To live in this world
says the incomparable Mary Oliver
you must be able
to do three things:
to love what is mortal;
to hold it
against your bones knowing
your own life depends on it;
and, when the time comes to let it go,
to let it go.
It is the central challenge of life: taking the risk to love. Opening your heart knowing that it will get broken, but you do it anyway, because otherwise life is not worth living.
Yet when it comes to what it means to love an animal companion, some people can deny the depth of that relationship and want to minimize it. They can see it as weakness, and not as strength, to love a pet in all fullness.
We hear the note of this in something that author and radio personality Garrison Keillor wrote about the time the family’s pet cat was found dead. The following excerpt comes right after they bury the cat in the backyard:
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 child’s weakness — to regard
An animal whose life is brief
With such affection and such grief.
The very same note of judgmentalism troubles a man named Doug, whose story was told by psychotherapist Dr. Guy Winch in his article for Scientific American entitled “Why We Need to Take Pet Loss Seriously.” Doug’s dog was named Delia, and they had been together for 17 years. Speaking to his therapist, Doug said, “I knew it would be rough when [Delia] died, but I had no idea… I was a total wreck. I cried for days. I couldn’t get any work done. And worst of all, I was too embarrassed about it to tell anyone. I spent days at work crying in private and muttering ‘allergies’ whenever someone glanced at my puffy eyes.”
Side-by-side with Doug’s intense grief was this indoctrination that it IS weakness to love one’s animal companions too well….
Has a beloved animal companion of yours died, and you found yourself feeling the same embarrassment about how devastating the experience was for you? Or perhaps someone tried to express the intensity of the grief they were feeling over the loss of a pet, and you found words coming out of your mouth automatically—coming from out of your conditioning in a society that does not really recognize and honor grief at the loss of pets—words like:
You shouldn’t take it so hard.
You’ll get over it in a week max.
Aren’t you over it yet?
You’re acting like a member of the family just died!
If it’s a child we’re dealing with, often the unfortunate strategy is to build a wall of silence around them—to just not talk about it. Or, to create a distraction: maybe to immediately buy them a new pet, even though they may be completely unprepared to form another bond.
This social conditioning which devalues grief over the loss of a pet: it is absolutely tone deaf to reality. It is tone deaf to the special bond that forms between a human and an animal companion, because of the daily rituals that are shared and the cumulative impact of that over time. It is tone deaf and unjustified. It is remarkably tone-deaf to see, for example, the famous Holmes and Rahe stress scale that for 55 years now has been the gold standard health professionals draw on to estimate the stress that their clients might be going through at any given time. #1 on the list of biggest stressors is the death of a spouse. #2 is divorce. #3, #4, and #5 are marital separation, imprisonment, and death of a close family member, respectively. But you will go down the entirety of this list of 43 stressful life events and guess what? You won’t find anything about the death of a pet. Nada. Zilch.
As if there’s no stress at all.
Thus says the science.
Well, I’m here this morning to say that the science needs to evolve. Society needs to evolve: to acknowledge the depths of our love for our animal companions which can translate to incredibly intense grief when they are lost to us. We must stop feeling embarrassed about this. We must start honoring it in ourselves and in others.
Start with the basic statistic: no less than 70% of U. S. households, or about 90.5 million families, have pets, according to the 2021-2022 National Pet Owners Survey. That’s tens of millions of dogs, tens of millions of cats, and untold millions of gerbils, rabbits, parrots, spiders, reptiles, horses, and fish swimming around in their fish tanks….
70% of U. S. households! Clearly, love for pets is something that unites most Americans in a time where divisions grow increasingly deep and antagonistic. Pro-Democrat vs. Pro-Republican, pro-democracy vs. pro-authoritarianism; pro-choice vs. pro-life, pro-Black Lives Matter vs. pro-Replacement Theory. All these sharp divides are just so disturbing, and it’s getting too easy to demonize folks who don’t believe as one does. I wonder how this incendiary situation could be calmed somewhat if we all shared pictures of the pets we loved, and some stories, and in this way we could acknowledge the humanity that is in everyone.
Love for pets is special. So let us look again at the nature of the bond between people and their pets, as if for the first time, in a spirit of openness and curiosity. As Garrison Keillor suggests, a pet’s life is brief, but must that briefness somehow undermine the quality of the love that is felt? Must that briefness be a reason to limit the love—as if love is something you can actually dole out in carefully measured quantities: quarter cups, half-cups, spoonfuls?
