What I Learned about My Humanity from My Pet

I had been caught off guard by a griefburst, and it felt as if someone had punched me in the gut as I bodily experienced the sting of grief.

As some griefbursts can be, this one was unpredicted and intense. I was enjoying Masterpiece Theater when the pet belonging to the main character was found dead. It was then that I was transported back in time. I saw Hobbes, our 18-year old cat, sitting on the vet’s table, refusing to lie down as the vet inserted a loaded syringe that would end his life. Now, in front of my television, tears again freely flowed as the ache in my gut returned along with the anger, the guilt, and the profound sadness.

But my mind did not stay there. It moved to that same afternoon at home when I observed from the window my husband expressing his grief. He had dismantled the six-foot tall, carpeted cat condo that he had built for Hobbes, and I stood and watched as billows of smoke drifted into the sky as he burned it piece by piece.

We both felt it: Anger . . . angry that death occurs.

I felt angry about a communication gap between Hobbes and me. Angry that he was unable to clearly convey his own suffering. Angry that I was incapable of communicating to him what was transpiring. I was angry that his life was so short. Angry that a faithful companion was departing. Angry that one so good was being be taken from me. Angry that I was powerless to keep him safe. I was defenseless in a face-to-face confrontation with aging and death.

It was not until the following day when I was home alone that words poured forth as I found my way to express my own grief that helped me in my journey:

 

Ode to Hobbes

Your absence is keenly felt today

            You were my companion as by my side you stayed

            No problem was too small for you to hear

                        And you never were too busy to sit by me with my fears

            You never minimized my pain

                        Nor offered unsolicited advice or gave me blame

                                                                        Your absence is keenly felt today.

Your absence is keenly felt today

            There is only empty space where in the sun you used to lay

            No more clicking of the claws across the floor

                        No more jumping up at those nasty closed doors.

            No more litter pressing against my bare feet

                        No more stealing of the recently vacated warm seat.

                                                                        Your absence is keenly felt today.

 

As is the way of griefbursts, the painful memories of a few years ago had become fresh and alive.

It is a reminder that griefbursts are not discriminating, emerging only after the death of a person. They are not that persnickety. They will disrupt a routine no matter the loss, which means the loss of a pet is not an exception.

If you are reading this and live in the West, I think you would agree with me that our pets make a significant contribution to our lives. Dog and cat videos are posted with regularity on social media. AFV has an element called “The Dog Park.” Movies about pets draw young and old alike, and books such as Marley and Me: Life and Love of the World’s Worst Dog or Dewey: The Small-Town Library Cat Who Touched the World become New York Times best-sellers. The Washington Post points out that while statistics vary as to how many American households have pets, surveys report that anywhere from forty-nine to sixty-eight percent of American households have them.[1] According to 2018 articles in Fortune and Forbes, pet ownership is on the rise with Millennials leading the way. [2] In short, we like our pets.

And yet, as much as we like (and love) our furry critters, telling stories about them, taking pictures of them, how is it that pet loss is a disenfranchised grief, grief that is not socially acceptable?

Maybe you are one of the many who fail to understand how someone could grieve the death of a pet. And really . . . this lack of understanding is not surprising. I mean, how many pet owners would sheepishly admit that they feel a little foolish for experiencing an intense measure of grief after a pet has died? Some may attempt to divert their grief by telling themselves and others, “Get over it. It was only a pet,” and some of these may be simply mimicking their parents’ words that they heard in childhood. But, maybe our slowness to embrace grief due to pet loss says more about our inability to embrace our own vulnerability and our humanity.

While it is true that Hallmark recognizes pet loss in their selection of sympathy cards, how many of us can say that it crosses our minds to send such a card to someone whose pet has died? I would guess that even fewer take a casserole to the bereaved family. And honestly, would we even use the word “bereaved” with a family who is grieving such a loss? After all, it’s just an animal, right? Or is it?

As I reflect on this matter, I wonder if our actions say otherwise, revealing our genuine beliefs about our pets.

Think about what transpires in us when our pet ages. How many of us agonize about it being time to mercifully put down our pet? And then, how many of us feel guilty when we realize that it should have been done sooner? Let’s face it: we are attached to our pets. We have a tendency to create a strong bond with that fuzzy headed creature of ours. In reading an article about pet loss, it is noted how research shows that college-age dog-owners shared a similar level of closeness to their dogs as to family members and friends. The article also speaks of the attachment bond being so great that the pet fulfills a family role.[3]

Pets become so significant, they become like a member of the family. We will even consider rearranging our lives in order to tend to our pet’s needs. This came home to me when a recent chat with a neighbor revealed how their cat suddenly died around Christmas. Seeing abrupt changes in their cat’s behavior, they weighed the options of staying home or traveling out of state to a family gathering in which the extended family would be together for the first time in a long time. While they chose to leave in the end and while the cat died the following day, the story points to our openness to shuffle important events for our pets.

Similar to friends and family, sometimes pets become significant companions at critical periods of fragility in our lives. I recall my own season of deep losses in which tears were frequent. While a wept, I inevitably felt a presence near me or a touch, as Hobbes sat quite close and/or reached out with his paw as if to console me. As Masterpiece Theater reminded me, pets have a knack of being present when no one else is. They demonstrate how presence without words can be a powerful source of comfort.

