Floating Lantern Pet Memorial 2016 took place just a little over one month ago on September 11th at Bloedel Donovan Park in Bellingham, WA. The event was sponsored by Life Cycle Pet Cremation and organized by yours truly. It has taken me more than one month and several drafts of this blog to adequately put my thoughts about the event into words. In retrospect, only one word is needed: release.

As the director of a pet-only funeral home and cremation service, most of the time I interact with clients in their moment of need – just before, or immediately after, the death of a pet. It’s that intense window of time when the long and often complicated grief process begins. It’s a time when the pet parent is still clutching to memories, feelings, grief, and sometimes their sanity.

The climbing back out part of emotional healing, the part I’m usually not privy to, is just the opposite. It’s defined by release. Release is not something I often experience in my work-life.

Until the moment the lanterns were actually placed into the water last month, I honestly didn’t realize that the release of the lanterns would be the focal point of Floating Lantern. I thought the main point would be the float—watching all of those lanterns glowing on the water, and contemplating the special lives represented.

I was wrong.

This was only the second year Life Cycle had sponsored a Floating Lantern, and in 2015 we didn’t have the opportunity to release the lanterns into the water, much less see them float. The weather was far too rough for the generic lanterns purchased for the event.

Between September 2015 and September 2016, my focus was on designing and constructing  lanterns that would float no matter what. Did I really think much about how the design would affect the release of the lantern? No. Not really. I just thought about it actually floating. In fact, whenever I pictured the event in my mind, I imagined seeing the lanterns already out on the water.

Who can blame me? Photographs of other floating lantern ceremonies almost always show the lanterns in mid-float. Little photographic emphasis is given to the moment of release. (A problem easily fixed.)

So, other than whether or not the lanterns would float, my other concerns were largely logistic. Did we have enough supplies? Would we stay on schedule? Would the weather cooperate? Did I adequately assign tasks to the volunteers? Etc., etc. The actual moment of release really wasn’t much of a concern for me except that I hoped it would happen, more or less, in unison.

At 7:35 p.m. on Sunday, September 11, 2016, I walked toward the beach, ready to start the ceremony. Most of the participants were already in place, sitting in chairs, laying on blankets, or standing around talking. They looked over the lanterns arranged on the wall between the two stairways that led to the sandy beach, or expectantly looked out toward the lake in a lovely organic silhouette.  I remember asking myself, “What are they thinking about? Are they, like me, imagining what it will look like when the lanterns are on the water?”

After a short speech, the moment of release arrived, and I invited the participants to join me at the water’s edge. As we stood there together, I felt an unexpected wave of intense energy and wondered if others felt it, too. I gently placed the lantern decorated in honor of pets affected by the tragedies of 9/11/2001 onto the water, and then the other participants followed my lead. Once the lanterns were all on the water, it was as if a collective and silent emotional sigh was released, too.

After a few minutes a problem arose. The lanterns had beautifully floated a few feet out onto the water but then turned and began heading for the sandy point at the east end of the beach. When the volunteer in charge of the kayakers suggested that we take the lanterns out of the water and have everyone release them again off of the pier, I instinctively answered, “no.” Once the lanterns were floating, once they had been released from the hands of human loved ones onto the water, there was no going back. It would be far better for a few volunteers to wade into the water and gently push the lanterns by hand, as far out as possible, and that’s what we did.

Standing knee deep in lake water along with fellow volunteer Hap Luedtke, I felt both an intense feeling of responsibility and communion. The lanterns gently bobbed around us as if they were playing, waiting for their turn to be gently pushed further out into the water, away from the shore and their loved ones. Pet parents huddled at the water’s edge, each slowly tracking their pet’s lantern with their feet and eyes, not quite ready to separate from what the lantern represented.

Eventually Hap and I had nudged the lanterns far enough away from the beach so that they floated around the sandy point and into the greater part of Lake Whatcom. It was what I had been looking forward to— the moment when the lanterns would be seen as a beautiful floating group. So it was a pretty big shock when folks started leaving. We had allowed time for the lanterns to float for more than an hour, and yet less than 20 minutes after the lanterns were released, a vast majority of the participants had already left.

Oh.  OK.  It was all about the release. I get it now.

As the sky turned dark blue and the lake turned black, the mild wind slowly pushed the lanterns toward the middle of the lake. The lanterns were duplicated by their reflection on the water. Our 50 lanterns looked like 100. Eventually only a few of us, mainly volunteers, were left to enjoy the beauty of the golden lanterns as they slowly drifted together like a flock of birds. (Lauren McClanahan’s time-lapse photography beautifully captures the movement of the lanterns.)

It was not only a beautiful sight, but it was also comforting, perhaps even healing, to see the lanterns floating as a group. If I could go back and do something differently, I would have encouraged participants to stay a little longer and talk to those around them. I believe our pets would have liked that – to have seen us together, comforting each other on the shore, just as the lanterns that represented our pets’ lives played together on the water.

The next day, Monday morning, a participant stopped by my office to thank me for organizing the event. She had lost her beloved cat a few months back and wasn’t aware that a service like Life Cycle existed. She had felt so guilty about leaving her cat’s body at the vet’s office, not knowing where it would go or how it would be treated. For her, Floating Lantern offered closure.

Closure. Release. It’s all related.

It can be devastatingly difficult to let go of a pet and to witness their passing. However, symbolically letting go of just a little bit of our grief by physically placing a lantern onto the waters of a lake can be incredibly cathartic. This is the lesson of Floating Lantern.

What a privilege to bet part of something that I knew would be special, but really had no idea just how special. I’m already looking forward to next year.