Let us look again at the bond, and I will do that now by telling you a bit about my own pet cat Kilian (named after one of the ice-dances that Rachel and I do), though now we use that name only when we give her a stern talking to, as when she tries to eat Rachel’s yarn while knitting.
But most of the time, she’s just Kiki.
Kiki is a dependable part of the every-day routine. Every morning she hops on the bed and walks over our comforter-covered bodies, then licks us on the face with her tiny sandpaper tongue. I get up. She herds me down the stairs and into the kitchen, where I turn the kettle on in preparation for the morning’s coffee. Then I go into the living room and stand in front of the big window there, overlooking Fulton Road in Ohio City, to get my first look at the day. Kiki comes and lets me know she’s there by brushing up against my ankles. I pick her up, hold her like a baby, her two paws on my shoulders, and I scratch the back of her neck. Some mornings she allows minutes for that; other mornings she does not and goes on to the next thing: she pulls herself up and stands on my neck, wraps her tail around my face—I can feel the rumble of her purring—; then she leaps off of me onto her cat tree which is right beside us, and that’s when I walk back to the kitchen and get her some food. Hard food, soft food. She inspects my progress. By this time the kettle is hot and I go make the coffee, which is French press. I can hear her gobbling down her breakfast.
NOM NOM NOM NOM NOM
It happens every morning. If you have a pet, you will have your own stories about morning routines, or afternoon routines, or evening routines, which are as much for us as for them and help keep us grounded.
Don’t our pets just fill up the house with their personalities? Cantankerous or humorous, neurotic or supremely sane? They live in their own worlds of significance, which run parallel to our human world and sometimes intersect, sometimes do not.
Another part of my morning routine is to write in my journal. I sit on the couch, pull out a lap desk, pull out my journal, flip to the next blank page, write at the top the day’s date and also how I did with the morning’s Wordle (oh yes, I’m addicted). By that time I’ve caught Kiki’s attention. Here she comes, with her quivering tail. She leaps upon my writing desk and stands upon my open journal, announcing herself. The only thing I can do with my pen at this point is rub her between her ears or scratch at the base of her tail. She could care less about what existential crisis I was in process of pouring out on the page; she is all about center stage; she is demanding that I love her.
And I do. I love that monster.
And she’s so weird. She has toy mousies that we got her exactly two years ago today, when she came to live with us. Exactly two years ago today. By now they are worn and the tails are long gone. But she only has eyes for them and ignores any spiffy new mousies we might get her. Especially her purple mousie. She talks to it in a language that sounds almost disciplinary. She hides the mousies then finds them again. Sweeps them into closets, reaches under the doors to retrieve them. Always chirping, chattering at them.
Who knows? But she fills the house with her personality. That’s what pets do. Fill our lives. They give us the kind of affection that is in their nature to give. The soft weight of a furry pet on one’s lap, or how a big dog might lean against your legs while you sit. For some people who feel misunderstood by everyone around them, a pet may be the only trusted friend they can confide in. Even if you do have trusted human friends, it can be as poet W. H. Auden once wrote to his pet dog Rolfi: “your silence may be of more help than many two-legged comforters.”
The realities of every-day life with a pet are abundant. And what is for sure is that this abundance accumulates over time with huge impact. Part of that is how a pet can provide unique opportunities for a relationship between people to become even richer than before.
Call it “love magnification.” Pets can be love magnifiers. Rachel is so sweet to Kiki and by doing so I feel even more her love towards me. Rachel talks to Kiki and talks about Kiki and I do too and it becomes a part of the fabric of our own relationship together. Even her very name—Kilian—testifies to one of the things that Rachel and I love to do the most. And then there’s Kiki talk that is silly: when you baby talk to your pet, or you talk to each other in baby talk about your pet. Do you know what I mean? Without Kiki, the opportunity to be vulnerable with another human being in one’s silly sweetness goes away, and it’s something to be sorely missed.
We must not underestimate the fullness of the human bond with pets. Yet another cumulative impact over time takes the form of health benefits. The subjective quality of the bond people feel with their animal companions translates into good medicine. Your dog will lead you into increased physical exercise because of all the walks you’ll go on. Your fish will gift you with increased calmness if you should simply sit still and watch them swim. Decreased blood pressure, decreased cholesterol levels, decreased triglyceride levels, decreased feelings of loneliness, anxiety, and symptoms of PTSD. Better cognitive function in older adults and more opportunities to socialize.
The impact of a pet on their “hoomans” is truly large.
