When Our Pets Die
What does our faith have to say about the grief we feel when our animal companions die? Faith Today, 03 November 2021 FEATURES by Alex Newman Artist and teacher Renee Bucholtz and her husband David have rescued plenty of cats and dogs over the years in Toronto. But none were quite as special as Guinness, adopted ten years ago.
Then Guinness developed cancer.
"He was full of beans in the morning and lagging by afternoon," Bucholtz recalls. The vet discovered a spleen tumour, so they opted for surgery in case it was benign. It wasn’t, and in a few months Guinness died. The whole family grieved, including their other rescue dog Meg who lay on Guinness’ grave in the backyard for days and sniffed around the house looking for her companion in every corner.
Today, a year later, Renee is surprised at their depth of grief even though they have since rescued another dog and two cats.
DO WE GRIEVE DIFFERENTLY FOR A PET THAN FOR A HUMAN?
Yes and no, believes Toronto vet Tara Brown. "The grief can be as intense for a pet as it is for a human, but it doesn’t last as long."
Ed Neufeld of Canmore, Alta., is the past director of Christian Veterinarian Mission (www.CVMCanada.org). He attributes the intensity of feeling to cultural changes in the animal-human bond. "Fifty years ago it was just a dog or a cat, but today it’s a member of the family. The bond is much stronger now. You raise that pup or kitten, take them on holidays, nurse them through illness. It’s a close companionship, and losing them can be devastating."
Neufeld admits he only fully understood this grief after his beloved border collie Tess died in 2006. Although he’s had plenty of dogs before and since, Tess was special. "We did everything together, like hiking. She came to the clinic with me every day. When she died the colour of the world changed for me. Everything looked grey, and in that loss I felt very alone."
Two things helped him. Through C. S. Lewis’ A Grief Observed – about the death of Lewis’ wife Joy – Neufeld grasped the process of grief. Then writing a book about his life with Tess made him realize that remembering the good times is a way through grief. Both things helped him be better at walking with clients through the loss of a pet.
Whatever you do, Neufeld adds, "Don’t tell them how they should feel or that they’ll get over it. Because whatever they feel is okay."
Anne Robertson is a United Methodist minister in Winchester, Mass., who also runs a pet grief ministry. She says, "Animal or human, grief is grief. You experience all the same stages – anger, denial, bargaining, depression and so on."
Even so, everyone processes this differently, and each pet prompts a different response. As Bucholtz says about Guinness, "I’ve had tons of pets, but when he died my heart broke. I don’t go around wailing, but looking at his picture, or when David mentions something he did, I feel that heart stab and then it goes away."
It’s when grief over a pet overlaps with some other loss, says Robertson, that it can "pile up. If we haven’t given ourselves space or permission to grieve the first loss, the second comes along and triggers the rest to pile in."
The initial "bottom fell out of my life feeling is one thing," she says. "But when people are still sobbing over the loss of a pet years later, then I’ve found it’s typically from some other loss as well."
Brenda Burston, a Tottenham, Ont., woman whose golden retriever Molson died three years ago, can relate. "When I went through my divorce, he was such a comfort. He had all those wonderful dog qualities you wish every human had. It wasn’t Let me fix your problems or tell you what I would have done. It was just Let me be with you. His loss was significant because he got me through some of my darkest days."
Talking about him still gets Burston teary eyed. And she still feels his absence, even though she is now happily remarried.
Occasionally, grief is exacerbated by guilt – the nagging doubts we should have done more.
Tara Brown, who practises vet medicine in downtown Toronto, finds this especially with young pets. "When a pet is older, or has been ill a long time, everyone knows what’s coming. With a young pet, though, people are so shocked, they beat themselves up over not noticing. What they really want is assurance they did everything possible."
Robertson cautions against that kind of thinking. "In situations where you couldn’t possibly have known what to do, it’s an assumption we have some kind of control over life and death issues. And we just don’t."
HOW CAN THE CHURCH RESPOND?
Robertson maintains animals have a religious function. "It’s hard to grasp God’s unconditional love if we’ve never experienced it personally. But that’s what you get from a pet, and they can open the heart to the love and grace of God."
However, the awareness of church leaders toward the importance of pets varies widely. Robertson holds Blessing of the Animals services and has conducted pet funerals. "These are hugely appreciated and give people so much comfort."
The United Methodist Church even has a liturgy for the animal blessing in its book of worship. These services coincide with the feast of St. Francis in October and include a time of blessing of the animals.
