The death of an animal family member is unlike any other death. Companion animals fall asleep with us at night and wake up with us every morning. They wait for us eagerly to return from work. They see us at our best moments and at our worst. We sometimes spend more time with them than we do with our spouses or best friends. After losing an animal friend, every aspect of a normal daily routine can remind people of their animal’s absence — the empty space on the bed where the animal slept, the early morning silence that replaces breakfast sounds, the utter quiet when opening the front door.
There are some brilliant, warmhearted children’s books about coping with the death of an animal. But what about the rest of us? Although the bookstore psychology shelves are lined with books about grieving, there are not many accessible resources to help people cope with the loss of an animal. In fact, our culture generally assumes that relationships between humans and other animals are not real friendships, and the expectation is that the mourning process will be similarly superficial. For example, think about what it would feel like to ask your boss for a day or two off from work so you could grieve the death of your cat… it is not hard to imagine that you would be viewed as melodramatic and eccentric. Further still, even the kindest of friends will suggest the inevitable “you should get a new cat (or dog, canary, goldfish, goat…).”
When humans die, friends and loved ones gather at funerals to express grief, to find support in community, and to share stories and memories about the person who has passed. Yet there are no similar outlets for mourning over an animal. People end up feeling completely alone in their grief. To complicate things even further, animal guardians must often choose when and if to put their animal to sleep, and the decision is usually fraught with complicated questions — what course of action is in the animal’s best interest? How much money can I afford on expensive medical treatments? How much emotional upheaval can I endure? Regardless of whether the decision is clear-cut or complicated, it is never easy. And ending an animal’s life in order to prevent the animal from suffering, rarely provides much solace for the human who has to make that choice. In fact, it often adds more layers of grief, responsibility, guilt and confusion.
Last week, the world lost two wonderful dogs. Quinn was an enormous black lab mix, the kind of huge, clumsy dog who didn’t know his own size. His tail constantly slapped bystanders with its happy, harried wagging. He had perfected “the lean” whereby he would joyfully rests his whole body against the legs of any human he happened upon, because all he ever wanted was to play, and be petted.
And then there’s Wilson. Wilson was well within his rights to hate humans. As a puppy, he was kicked and abused until he was completely deaf, and many years after leaving his abusers, an old bullet was found lodged in his skull — apparently they’d used him for target practice, as well. But the French bulldog couldn’t have been more loving, more open to friendship with people. He charmed everyone who met him, and didn’t even realize that, by all accounts, he should have been completely traumatized by his past. Instead, he decided to love the people who loved him, and he never seemed to think it was more complicated than that.
These beings meant something to me, and for the humans they lived with, the sun rose and set on their furry little faces. They will be missed.
Photo: There are animals we love, and then there are the animals that change us. Murray (pictured above) was both. Three years after his death, I still miss him.