We recently lost a beloved member of our family. I sat with my sister on the veterinarian’s floor and said goodbye to her 12-year-old Labrador, Sadie May, one of the best dogs we’d ever known. Heartbreak and devastation of course descended like stifling fogs. Even when a cherished, elderly dog is sick beyond cure and declining for weeks or months, the end always feels far too sudden and permanent.
I ordered flowers to be delivered at my sister’s house the next day—the extra-large arrangement with white roses and lilies. You know the one: It always seems ridiculously expensive and decadent until the moment when you abruptly realize that it can never be big and beautiful enough.
The deliveryman rang the bell at my sister’s door, but she didn’t get out of bed to answer. As the hours passed, various neighbors in her Pennsylvania development of standalone houses, carriage houses and townhouses started calling and texting her, asking her to please go outside because a beautiful vase full of flowers was wilting on her front stoop, in the scorching July heat.
My sister didn’t think to wonder how they all knew the flowers were there. She simply gathered the pieces of her broken heart and trudged downstairs to open the door.
“They’re beautiful,” she said when she called me a few minutes later. “But were they supposed to come with a pile of loose dog treats?”
Sadie May, you see, had a lot of friends in that neighborhood. She played with the Golden Retriever who lives up the street, and the Saint Bernard from across the way, and the West Highland White Terrier who sometimes came over for visits, and a whole host of other dogs she’d wag her tail to see while walking with my sister around the development’s path. As news spread of Sadie May’s death, each of those dogs, with their owners, had been coming by my sister’s place and leaving a treat. The Milk-Bones and Buddy Biscuits and Old Mother Hubbard classics were piled like a roadside memorial on her front porch, right next to the flowers.
“It was really sweet,” my sister said, “because I could guess by the size of the bone which dog had left it. They’re all going to miss her too.”
I’d never heard of fellow dog lovers leaving treats in sympathy that way, but the practice reminded me of how Jewish people leave stones on graves, symbolizing the lasting presence of the deceased person’s memory. The stones, obviously, survive far longer than flowers. And once you understand their purpose, leaving any old random stone plucked from the nearby grass takes on a powerful, inspiring meaning.
The next time a beloved member of my own neighborhood pack dies, I’m going to pluck a crunchy biscuit from my treat cabinet and urge others to do the same. Who knew that an everyday treat, transformed into a token of sympathy, could be bigger and more beautiful than any flowers imaginable?
Kim Kavin’s most recent book is “The Dog Merchants: Inside the Big Business of Breeders, Rescuers, and Pet Stores,” which will be released August 15 in paperback. She lives in New Jersey with her adopted mutts, Blue and Ginger, who are going to miss their cousin Sadie May very, very much.