"His loss was significant because he got me through some of my darkest days."
But anyone who opens the church for serving people in this way, she says, should prepare for the inevitable question – "‘Is my pet in heaven?’ It comes up all the time."
There’s a wide range of answers across Christian traditions. The website www.BillyGrahamAnswers.com says, "It’s true that animals aren’t the same as humans since they don’t have souls the way we do. But that doesn’t mean God doesn’t care about them."
But what you tell children in particular depends on their age, Robertson believes. "For many it’s their first experience of death, and really young children aren’t at a stage where the brain fully comprehends. Being in a church setting where they hear that heaven is where you go after you die, it is the most natural question in the world to ask about their pet too.
"At the very least you simply say, ‘God loves your pet and is taking good care of her,’" she says. At heart it’s a question of "Does God care about what I care about?"
The answer is always yes, Robertson says. "It’s right there in Scripture – Romans 12:15 – ‘Rejoice with those who rejoice and weep with those who weep.’ "
Other verses demonstrate God’s care for creation. In Genesis, God paused all other work to create what lived in the sea and on the land, and saw it was good. And in Luke 12:6 Jesus asks, "Are not five sparrows sold for two pennies? Yet not one of them is forgotten by God."
RITUALS AND MEMORIALS HELP PEOPLE GRIEVE
After Pete the cat died, artist Matthew Giffin consoled himself by tending the cat’s backyard grave and creating a little memorial in the TV room.
"When we go to the lake," says his wife, storyteller Cheryl Thornton, "Matt picks up driftwood to put on Pete’s grave. And we have a little memorial of Pete in our TV room, a bunch of pictures and a few little black cat figurines."
Thornton believes Pete was a "gift from God. Such love this cat gave, and God is love, and this wonderful creature that we both loved, and who was so attentive. It’s definitely God’s business to give you a nice pet like that."
Remembering the blessing of that animal is so important to lessening the grief, Thornton adds. Every culture does this. The Ontario couple operates an online teaching tool for schools called StoryValues (www.StoryValues.ca), and in it there are plenty of tales about pets who live on in some way after death – maybe a tree grows out of where they are buried. "That’s so reassuring for children," Thornton says.
WHAT TO TELL THE KIDS
Toronto photographer-author Laurie Haughton has lost many pets over the years, but her children have only gone through it twice. The first was the dog who fell ill the same summer their five-year-old son Joshua was going in for his fourth open heart surgery. With Josh’s health so iffy, Haughton and her husband Tim, an Anglican minister, decided against telling him the dog might die. "Under the circumstances it wasn’t a good time to be honest about the dog’s outcome."
More recently, though, when their younger son Kaleb’s hamster fell ill, they were up front. "Tim was at the church, so I called my parents, put them on speaker and we prayed for Rocky together," she remembers.
Although the hamster rallied Laurie wondered aloud to Tim if they were just prolonging the suffering. "Kaleb overheard me and asked if Rocky was going to die, and I said, ‘I don’t know, but there may be a point where we’re making this worse. We just need to keep praying for him.’ "
When the hamster died they buried him and had a funeral, with Tim saying a few words and the family praying. The questions came afterward, Haughton says. "Things like ‘It doesn’t seem fair’ and ‘He was young.’ We explained that we don’t always see the big picture, and that we had the same questions when Josh was sick."
When Kaleb started thinking it might have been his fault, and asking why God didn’t make him better, Laurie simply said, "Some things we won’t know until we get to heaven, and can sit and ask God."
The death of a pet can be a good teaching opportunity. Neufeld remembers going to the farm with his two sons to bury one of their family dogs. "We had a discussion of death on the way home, about how death and loss are painful because we were never meant to die. It’s unnatural, sad and painful, but unavoidable."
It can also be an ideal outreach opportunity. When Uta Blackstein lost her cherished Buddy very suddenly to cancer, she took to her bed for three days of grief. She and her husband had just moved to a new community and didn’t know many people, but one churchgoing neighbour reached out in concern, even donating to pet cancer research in Buddy’s name. Blackstein, who considers herself an atheist, was really touched. "He didn’t have to do that. We hardly knew him. It was very Christian of him."
Neufeld reiterates this. "Just come alongside. Show you care the way God cares about how we feel."
Just come alongside. Show you care the way God cares about how we feel.
Alex Newman of Toronto is a senior writer at Faith Today.