I recently saw their ability to provide a calming presence at an airport as would-be passengers approached a Newfoundland and its owner who were participants in the Canine Airport Therapy. Such a program uses dogs and one cat to help calm the nerves of travelers.

Or consider with me Olivia the cat. Olivia was a stray cat who was allotted free reign at a hospice house in Minnesota, an organization with which I was personally acquainted. The house, being located in a semi-rural, serene setting, has birds, squirrels, deer, and turkeys whose sightings delight patients and their family members. But the sighting that was of particular significance to the staff was that of Olivia. You see, Olivia became a companion during death. Similar to family members who gathered when a relative was about to die, Olivia had a keen sense when a patient had only hours to live. She would wander into the patient’s room and sit on the bed, refusing to leave until the patient took his/her final breath at which time Olivia promptly departed. I am told that the staff perceived Olivia’s appearance as a signal to forewarn families that it was time to say their good-byes.

Time and time again, pets provide presence as well as a secure attachment, both for which humans long.

This is an age in which staying in touch with others is easier through text and social media despite it being a more mobile one; however, it is also a time when loneliness is being called an epidemic. Generation Z, those who have grown up with cell phones and social media, are now said to be the loneliest group with Millennials coming in a close second.[4] While social media provides a way to stay in touch with friends, let’s face it: it is not a substitute for face-to-face contact in which the five senses are used in our relationships. We are relational beings who long for secure companionship and presence, and our high rate of loneliness in addition to an increase in pet ownership suggests this.

If this is so, then it is no laughing matter to lose a pet. It points to our own deep longings as humans. Marshall Rosenberg’s Compassionate Communication holds that everything we do, we do to meet a need. This means that having a pet meets a human need, such as a secure attachment, a companion who provides comfort. Since having a pet points to such a deep universal quality that helps humans flourish, it is important for me to be sensitive to others when that need is no longer being met because a pet has died. A loss creates a void, including the loss of a pet. Such a loss offers an invitation to embrace my vulnerability and the vulnerability of the other and meet the griever in this void. Pet loss invites me to be present in absence—to be with the other in a grief that is disenfranchised by society.

As a Christ-follower, my mind is drawn to a story when Jesus joined mourners in the void created by death.

John’s Gospel tells of Jesus’ friend, Lazarus, whom he had loved and who had died. By the time Jesus arrived in Lazarus’ town, Lazarus had been in the tomb for four days; despite this, there is a distinct impression in this story that Jesus has a plan. In other words, he seems to be in control of the situation, a theme in John. Yet, when Martha and then Mary approach him, he does not merely say, “Ladies, do not worry. I got this!” He did not trivialize their grief, accusations, and perhaps anger. It is true that he makes an ontological statement about himself, “I am the resurrection and the life,” but he does not use it as a barrier to protect himself from entering into the pain of death. Oh, how easy it would have been for any of us if we were him! He could have fortified his emotions or hidden his vulnerability, similar to our platitudinizing with phrases like “It was her time”; “He is no longer suffering”; “God needed an angel”; or “Crying won’t bring her back.” Instead, he reveals genuine humanity and deity as he weeps (v. 35), is angry, and is greatly distressed (v. 33). His powerful emotions, I believe, are about death and its destruction, and their expression illustrates how he allows himself to enter into grief prior to raising Lazarus from the dead.

For me this means that not only am I, as a human, being invited to companion with another human in his/her void of loss, including in the loss of a pet, I am also being summoned as one who claims to follow Christ. After all, this is what Jesus did, not only in John 11 but also in his very being. Jesus Christ entered into humanity’s void by becoming fully human while remaining fully divine, and in doing so, Christ has formed a secure attachment with humanity.

Holy Spirit, help me to see beyond my own interpretations of human behaviors to see the needs, the deep longings that we all have so that I may be more ready to enter into the grief of the other.

 

[1] Karin Bruilliard and Scott Clement, “How Many Americans Have Pets? An Investigation of Fuzzy Statistics,” The Washington Post, January 31, 2019, https://www.washingtonpost.com/science/2019/01/31/how-many-americans-have-pets-an-investigation-into-fuzzy-statistics/?utm_term=.42298f253a1e (accessed March 25, 2019).

[2] Pamela N. Danziger, “The Pet Retail Market is Hot and Getting Hotter By The Day,” Forbes, October 18, 2018, https://www.forbes.com/sites/pamdanziger/2018/10/18/the-pet-retail-market-is-hot-and-getting-hotter-by-the-day/#885c6ab7ecdd (accessed March 26, 2019).

[3] Millie, Cordaro, “Pet Loss and Disenfranchised Grief: Implications for Mental Health Counseling Practice,” Journal of Mental Health Counseling 34, no. 4 (2012): 283, doi:10.17744/mehc.34.4.41q0248450t98072.

[4] “Many Americans are lonely, and Gen Z most of all, study finds,” CBS News, May 3, 2018, https://www.cbsnews.com/news/many-americans-are-lonely-and-gen-z-most-of-all-study-finds/ (accessed March 26, 2019). See also Aric Jenkins, “Study Finds that Half of Americans—Especially Young People—Feel Lonely,” Fortune, May 1, 2018, http://fortune.com/2018/05/01/americans-lonely-cigna-study/ (accessed March 26, 2019).

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s