Emma Patterson, 75, is not known for being an emotional person.
But when she recalls memories of Rocky, her beloved Rottweiler — like his love of spinach and vegetables, his doggie dreams, or the way he would give her his paw when she felt sad — Emma's normally steady New York accent begins to crack.
"Rocky was just always there for us,” she says, taking a sip out of her Rottweiler mug, in the short film The Bond. “He knew when you were upset."
The documentary, produced by Patterson's daughter-in-law Sarina Di Mento and son Richard Patterson, both filmmakers, captures the final goodbye that Emma and her husband, Ricardo, said to their beloved pet a decade and a half after his death.
Filmed in the early days of the COVID-19 quarantine, the emotional piece explores the profound and enduring love between humans and their four-legged companions — and the depth of the grief that can come from losing that bond.
Even Emma's grandchildren were moved to see the former head emergency room nurse express herself in such sentimental terms. “It was an opportunity to learn a different part of this woman, who's our mother, who had this experience with a pet 15 years ago,” says Di Mento. “It was so raw, so real."
The short piece chronicles Emma's life with Rocky for about two decades, from the time she adopted him at six months old to the moment — 15 years after his passing — she and Ricardo finally spread his ashes on the shores of a serene, tree-lined lake near their home in Danbury, Connecticut.
A way to express grief over a pet's death
Emma had long struggled with saying goodbye to Rocky. For years she had kept the Rottweiler's ashes in a box, but she could never find the right time or place to scatter them.
Having family around during the early days of the pandemic presented an opportunity to share a special moment together while preparing for the future — she didn't want her kids to have to decide Rocky's final resting place.
At first, Emma did not embrace the idea of filming the emotional moment at first. She didn't think her story was special, and she didn't want to deal with the camera and sound equipment or retakes.
Plus, reliving the grief of losing Rocky was emotionally tough. “I was fighting her tooth and nail,” says Emma of Di Mento's efforts. “She started asking me questions and she made me cry — luckily, she didn't put all that stuff in."
Di Mento knew that Emma's story and the connection she felt to Rocky would resonate with other pet owners who had experienced the same type of loss.
She also wanted the film to serve as a sort of “support system” that could help others feel like part of a community and allow them to reflect on their relationships with their pets.
The filmmaker also wanted to gain a better understanding of that bond for herself. After years of wanting a dog, Di Mento purchased a pandemic puppy earlier this year when she was back home in the Netherlands. She and Richard picked up their six-week-old Goldendoodle from the breeder in December.
In exploring Emma's loss, Di Mento realized she both envies and fears her mother-in-law's bond with Rocky, wondering if she's ready to experience that level of heartache when her new dog, Toby, eventually reaches the end of his life. “I almost feel like I made this film for my future self, so when I do experience the grief of losing my future pet, it will help me navigate that more gracefully,” she says.
In a way, The Bond is like a guidebook to grief, connecting thousands of pet owners to one another. And while the film helped Emma herself move past some of the pain, it also helped her family to see and connect with the matriarch on a deeper level than ever before. “It was a good experience to do the picture,” says Emma. “It let out all my emotions, and now I can talk about him without crying so hard."