part in her burial, and our neighborhood now had a new marker that stood erected in Lilly’s memory.

Even though grief was an unfamiliar landscape for us kids, we were shepherded by my father into a direction of healing amidst our grief. The ceremony we held made it possible for all of us to feel the loss together and feel the impact that one sweet old dog had had on all of our lives.

Did you ever have a funeral for a pet? What was it like?

Why do you think ceremonies like these are important?

Neil

About Neil

I was born into a large Irish Catholic family in 1967 as the youngest of seven children. My Grandfathers were best friends & coincidentally, both owners of funeral homes. John Cox (Oakland) had Joseph A. O’Connor (Los Angeles)or “Johnny” as his best man at his wedding. My parents, Joe & Jane O’Connor, met through the friendships of my grandparents. I moved to Laguna Niguel as a child & graduated from Dana Hills High School in 1986. I served in the Navy before finally joining the family business in 1989 and establishing the 4th generation of our family-owned & operated business. In 2000, after the retirement of my father, I became the President & CEO of O’Connor Mortuary. I met my wife, Lisa, in Maui while on a yoga retreat in 2003 and we now have a son - Jesse Joseph O’Connor – the pride & joy of my life. I still actively play Beach Volleyball at Victoria Beach in Laguna Beach and practice Ashtanga Yoga, I’m extremely passionate about these practices, about staying healthy and balanced in my body, mind & soul. As CEO I am privileged to be involved with partners in our community such as Saddleback Hospital, Mission Hospital, Age Well Senior Services, San Juan Capistrano Chamber of Commerce, TIP Trauma Intervention Program, and many others. My driving passion is to provide education, care & support to my family, friends & community. I love helping others when they need it the most.
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  • Bill Hoy

    What a touching story, Neil. You never know where your first experience with a funeral will lead you, now do you?

    • Hi Bill –

      I never realized I would go down this path. I am deeply grateful that I have joined this noble profession. I am thankful for all your support and education along the way.

  • I think I was about 7 when my dad buried our pet Boston Terrier in a back yard flower bed. A couple of weeks later my mom planted a rose bush on that spot. 15 years later that rose bush was the grandest plant in the entire back yard. I’ve often wondered if there was a connection?

    Thanks for sharing your story Neil…I’ll hug my pooch today.

    • Hi Mike –

      Thank you for your response, yes we all do make great fertilizer. The area where Lilly was buried all the plants grew like crazy.

  • GREG FORSTER

    Neil,

    Thanks for sharing this. You made me remember a few of the times when I lost pets, especially ones I felt a bond with or had had a long relationship with. I think your dad did a terrific job in handling this situation and was especially sensitive to the fact that your dog was special to not only you and your family, but also to all the other kids on the street. Making your dog’s memory a priority over how meticulous your front yard looked was just the very best thing to do. I can imagine your friends walking or riding their bikes by for some time to come after that, feeling a part of what happened, feeling included. What a wonderful way to acknowledge and value the community that you were a part of!

    Greg

    • Hi Greg –

      Thank you for your reply! Looking back it was an amazing experience in a difficult time. My Dad handled it like a professional!

  • Neil, your experience reminds me so much of my sweet pet rat that we had a funeral for. That service was really important to me, so much so that, like you, I can still remember it today.

    Thanks for sharing your great story & reminding all of us that commemoration, gathering, and remembering whatever it is that we have loved and lost is invaluable to the human experience & process of healing.

    Molly Keating

    • Hi Molly –

      Thank you for your reply! Ever life has value, and we should all honor all of Gods creatures.
      I am glad you had such a special place in your heart for your Rat, even the smalls of animals can bring joy to our lives.

  • Cheryl Lanterna

    Thanks for the great insight into the importance of ceremony, honesty and acceptance in the face of loss. Losing a pet can be devastating to all of us and being taught that death is a part of life is a valuable lesson for a child. Well written!

    • Hi Cheryl –

      Thank you for your reply. All of our pets become part of our family and give us so many great memories. It is hard to say goodbye, yet that simple ceremony helped all of us move forward.
      I still love Lilly!

