April 17, 2013 // Uncategorized

An animal lover’s lessons in grief

There’s been a rash of deaths among my family members and coworkers recently — deaths of our beloved pets, though, rather than loved ones. “Pets?” you say. Yes, pets — though obviously not the same as losing a loved one. Still, loss and grief come in many forms, pet loss not being the least of them. To this, any animal lover will testify.

The first was a three-legged cat named Tripod. He was the elder feline of a cherished coworker of mine and was showing signs of his approaching demise. His owner chose, after much discernment, to allow him to die a natural death at home rather than have him euthanized at the vet’s office.

For those who are not animal lovers, this decision may seem trivial. But I believe at its foundation it’s validity lies squarely in the center of many of the life issues our culture faces today. I respect the courage it must have taken my coworker to choose natural death and the grief that ensued.

Several friends mused that perhaps a natural death was cruel and unusual punishment for a faithful and trusting pet, but when my own 20-year-old tabby began his own descent, I found myself faced with the same dilemma and empathized with my coworker’s thinking.

My buddy Max, who came to us as a stray kitten and took to my autistic daughter like a bee to honey, was a dignified yet trusting soul who unfortunately hated visits to the vet. So as his time drew near I struggled with traumatizing him further with a car ride there during his final hour.

As mobility became an issue for my sweet Max, my girls and I made sure he was as comfortable as possible nestled on his favorite red blanket. He had been a fixture in our home for so long and no ordinary cat (if I do say so myself), so when he meowed weakly to be near us, rather than go off quietly as many animals do in their final hours, we drew him close wherever we were. I was touched deeply by the display of tenderness and care my girls offered this aged cat and am grateful for this beautiful life lesson Max offered us in return.

My girls and I watched as he struggled with the last threads of life he held in him that last day and I will admit it was painful to witness. But I believe that in his dying as in his expansive and sometimes comical life, Max reaffirmed in his own way my family’s deep-seated belief in the preciousness of life that we are privileged to enjoy with God, nature, animals and our fellow human beings.

We grieved together as Max lay dying, speaking of his loyalty and prowess. And after he took his final breath we cried together for a long time, holding each other with shared compassion — yet another gift nurtured by this loving pet.

Because I believe strongly in the power of ceremony and its place in the healing process — even with pets — the girls and I diligently created a grave marker bearing a picture of our beloved feline along with his name mapped out in colored glass. We had a lovely burial ceremony in which we each shared funny and tender stories of how Max had enriched our lives, as well as a few tears. It felt good to remember the place he held in our family and all he was to us.

That place Max held is empty now, but his memory lives on in our shared stories and our hearts. Those delightful pets have a way of wiggling deeply in the marrow of our souls. Their lives, and sometimes even their deaths, are woven with rich and meaningful lessons just for us. Respect for life, loving-kindness even in infirmity, compassion and the wisdom to mourn a loss of life we held dear as we hold hope for the future in our hearts. I pray these lessons, learned sometimes from a loyal animal, settle deeply in our being, so that the same loving-kindness and compassion can grace others on our life’s path.

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