The Living Church

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The Living ChurchOctober 4, 1998When a Pet Dies by Lynne Dawson McQuade217(14) p. 11

As the office manager of my husband's veterinary medical practice, I have quite naturally used my background in health care. The fact that I am also a priest has had a considerable impact, especially with those pet owners who are in times of crisis. I have come to appreciate the significant role pets have in people's lives. At no time is this more obvious, or more poignant, than when a pet dies.

When a human member of the family dies, various religious and societal rituals are played out to assist the family in its time of loss and grief. This is not the case when a feline or canine (or other species) member of the family dies. The pet owner is forced to repress the feelings of loss and immediately carry on as if nothing had happened. This minimization or even denial of the grief a person experiences at the loss of a pet leads to feelings of shame, foolishness and embarrassment - "How can I have such powerful feelings? It was only an animal. I must be crazy."

A pet is the only source of unconditional love other than God. Parents, friends and partners try to love unconditionally, but, being human, we cannot. Pets don't care what we are wearing, how smart we are, or how much money we make. They are glad to see us when we come home and love us no matter what.

Michael is a 30-year-old man with cerebral palsy. When it came time for his family's 14-year-old dog, Brooke, to be euthanized, Michael explained how much he would miss her: "Brooke never laughed at me or made fun of me like the other kids did. She accepted me just as I am, and when she got old and confused and grouchy, she bit me just as readily as she bit my brother." I am reminded of an episode on "Seinfeld" when Kramer had an argument with his friend Mickey, and fought physically with him - despite the fact that Mickey was "physically challenged" (he was a "little person").

A pet may be the only being in our lives whose full life span is known to us. We knew our grandparents, but never as children or even young adults. This unique opportunity to know the kitten and the old cat, the puppy and the old dog, endears them to us in a very special way.

The decision to euthanize a beloved pet is an agonizing one - a huge decision and an awesome responsibility. This decision can be helped by the understanding that animals do not have any expectations or hope that tomorrow they will feel better, nor, for that matter, the dread that tomorrow they might feel worse. They simply accept life as it is. They hold no grudges, they don't try to get even, they don't punish us for leaving them alone all day. They are innocent and sinless. When they suffer pain, difficulty breathing, nausea, loss of dignity and cognitive function, we can free them from suffering that is beyond their control. Sometimes we honestly do it for ourselves, as well, because it is too painful to watch a creature we love suffer day after day.

Every year, on or about Oct. 4, many churches have a service of the Blessing of the Animals to honor St. Francis. If we bless innocent, sinless creatures, who have no need of our blessing, should we not look at ministry to pet owners at the time of loss as an extension of the Franciscan spirit?

Can we find ways to acknowledge the loss, validate the feelings, and pray - in thanksgiving for the life and love of the pet, and for the grieving person who has sustained the loss of a dear companion, friend and family member?

I have been present for the euthanasia of Gracie, my bishop's dog, and Charlie, a priest colleague's dog. On both occasions I was asked to pray, and tearfully complied with their requests. I have also had prayers at the local pet cemetery at the time of burial. The pet cemetery has many requests for such services, but has been refused by some clergy. The theology is simple - we thank God for such a wonderful gift, and we ask God's blessing on those who mourn.

An old Italian proverb says: "When a person dies, so the legend goes, all of the animals that they had in their lifetime will be waiting for them at the gates of Paradise."

As Christians, we can be compassionate and open to hearing the pain of someone who is grieving the loss of a pet. We can support them, validate their feelings and pray for and with them. I think St. Francis would be pleased. o

The Rev. Lynne Dawson McQuade is part-time assistant to the rector of Christ the Redeemer Church in Pelham, N.Y.

Cherished Saint St. Francis of Assisi, imagined always preaching to flowers and birds with meek rabbits at his feet, was also, in the words of Lawrence Cunningham, "a center of ... contention, source of radical social impulses, [and] inspiration for a fierce ... asceticism." He did indeed love animals, flowers, and music and sweets, seeing these as a reflection of the beauty of God. The story of the bargain between a fierce wolf and a frightened town may in fact be a metaphor for a truce between a tyrant and his subjects. His Rule for the Friars Minor was accepted by Pope Innocent III in 1209; later he wrote the 2nd Order for the Clares, founded by Clare Favarone of Assisi, and the 3rd Order for the laity when an entire village wished to join the Franciscans. St. Francis received the stigmata in 1224, during the ecstasy of a vision on Mt. Alverna in the Apennines. He relaxed his rule of poverty enough to wear a "whole habit," foot and hand wrappings, to keep the wounds secret.
Should we not look at ministry to pet owners at the time of loss as an extension of the Franciscan spirit?