  • Diane Kopylow

    This reminds me of a time when we, as a newly joined family (our daughters aged 9 months apart and me and my new husband) gathered to bury Brazilian green snakes we had bought for both of them. We had been gone on a family vacation to San Francisco for 5 days and when we returned the snakes were struggling to survive, even though we had left crickets in their cage for them to eat. One daughter was interested in reptiles; the other needed to learn an appreciation of them to understand her new sister’s interests. It was painful to see them die from the tail-end up; yet we knew not what to do to help them. In their passing, we decided on a snake burial at the side of the house which included dress attire complete with hats and bible. The dress attire was a part one daughter knew well. The other daughter was accepting of the protocol in spite of the reptilian life of the snakes. In the long run, both daughters learned valuable lessons in the sad demise of these two beautiful snakes.

    • Patricia Kolstad

      Hello dear friend . . .
      It’s amazing that we move in that direction to help our children understand a valuable lesson. That all life is worth honoring. Children more than not learn from the death of their pets. It’s a critical lesson in the “circle of life”

      Thanks so much for your comments . . . I always look forward to you sharing your words of wisdom.

      Pt

    • Patricia Kolstad

      Hello dear friend . . .
      It’s amazing that we move in that direction to help our children understand a valuable lesson. That all life is worth honoring. Children more than not learn from the death of their pets. It’s a critical lesson in the “circle of life”

      Thanks so much for your comments . . . I always look forward to you sharing your words of wisdom.

      Pat

    • Hi Diane –

      Thank you for your reply. That is an amazing story! I am glad you could give your children an opportunity to say goodbye, you have taught them a valuable lesson.

    • Hi Diane –

      Thank you for your reply! I love you story about your family and your snakes. It makes total sense to honor the ones you love, regardless of species. You have created a healthy ritual in your family.

  • Ms. Fran Cantor

    Hi Neil,

    You touch a a lovely subject that touch my Heart. We had a Mini Sheltie call “SUMMER” she was
    with us on first day of “SUMMER” She was are pride and joy of the Family gave so much love to al
    of us thru out our lives. Her sweet Disposition was embraced. My Dear Husband had pass
    away than six months later she did. She care sooo much for my Husband they had walk together
    all the time. It was very difficult time for myself & Children having to bare lost of our Love One
    & Pet. To console my children I said she had miss their DAD and went with him. That seem to
    accept their reasoning. We were Bless to have an adorable “Summer” Thanks Neil for the
    Memory. Miss having her on my LAP.!!!!! Take Care!!! Frannie

    • Hi Frannie –

      Thank you for your reply. I love the name you gave Summer, I am sorry for the loss of your Husband & Summer. I am glad you have fond memories of your family.

  • Anne

    Neil
    The unfortunate thing about pets is they live many years less than us even under the best of circumstances. But when sisters get the car and had to beg so long, all they want to do now is get where they planned to go, a pet better be nowhere in the vicinity. Sorry for Lilly.
    Lou and I had many, many pets. Often 3 dogs at a time plus a cat. One time when April was a toddler, Lou opened the gate to our yard where we lived at the time to drive to the corner grocer for a pack of cigarettes. The sweet little terrier we had at the time, somehow got out and wanting to ride along, got under the wheels, unbeknownst to Lou and was crushed.
    To the end of his life, Lou will feel remorse for that little ball of fluff. We all loved her…him most of all. He will care for all the animals of heaven in some way, we have always said, because his love for pets often seemed to exceed his love for humans. xoxo Annie

    • Hi Anne –

      Thanks for your reply! I love the thought of Lou being the care taker for our pets that have gone before us. XOXO

  • Becky

    Neil,
    What a touching story of your beloved dog. It brings back memories for all of us who have lost a family pet and reminds us that it is not the type or the size of ceremony that is important but that we use ceremony to allow ourselves to grieve our losses as a family and a community. Thank you for sharing.

    • Hi Becky –

      Thank you for your reply! I believe ceremonies are important not matter what the species maybe, the relationship only matters.