And then there is this: a level of impact that is higher—or deeper—than anything I’ve mentioned so far. How, through our animal companions, we touch nothing less than the Sacred Mystery of life and what it means to be alive.
Have you ever witnessed an animal grieving the death of someone they’ve bonded with—either another animal or human? Barbara J. King, a professor of anthropology at the College of William and Mary, wrote a book entitled How Animals Grieve, and she details how emotional intelligence goes deeper than the human, is something that many animals have in common. She writes, “Wild elephants sometimes stand silently at the bodies of dead companions and, later, stroke their sun-bleached bones as if embracing a memory. Dolphin mothers may refuse to part with the bodies of their babies who die, forgoing food and tirelessly keeping their child buoyant in the water day after day. Jane Goodall famously reported that a chimpanzee juvenile, even though mature enough to feed on his own, could not recover emotionally from the death of his mother, and soon passed on himself.” Barbara J. King’s conclusion? Humans and animals are “Separated by how we think [but] united in how we feel.”
What does it mean to be alive? It means: to be moved by the reality of death. And this capacity to be moved does not just belong to humans. The animals in our lives teach us this.
There are even times when our animal companions might teach us about that which survives death. Listen to this honest-to-God true story that Unitarian Universalist minister the Rev. Gary Kowalski tells in his excellent book entitled Goodbye, Friend: Healing Wisdom for Anyone Who Has Ever Lost a Pet. The story centers on a dog named Ginger, who was one of fourteen dogs who had shared the home of Stephanie and her husband over the course of their 45 years of marriage. That marriage ended suddenly, with the husband experiencing a fatal heart attack. On that fateful day, Stephanie called 911 and soon the paramedics arrived and raced into the bedroom to try to resuscitate the husband. While this was happening, Stephanie was in the kitchen down the hallway, seated at the table with her son-in-law and a neighbor. The only dogs they had at the time were outside on the patio, locked out, in plain sight.
“While the medics tried to revive my husband,” Stephanie told Rev. Kowalski, “one yelled out three different times asking us to ‘remove the dog from the bedroom.’ We yelled back that there was no dog, that our dogs were outside.” What dog were they talking about? Soon enough, it hit Stephanie: “I realized that the dog they saw was my husband’s beloved Ginger.” The only thing is, Ginger had died several years earlier. The paramedics were seeing Ginger’s spirit, waiting to accompany her husband to “the other side.”
This is the best rational conclusion that Stephanie could come up with.
Whatever our thoughts may be about Stephanie’s story, it is indeed something to wonder about: the depth of loyalty that is at the heart of the bond with a dog, and with other animal companions.
With cats also? Two weeks ago, on Mother’s Day, Kiki ran away. The wildness in her heart for the hunt became too much and she bolted. She was nowhere to be found. Some neighbors who saw our distress came out and helped. Strangers stopped what they were doing and joined in. We posted a picture of her everywhere we could. People replied with kind words and some told their own stories about how their cat had run off for weeks and then came back. I had no clue what would happen in our case. Kiki was the only pet in my entire life that had chosen me as her human and now she was gone and maybe that was that. On Mother’s Day, no less, her human mother was crying openly, sick at heart.
That night we left the screen door off the porch slightly open. Maybe she would smell all the soft food we’d laid out for her. Maybe her fondness for the morning routine would bring her back home.
But come Monday morning: nothing. No pointy little feet digging into us and waking us up. No small sandpaper tongue raked across our noses. No routine of being herded downstairs, no holding her and rubbing the back of her neck, no being climbed on, no grumbly cat sounds as she devoured her meal.
There were her mousies, lying on the floor, mysteriously meaningful to Kiki but now just a sad reminder about the beautiful eccentric animal personality that loomed so large in our lives which was now lost to us, maybe forever.
In this grief time Rachel and I were reaching out to each other, but I noticed awkward silences between us that were new. Without Kiki, a lot of the sorts of things we’d say to each other were now unsayable.
That morning, I pulled out my writing desk and started scribbling down my grief in my journal, and I wished with all my heart that Kiki was there to get in the way and to say, LOVE ME!
And then I heard a scream. It was Rachel, outside. She’d found Kiki!
When I saw her, she was holding that loveable monster against her bones,
Holding on hard as if her own life depended upon it
Loving the life that beat so fiercely in a pet whose span will indeed be all too brief
And then she handed Kiki to me
And I held Kiki hard against my bones
And I knew there would come a time when I would need to let go
But not today.
Kiki was home.