As I came out of the church into the narthex, she was standing over by the nametag boxes. I could see how distraught she was: red cheeks, and still tears at the corner of her eyes. I knelt down next to her, and asked her how she was doing. She burst into tears as she told me that her fish had died that morning, and threw herself into hugging me.
The tears slowed, and her breathing calmed. She asked me if I could come help her bury her fish that afternoon. I was deeply touched to be invited to be part of helping her in her grief, and very sorry that I couldn’t be there because of a family commitment. We talked some more, and she was very happy when I offered to share a special prayer with her mom that they could use as they buried the fish.
Later, in my office, I skimmed through the United Church’s Celebrating God’s Presence liturgical book. Years ago, I’d enjoyed a talk given by the Reverend Doctor William Kervin. Bill is the professor of public worship at Emmanuel College at the University of Toronto, and was heavily involved with the project that created CGP. He spoke that evening about someone bringing up the need for the death of a pet, and how his initial response had been one of frustration—after all, CGP is a very large binder, and yet there isn’t room for a prayer for every occasion! He described how that impression had shifted, as he heard more about caring for those for whom animals are companions and as needed helpers as service animals. That led to conversations about the reality that grief over the death of a pet is real and complicated and lacks the formal markers that are so important to us as we gather for a Christian funeral. The conversations led to a prayer more aimed at adults, and the prayer that I shared with her for use that afternoon, which is meant for when small children are present:
we know that you love us and all creatures, large and small.
We know that you love N. (name of pet/animal) too.
We thank you for the time we shared, the fun we had,
and for the good memories we will always remember.
We ask you to take care of N. (name of pet/animal) now,
and to take care of us in this time of sadness. Amen.
[from page 508; composed by Robyn Brown Hewitt]
What I like most about the prayer is what it does presuppose and what it doesn’t. It celebrates God’s care and concern for the goodness of creation, and the comprehensive and all-encompassing nature of that love. It rejoices in the ways the pet or animal was gift to those who lived with the pet or animal. It asks for help as we trust in God’s continuing care for all—and does not presuppose what that looks like for us.
My conversation with the young person I serve was one of those special gifts that are part of parish ministry. It was a time where we were able to talk about what really matters in her life, and how God is present and cares. We don’t need to have prayers we can pull from resources for these pastoral moments, but in this case the one that I was dimly remembering was a gift and help to her and her family. (There’s also a lovely one not designed for use with children.)
What are some of the times you’ve been delighted to have liturgical ways of marking important pastoral moments with those you love and serve?