Pets Are Not Petty
Everything dies: goldfish, great blue whales, friends, and people we love. There is a wistful sadness that accompanies the realization that all life must eventually come to an end. Accepting death and learning to live with joy in spite of it are difficult challenges, and this is true whether we are saying farewell to a person who has been close to us or to an animal that has been part of our family circle. The grief we feel when a relationship is severed can be intense.
This is a book for all those who have ever lost a cat, a dog, or another animal companion. These creatures are commonly called pets, a word that is related to petty, meaning "small," "insignificant," or "subordinate." For centuries, animals have been regarded as the inferiors of humankind. Some advocates of animal rights argue that we should eliminate the use of the word pet entirely for this reason. But, of course, pet can also mean "favorite," "cherished," or "especially near and dear," and it is for pet lovers in this sense that this work is intended.
That includes most of us. When I was a theological student, in training for my eventual role as a clergyman, one of my professors warned the pupils in his preaching class never to mention the topic of dogs during a sermon. The reason? Listeners would immediately begin to think of all the odd canine characters they had encountered throughout the years. Whatever point the minister was making would be gone for good as the congregation drifted away in reverie and reminiscence.
There was Flush, for example, a springer spaniel named for Elizabeth Barrett Browning's more famous dog (who was the subject of a full-length biography by Virginia Woolf). My mother remembers Flush from her childhood during the Depression. In those lean times, meat was hard to come by, and the dog learned to love vegetables instead — the potato peels and carrot tops that were stewed for him — along with the fruit from the peach tree out back. His ears were so keen that he could hear the telltale plump of a peach when it plummeted in the night. He ate so many of the overripe desserts that his teeth were set on edge, and my mother vividly recalls the poor creature moaning because of his sore gums even as he gobbled down the goodies. Some brute finally poisoned him. But for my mom (who currently has no pets, nor does she even like dogs in general), the memories of Flush are still fresh, after more than sixty years.
Most of us have known a dog like that or some other animal that has charmed its way into our hearts. The tears we shed when these creatures die are genuine, for our pets have an important place in our lives. Their gentle, trusting presence becomes a dependable part of our daily routine. They share our mealtimes and befriend us as playmates. They are with us on outings and adventures, and they accompany us in moments of quiet introspection. We sense the warmth of their affection and the depth of their loyalty, forming emotional bonds that can be as strong and nurturing as any other in life. When these attachments are broken, we can experience a sense of emptiness and loss. We may feel depressed, numb, lost, or angry.
For some people, the death of a pet may represent the greatest loss they have ever encountered. Not long ago, a college professor wrote to tell me about some informal research he had conducted at the university in West Virginia where he had taught for many years. It was his custom there to begin his introductory psychology classes by asking students to write down memories of their happiest or saddest moments.
Among women, he found, the saddest events usually concerned the death of a grandparent or another close relative. For young men, rather curiously, the saddest memories typically involved the death of a dog. He says he was never able to fully probe that response to account for the gender difference. What was striking was that when asked to recall their deepest personal sorrow, so many young adults would hark back to the death of a pet.
Acknowledging loss and the feelings that go with it are an essential part of healing. Expressions of grief are the way we move through our pain toward acceptance and resolution. We need the opportunity to cry, shout, or shake our fists, if we feel like it — all healthy forms of catharsis and emotional release. It hurts, and we need to say so.
Even more, we need to have our feelings affirmed by others. Of course, no one else can fix what's wrong. There are no magic words anyone can utter that will fill the gap left when a good friend dies. Pets would be petty indeed if their loss could be so easily overcome. But while no one else can take away our grief, the care and concern of others ensures that we need not mourn alone. Knowing that others have wrestled with similar losses makes our own sorrow easier to bear.
Still, we may feel a little sheepish about sharing such a vulnerable part of ourselves. A reservation can arise — an inner doubt. Won't other people think it odd to become so distraught over a mere animal? Some might consider it laughable. The humorist Garrison Keillor, for example, once wrote a comic sketch about a judge in a poetry contest who had to read through barrelfuls of bad verse, including some fairly amateurish elegies for departed critters. But even Mr. Keillor seems to understand that losing a pet can be wrenching and that there is nothing particularly funny about it. To his credit, he has written his own poem, "In Memory of Our Cat, Ralph." Here is an excerpt:
When we got home, it was almost dark. Our neighbor waited on the walk. "I'm sorry, I have bad news," he said. "Your cat, the gray black one, is dead. I found him by the garage an hour ago." "Thank you," I said, "for letting us know."
