The following are real-life losses suffered either by people I know well or by people who know my beloved people well:
- An avid health-nut in his 90s is killed while bicycling on a remote road.
- A 34-year old mother dies of pneumonia in the hospital because her husband rejected Western medicine in favor of “God’s will.”
- The eight-year-old daughter of one of my sibling’s closet friends is shot to death in her elementary school.
- A three-year old dog, tethered for a moment to a wrought-iron bench, gets spooked by a car backfiring, breaks free of his leash, runs out into traffic, and is instantly killed.
- An acclaimed and well-loved 50-year-old yoga instructor succumbs to cancer.
Some people might be aghast, offended or, at the very least, annoyed, to find the loss of a companion animal mentioned in the same breath as these tragic human losses.
Despite the fact that more and more people are bringing pets into the home (about 70% of American households have at least one pet) and that more people than ever consider their pets to be a “family” member, we still have a long way to go toward accepting that one could feel the death of a pet as deeply as the death of a human family member.
Even when grief over a deceased pet is acknowledged, the grieving pet parent is often encouraged to “get over it.” This attitude may even be unwittingly transmitted by some pet parents themselves who feel a bit squirrelly over the prospect of being cornered as to whether they would rank the loss of Sophie the Cat on par with the demise of Uncle Charlie.
This subtle scorn or embarrassment stems, I believe, from our need to compare and contrast suffering based on “merit.” Of course, few will admit to the inherent subjectivity of such criteria, choosing instead to bow to universally-held perceptions: “That person’s loss is worse because everyone in their right mind knows that it’s worse.” And the loss of a person - especially under tragic circumstances - is always worse than the loss of a companion animal, right?
The human passion for ranking - songs, movies, the best vacations, political blunders - is irresistible. We’ve made an art of crafting “Top 10s” of just about everything. Some go as far as to make tacit judgements about who is entitled to suffer more based on a given set of circumstances. In the process, I’m afraid, we’ve robbed ourselves of our ability to empathize with and be present for others who are experiencing a unique quality and intensity of pain we will never know. We may have - or have had - a like experience, but it will never - and can never - be the same. By making evaluative comparisons of grief, we both negate another’s pain and diminish or disavow the pain of our own loss, because, well, at least we’re not in Somalia.
The point of this is not so much to enlighten non-pet people about the magnitude of any particular pet parent’s loss. It is, however, to help us step away from our internal judge who serves no one, least of all, ourselves. Ordinals have a place on the Olympic medal stand, not in matters of the heart.
Any loss, be it sudden and tragic or after a long and healthy life is a loss worth grieving. We feel a loss of connection to another being - on two legs or four - that connected us to ourselves and our world. By debating internally over whether ours or another person’s loss is worthy, we fail to recognize the ultimate dignity and gift of grief:
Our sorrow is evidence that we were strong enough to allow ourselves to love and be loved - which changes everything.