Grief is a painful emotion, perhaps the most painful of all human emotions. We sometimes use the similes “heart-breaking” or “heart-wrenching” to try to express the depth of grief because it hits us deep in our being and shakes us to the core.
To quote the creator of the Kingdom of Narnia, C S Lewis: “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one, not even an animal. Wrap it carefully … avoid all entanglements. Lock it up safe in the casket or coffin of your selfishness. But in that casket, safe, dark, motionless, airless, it will change. It will not be broken; it will become unbreakable, impenetrable, irredeemable. To love is to be vulnerable.”
Love does render us vulnerable and the truth is we grieve most what we love best.
Rare is the person who has not given her or his heart to an animal. Because we do open our hearts and our lives to our “companion animals,” more commonly called our “pets,” we love them beyond reason.
This is why we grieve and mourn them when they die. It is the natural response. Yet there has long been a stigma attached to grieving the death of a pet too deeply or too publicly. It has been frowned upon as abnormal and self indulgent.
Fortunately, our culture is beginning to understand that this grief is natural. This is progress.
I am old enough to remember when people who didn’t have pets felt that pet owners were overreacting when they expressed grief at their animal’s death. Those were the days when even the well-meaning friend might tell you, “It was only a dog (or cat, bird, hamster, etc.).”
Hopefully, those days are gone. Today the lost of an animal might even solicit a sympathy card from friends trying to understand and offer comfort.
Still we have a ways to go in developing cultural grief rituals for the death of pets. This is a topic I will address in a future column.
The truth remains that you can never really understand the pain associated with a beloved animals passing until you have experienced it your self.
Psychologist Julie Axelrod explains that “the death of a pet is so painful because we are not losing just one thing; we experience multiple losses at the same time. We may be losing our primary companion, a source of unconditional love, a “life witness” who provides security and comfort to us, and maybe even a protege whom we mentor like a child. The loss of a (animal) seriously disrupts daily routine, even more profoundly than the loss of most friends and relatives, and changes in lifestyle and routine are one of the primary building blocks of stress.”
I can testify to the fact that it hurts and hurts deeply and it takes time to recover and grief is a natural and healthy part of the process.
What is not healthy is another emotion that can enter into the process — guilt.
Some people feel guilt when they find they grieve more desperately over the loss of a pet than over the loss of friends or relatives. We should not feel guilty because the research has confirmed that for most people, the loss of an animal is in almost every way comparable to the loss of a human loved one.
I have heard people say, “I am not getting another animal because I don’t want to be tied down.” I think what they are really saying is “I don’t want to tie my heart to another creature and suffer the pain of loss again.”
To live through the grief and pain requires us to remember another truth: the joy of love outweighs the pain of loss. We grieve the death of a beloved animal so we can move on to love again.
The Rev. Elizabeth Morgan is Vicar of St. Lukes’s Episcopal Church in Newberry and an active member of the Newberry County Humane Society.