We dug a hole in the flower bed, The lilac bushes overhead, Where this cat loved to lie in spring And roll in the dirt and eat the green Delicious first spring buds, And laid him down and covered him up, Wrapped in a piece of tablecloth, Our good old cat laid in the earth.
We quickly turned and went inside The empty house and sat and cried Softly in the dark some tears For that familiar voice, that fur, That soft weight missing from our laps, That we had loved too well perhaps And mourned from weakness of the heart: A childish weakness, to regard An animal whose life is brief With such affection and such grief.
"If this is foolish," Keillor writes in the final stanza, "so be it." But it is not foolish or childish — merely human. Our sense of loss deserves to be respected, not belittled.
Fortunately, more and more counselors, clergy, and therapists are beginning to realize this. Some Humane Societies now offer grief groups for those who have lost an animal companion. For those who need a listening ear, the American Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals offers a telephone hotline, as do several state veterinary schools. You can join pet-loss groups on the Internet. Some stationery companies even have special sympathy cards for the occasion.
Yet still more is needed. At last count, there were eighty-two million household cats and seventy-two million dogs in the United States, as well as an untold assortment of gerbils, rabbits, parrots, and other pets. Every year thousands of people suffer inwardly because they are without solace or support when their animals die. For those who want a healing connection, this book is one more point of contact.
Can a book help? In Winnie the Pooh, the author A. A. Milne describes a situation in which Pooh, after eating several jars of honey, becomes stuck in the entrance of his friend Rabbit's burrow. Although the residents of the Hundred Acre Wood push and pull, he is jammed so tightly that he cannot budge. With a sigh and a tear, the overweight bear realizes that he will have to remain in the hole, on a strict diet, until he is slim enough to come out. He resigns himself, with one final request. "Would you read a Sustaining Book," he earnestly asks Christopher Robin, "such as would comfort a Wedged Bear in Great Tightness?"
To all those who feel stuck, whether in apathy or resentment or just down in the dumps, these pages are dedicated. Perhaps they will help you out of whatever hole you are in. And what holds true for bears may also pertain to books: fatter is not always better. For while this is a small volume, its aim and its subject — grieving and recovering after the loss of a pet — are anything but petty.
I have done mostly what most men do, And pushed it out of my mind; But I can't forget, if I wanted to, Four-Feet trotting behind.
Day after day, the whole day through — Wherever my road inclined — Four-Feet said, "I am coming with you!" And trotted along behind.
— RUDYARD KIPLING, "Four-Feet" CHAPTER 2
As a parish minister, I know how hard it is to lose a beloved dog or cat. People often turn to me for comfort when their pets die. I once received a handwritten note just a few moments before our morning worship service was to begin: Would I please announce that Oatmeal, the canine companion of a woman attending our church, had passed away the previous week? Oatmeal had been an old dog, much loved by his mistress, who apparently felt the loss keenly.
Briefly, I debated with myself. I wondered how others in the congregation would react to including such an item among the joys and concerns we normally share on Sunday morning. Would they consider such an announcement out of place?
I was glad that I followed my instincts, for several weeks later I received another note thanking me for acknowledging Oatmeal's death. Simply having her sorrow recognized and validated in a religious setting proved deeply comforting to the dog's owner.
I use the term owner with hesitation. We may be the legal custodians of our animal companions and be responsible for their well-being, but while animals may be many things — cantankerous, humorous, neurotic, or supremely sane — they are never merely property. They are hardly in the same category as personal possessions. Many people think of pets as members of their extended family. As any animal lover can testify, they have likes and dislikes, moods, and feelings that are very much like our own.
In this connection, it is interesting to realize that we are not the only animals who grieve. Other species appear to have at least an incipient understanding of death and may experience all the pangs of separation when a loved one dies. For example, in his book Lucy: Growing Up Human, Maurice Temerlin tells how the chimpanzee that he and his wife had reared from infancy reacted to the discovery that her pet cat had met its end:
I was in the courtyard at the time, and I heard a scream coming from inside Lucy's rooftop room. It was a different kind of scream from any I had ever heard, and I rushed immediately to the roof of the house. The cat was dead on the floor, of undetermined causes. Lucy was at the other end of the room, obviously quite shaken.
The two animals had been inseparable friends, and Lucy was clearly affected. She stared at the body fixedly, tentatively raised a finger as if to touch it, but then withdrew her hand with a nervous shake without making contact.
