Lessons from Loving and Losing a Pet
Just days after the death of a loved one last year, I had to travel halfway across the country for a conference. Because I carry grief in my stomach, I couldn’t eat. Weakness from not eating combined with the usual exhaustion from travel had me feeling sick. At a lunch meeting, couldn’t bring myself to explain why I wasn’t eating; the grief I bore was the kind that dare not speak its name.
The beloved who had died was my dog.
If I had been mourning the death of a person, my life would have been understandably put on hold. I wouldn’t have been expected to go to work the day following her death. I could have cancelled my trip. I wouldn’t have found myself sitting at lunch with two editors, trying to force down a bit of soup and a couple forkfuls of salad while staidly trying to keep my game face on.
When a family member dies, the bereft are offered sympathy, support, and condolences, from meals and visits, to cards and flowers, to the funeral service, burial, and beyond. Not so when the family member that dies is a pet.
When we mourn the loss of a pet, we mourn alone. We go to work, we have our lunch meetings, and we come home. Perhaps we share our grief privately with other members of the household, but not, generally, with the world. No cards in the mailbox. No meals dropped off. No obituary in the newspaper.
I’m not going to argue that it should be otherwise. Nor will I argue that the death of a pet should be treated with the same moral, emotional, or social weight as the death of a person. It should not. But this kind of grief—the inconsolable grief that comes from losing a much-loved non-human companion—does have much to teach us about our humanity, our Creator, our relationship with both him and his creation, and his love for us.
The love for our pets is strong and real. In fact, research has shown that for many people, the experience of losing a pet to death can be “far more intense” than the death of a relative. This shouldn’t be surprising, considering how much more our pets can be part of our daily rhythms and routines than family members who don’t live with us—often more than some of the people who do live with us.
By every indication, pets play a central part in most American homes today. Americans spend $52 billion annually on pets. According to the United States Department of Labor, in 2011, households spent more on their pets annually than on alcohol ($456), residential landline phone bills ($381), or men and boys clothing ($404). The average household spending on pet food alone was $183, more than the amount spent on candy ($87), bread ($107), cereal ($175), or reading materials ($115). Even the pet bereavement aspect of pet ownership has become an industry unto itself and includes pet cremation services, pet cemeteries, memorials, and, alas, after-the-rapture pet care.
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