  • karilyn

    Neil,
    What a great glimpse into the life of you, Lilly, and your neighborhood growing up. My first dog was a beautiful golden retriever that Mom & Dad named Brandy. She was the center of my universe for many years. My best friend, playmate, confidant and security. She taught me about new life (puppies) loss (a couple of her babies didn’t make it) love, loyalty, and obedience. She was THE BEST dog!! Brandy girl lived to the ripe old age of 11. I was 16 yers old when my Daddy had to put her down. I wasn’t there, we didn’t have a ceremony and I miss her still to this day. Since then, I’ve buried a few cats, all with pomp and circumstance. When we moved into our new home, we brought the marker for our cat O’Malley who was 13 when he died last year. I couldn’t leave without my Malley Brat.
    Love you Neil,
    Thanks again….
    kari

    • Hi Kari

      Thanks for your reply! I love that you brought the marker with you to your new home!

  • Carrie Bayer

    Neil, this makes me like your dad even more. He took charge, knowing exactly what to do. I see a lot of this in you. He knew what tasks needed to be done but more importantly, he knew that a ceremony was absolutely necessary for sweet Lilly. That is what the family & neighborhood needed so he provided it. As sad as Lilly’s death is, the lesson is amazing. I’ve never had a funeral ceremony for my pets but if I had kids, we would be having many ceremonies over the years. Thank you, Neil! XOXOX Carrie

    • Hi Carrie –

      Thank you for you kind words! I would encourage you to have some type of ceremony the next time one of your spiders die!

  • Patricia Kolstad

    Hi Neil:

    My first memory of losing a pet was our family dog. He was coal black, and a cocker/water spaniel mix. My dad found him in the oil fields on Signal Hill and brought him home. The refinery worker said he didn’t know he got there, that it was a mystery. So my dad named him Hindu – he thought it meant mystery. Hindu was the greatest friend. At night when we all would be in front of the TV, my brother and I on the floor, he would lay his head on my lap and never move. The reason being, if he moved, my mom, who hated cleaning up the black hair he would leave everywhere, would say “Hindu, get on your rug”. Then he new. “I moved”. Slowly, with head down, and talking the whole way . . . you know what that sounds like “dog talk” . . . he would make his way to his rug, which was never more than a few feet from where we all were. But it was banishment to him. He just hated it. And he wouldn’t quit “talking back”. Enough so that my mom would be so frustrated because she couldn’t hear the TV, she would say, “ok, get up”. And back to my lap he would come.

    When my dad would come home from work, the whole neighborhood knew. Out we would run to meet my dad at the curb, shouting “daddy’s home, daddy’s home”, and Hindu barking at the highest soprano pitch imaginable. I knew he was echoing our “Daddy’s home” squeals. What joy it was . . remembering now like it was yesterday.

    One day, when I got home from school, he wasn’t there. I don’t remember him being sick, or not like himself. But maybe he was. When I asked my mom, she said she didn’t know where he was. When my dad came home, he said he must have ran away. I couldn’t believe that this little black dog, who loved us all so much, would run away. I remember crying for many days. Never knowing what happened to my sweet friend. I don’t know to this day, if he was taken to the vet, if he was hit by a car, or if he really did run away. Thinking about it now makes me so very sad. He was precious, trusting, lovable, gentle,
    faithful. And he was gone.

    I admire family’s that speak the truth about death, dying and the ceremony that honors the one who has died. As I married and had children, our family pet, a beautiful golden retriever named Brandy, developed cancer of the spine. It was a long, slow death, and the decision was made to end her suffering. Understandably so, it was the beginning of ours. But I remember my kids crying . . so hurt by the loss of their companion. She too, was gentle, loving, faithful, an intricate part of our little family. We didn’t have a ceremony, but we did talk about her and all of the ways she touched our lives. And, we missed her.

    Thanks Neil, for sharing this important life lesson. It’s so important to acknowledge and honor those in our lives that have meant so much.

    Your friend,
    Pat

  • Hi Pat –

    Thank you for your reply! I love the name of your Dog, Hindu how did you come up with that? I love your stories about your family and childhood. What a great memory for you!