“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.
At 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.
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.
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.
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!
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!
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.
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.