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  • The Rev. Barbara Ballenger

Rector’s Note: The Power of Pets-8.10.23

Updated: Aug 17, 2023

Our vet told us recently that summer is especially hard on dogs. Even if you have air conditioning, the combination of the humidity and the outside heat makes it hard for dogs to cool down, and especially stresses old dogs like mine.

“If an old dog survives the summer, it’ll probably live another year, “she told my husband.

We learned this when we took our listless yellow lab, Oakley, to the vet to try to find out why she wasn’t eating, or moving, or playing with us, or yipping at the cats. Somehow overnight, this 11-year-old puppy became a tired, old girl, beset with arthritis and no desire to eat.

And it’s been heartbreaking.

Perhaps because it’s summer, I’ve been hearing more stories of sick pets and pet loss lately, especially family dogs. Our family has had many pets over the years – two cats, three dogs, two bunnies and an assortment of rats. No matter how small or how large the animal, how long or how short their time with us, each passing has fostered a time of mourning that can be hard to explain to non—pet owners. But if you know, you know, as they say.

The grief that accompanies the loss of a pet can be just as painful, disorienting, long-lasting and foundational as the loss of a beloved human. That’s because pets call forth our love from really deep places. And we share with them relationships that are far less complicated than those we have with people.

At the same time, I experience something entirely mysterious in my cat and my dog and also something quite relational and mutual. This is particularly true in how they interact with my husband, who draws them like a magnate, with the cat rubbing his face and the dog at his feet. And while I chatter away at them as though they are toddlers, our animals usually respond with silence. The kind that speaks volumes.

“The eyes of an animal have the capacity of a great language,” Martin Buber wrote in I and Thou, his treatise on encountering the divine other. He tells the story of looking into the eyes of his house cat and experiencing for a fleeting moment an encounter that was intimate and transcendent and that spoke of the presence of God.

That goes far beyond the emotional support role we often assign to animals; the mystery and mutuality of our relationships with pets unleash powerful responses in us. Chief among them is grief at their passing.

People often apologize for the manifestations of their grief – the unexpected tears, the lethargy, the emotional swings, the malaise. Grief is not an emotion; it is the response of the whole body (heart, mind and strength) to loss, and it calls forth love in ways we are not used to feeling. When love rises from its deep wells and floods our everyday lives, our bodies and our souls need time to process, absorb, appreciate and cope. That takes time. It shouldn’t need an apology, whether it’s for a family member or a beloved animal. But its manifestations can be so disorienting that we don’t always have the words to explain them.

I have found that the best way to walk through grief is forward, over time, with gentleness and understanding. With the loss of pets, as with people, remembering fondly, telling stories, sharing photos, creating beautiful spaces of remembrance, letting the tears come as they will, making or seeking art that reflects our feelings – all are ways of processing the love that our pets release in us.

Some find that bringing a new pet into their life after losing another helps to add joy to the grieving. We adopted Oakley a few weeks after we had to put our puppy Freya to sleep because of an incurable throat condition. At the time, Oakley wandered into the hole that had been left in our lives and soothed the ache. Her charms didn’t reverse the loss, but it did help us grieve.

This little prayer from an Episcopal Service at the Loss of a Beloved Animal describes well the power of the relationship with our pets.

Loving God, you brought this beloved animal into our life to share kindness, joy, and faithful companionship: Receive our thanks and praise for the community between your animals and your people, and all the ways in which we bless each other’s lives; in your goodness, Blessed Creator, hear our prayer.

Given the relatively short lifespan of most house pets, our time together is often limited. But we love them dearly in those small spaces. Their lasting gift to us is that they release love into our lives. And that is powerful medicine.

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