Three months later, leafing through a copy of Psychology Today (her "foster father," Maurice, was a therapist), the ape came across an article on chimps that happened to include a photo of herself and the deceased kitten. For five minutes, Lucy sat immobile, then she began to gesture rapidly over and over in American Sign Language, "Lucy's cat, Lucy's cat." Sadness is apparently not a uniquely human response to death. Even a chimp can miss its companion and may go on mourning for quite some time.
Some animals appear to shed tears as we do. The Ramayana, a Hindu epic from 2500 BCE, described elephants weeping. This phenomenon was confirmed by the naturalist Charles Darwin, who related incidents of these beasts in captivity. Sorry to lose their freedom, they lay "motionless on the ground, with no other indication of suffering than the tears which suffused their eyes and flowed incessantly."
In his book Crying: The Mystery of Tears, Dr. William Frey reports other instances. A woman in Texas had a dog that was killed by a car. Afterward, the woman's other dog lay on the site of the grave for weeks with large tears rolling down its face. Such anecdotes are common, Frey notes, and although some experts dispute their veracity, there is little reason to doubt that whether or not they actually shed tears, other creatures do react to loss with anxiety and alarm, much as we do. In a very literal sense, therefore, it is natural for us to weep at the time of death. It may be an instinctive response to bereavement, one common to many species. For me it is comforting to know that in our struggle to come to terms with loss, we human beings are not alone.
But in our culture it is not easy to grieve or say goodbye. Especially in the case of animals, the suffering we experience may be minimized. While a death in the human community is almost always attended with some rituals of mourning, the passing of a dog or cat is seldom marked by any solemn rites. Condolences can be expected when a person dies, but in the case of a pet we are less apt to receive any expressions of sympathy or understanding. Although one's friends and family will gather for support in the event of a human death, those who grieve for a pet will most likely go home at night to a house that feels empty and abandoned. A few people may empathize, but many will not. We will probably be expected to carry on with our work and other day-to-day responsibilities as though nothing serious has happened.
Yet the loss of a friend is always cause for concern. We know, for instance, that animals can play a significant role in human health. Studies have shown that the simple act of stroking a dog or a cat, or even just holding an animal on one's lap, can slow the pulse rate and lower blood pressure. (The combination of touch and talk with an animal seems to be even more beneficial than similar contact with another human being.) People who have pets have a lower risk of heart disease and tend to live longer than people who lack such companionship. One experiment showed that even sitting quietly in front of an aquarium can have positive physiological effects, much like meditation.
Pets are good medicine. I came to a firsthand appreciation of this many years ago when I worked in a halfway house for people with mental illness. One of our residents was a young woman named Peggy. About nineteen years old, she had long brown hair and a beautiful, shy smile. She had tried to cut her wrists more times than I care to remember. Diagnosed with schizophrenia, Peggy lived in a world of her own that neither I nor the other counselors or psychiatrists who worked with her could fully enter. Her lifeline was her dog, a pure white Samoyed named Alfonse. As long as Alfonse was thriving and well cared for, we knew that Peggy was all right. Grooming, feeding, and walking the dog were the points of stability and wellness in Peggy's life. Whenever the dog was neglected, however, it was a sign that Peggy had become self-destructive and might be in danger of hurting herself. Alfonse was, in a certain sense, Peggy's alter ego: a four-legged, furry window into her otherwise hidden inner life.
Small wonder that animals have now become a standard feature in many hospitals and other therapeutic environments. Where else can we find such unconditional regard or such sweet spontaneity? Animals seem to know when we are hurting and instinctively care for us in times of need. Michael Ward, who lives in North Carolina, wrote me a letter not long ago that convinced me of this. "My girlfriend was going through a very hard time in her life," he explains.
I tried to console her as best I could, but sometimes words are not enough. She asked to stay over that night so she wouldn't be alone at her apartment. She lay down, ready to go to sleep, and what happened next amazed me. My dog, Grish, jumped in bed, laid his massive black Lab head down on her stomach, and stayed there all night. He has never done that before or since.
Many others have had similar experiences. In one remarkable case, a boy who was comatose and who had resisted all previous efforts at resuscitation finally regained consciousness thanks to his pet dog, Rusty. The child, a victim of head injury, had been unconscious for ten days. As family members in the hospital room discussed various matters that included mention of the dog, they noticed a slight change of expression on the boy's face. After conferring with the doctors, they brought the animal to the hospital room. The boy then reawakened as Rusty began to lick his hands and his face.
In less dramatic ways as well, our pets help us through hard times. "In dark hours," the poet W. H. Auden wrote of his dog Rolfi, "your silence may be of more help than many two-legged comforters."