Finding Comfort When a Beloved Pet Dies
It is wonderful to have a beloved pet in your life – a dog or a cat that knows you and your habits and is there to greet you no matter what happened during the day, what you said, or what anyone said to you. Our pets entertain us, comfort us, make us laugh, and offer companionship. It amazes me that we can form a warm loving relationship with a creature of another species. As far as I can see, there is only one major drawback to having pets: eventually they die. And if you’ve formed an emotional bond with the animal, you may feel an acute loss when this happens.
Unique issues in grieving for a pet
The loss of a pet is a unique kind of grief. First of all, no matter how adorable, no one is going to love your pet the way you do. Often a pet is loved only by one human or perhaps a few people in the case of a family pet. So while your friends may feel genuinely sorry for your loss, they are less likely to understand your connection with your animal and will probably forget more quickly than if you had lost a human loved one. Although I’m sure there are plenty of exceptions, you will probably not have a lot of people bringing casseroles or sending flowers and cards. Sometimes people will have a small funeral, but more often than not, you do your grieving alone.
Secondly, your faith may not be as solid a comfort when you lose a pet as when you lose a human loved one. Many Christians debate whether dogs and cats have souls and go to heaven. The Bible does not say one way or the other. I fall firmly on the side that believes it is possible and even likely. C.S. Lewis offers the best discussion of animal immortality that I have found in his book The Problem of Pain. I find the very possibility a great comfort. In fact, a few months ago I wrote an article on the subject: Do Animals Go to Heaven? C.S. Lewis on Animal Immortality.
For many people the hope that the beloved pet is living in the next world is the only real comfort, just as it is the only real comfort for the loss of any loved one. Some people may find some comfort in the non-believer’s platitude that the person (or pet) will live on in their memories, but that just doesn't work for me – which is probably one of the primary reasons I am a believer. If I love someone, my concern is for them. I want to know where they are and most importantly, that they are. I find it impossible to believe that a vital soul is suddenly nowhere. If it were true that something with a mind and the ability to think and love could stop existing, I would find that reality unbearable. Fortunately, I am sure that souls do not cease to exist. But can you really have such a concern about a dog or a cat? I found out the hard way that you can. Here is my story.
My dog Freya
In my mid-twenties, after a year and a half in graduate school, I found myself broke and living in the poor neighborhood in Norfolk, Virginia. It was a long street full of dingy old houses. I lived on the second floor of one old house in an apartment without air conditioning. The street was near a train station that delivered coal, and every day a thin greasy layer of coal dust would settle on everything in the apartment. I have never before or since spent so much time scrubbing as I did in the nine months I lived on 38th Street.
One day I looked out the window and noticed a litter of tiny puppies in the scraggly yard across the street. There were six of them in various colors. As I watched them grow I saw them running near the busy street and was afraid they would get hit by a car. When they were about six weeks old, I knocked on the door and told the thin unfriendly-looking woman that I would like to give one of the puppies a home. She went outside and said “Which one you want?” I chose a snow white female and took her upstairs.
At the suggestion of my boyfriend Tom (later my husband), I named her Freya. We guessed she was maybe part Samoyed and part pit bull, but it was hard to say. She was adorable. Every morning, afternoon, and evening I carried her down the stairs to do her business. Housebreaking was not easy living on a second floor walkup, but I loved my puppy and happily did what needed to be done. I felt I was doing something good. I spend a lot of time trying to train her but with very little success. Freya seemed affectionate but not too receptive to learning new things.
I had been working a low paying library job at a ritzy private school that barely paid the rent, so taking in a dog was not one of my wiser choices. But soon I found a better paying job in a military technical library, and found an air-conditioned apartment in another part of town. The new tenant was a college guy. While he moving in and I was moving out, he said “Why do you keep carrying that big dog up and down the stairs?” I was a little embarrassed when he said that and I am a little embarrassed as I write this now, realizing how easily my mind gets stuck in patterns. Freya was six months old and had gotten quite big, but I hadn’t noticed. In my mind Freya was a little puppy and I simply did not adjust as she got bigger. Later the new tenant complained to the landlord that he found fleas in the apartment and I did not get my deposit back.
The new apartment had a large grassy area between the building and a very busy four-lane road called Tidewater Drive. Every afternoon after work I would take Freya out and play with her and let her run around. We had been there three months when one day Freya took off running and would not answer to my screams. She must have seen something across the busy road and ran like a cheetah across the field and straight into traffic. She was immediately hit by a car.
I ran out after her and carried her quivering body back to the field, still alive. Whoever hit Freya did not stop – but a woman suddenly appeared with me and said she had seen the whole thing and the same thing had happened to her recently so she knew exactly how I felt. She looked ordinary enough – short brown hair, skirt and blouse, mid-thirties, but she functioned for me as an angel. One of my biggest regrets is that I was too distraught to get or remember her name. I ran and got a towel and the woman calmly helped my wrap up Freya, put her in the back of her hatchback, and drove me to my veterinarian’s office. Freya was dead by the time we got there.
I grieved for months. I blamed myself. I worried about Freya’s soul. I thought things like, “She trusted me. I said I would take care of her, and I let this happen to her” and “I adopted her to keep her from getting hit by a car.” I sat between shelves in the Virginia Beach Central library and read everything I could find on the loss of a pet. The books were compassionate and seemed to understand, so they were a source of comfort to me. When driving around with Tom I would look on the side of roads for lost dogs that I could rescue.
Many people I loved have died since then, including my parents, but I have never felt grief as painfully as the aftermath of Freya's death. I am a little ashamed to say it, but it’s true. How can this be? Maybe it would be more accurate to say it was a different kind of grief. Grief for my mother will last longer. Eventually I got over the grief for Freya, but it was very intense while it lasted. Perhaps Freya was like a child to me, my personal responsibility. Maybe it was that I did not have much experience with death at that time. Maybe it was the suddenness, the violence of it, and the sound of a dog's scream that echoed in my head for months. True, my affections may have been misplaced and my emotional intensity out of proportion, but emotions often do not follow the rules.
One day I ran into a woman I had worked with at the ritzy private school. She said her dog was pregnant again and she did not know how she was going to find homes for the puppies. When they were born I visited them several times a week until they were old enough for me to take one home – a golden mixed breed we named Petra. Petra lived 16 happy years, and was with me when I married Tom, brought home my babies, and moved into our new house. When she died of old age we were all sad and felt the loss but again, it was a different grief. I am learning that every grief is different.
But I know that when someone loses a pet, the grief is real. Even for a pet they have not had very long. Pets can get under your skin and losing them is the downside of pet ownership. But the joy far outweighs the grief for me, and I find it helps to believe that genuine love always survives death.
My family pet history continued. Read here what happened next...