Over breakfast this morning two friends were sharing their stories about losing pets. One told us how sad she was that her neighbors had recently put down their dog, an animal that she knew well. The other talked about a woman who felt comforted by her cat while she dealt with the stresses of having a close family member with a serious medical condition, only to have the cat die. The topic came up in the context of a recent blog I wrote about the research on the health benefits of being a pet owner. We knew that humans benefit from caring for pets, but wondered if we ever learned anything from losing them.
One of the friends lives in a retirement community. “There are five memorial services scheduled in this room for tomorrow,” he said. “In this place, we are always reminded of our mortality.” We agreed that as painful as it is to lose pets, the experience can teach us, even at an early age, about the transitory nature of life and about grief. I’ll never forget the family vacation to the San Juan Islands, more than fifty years ago, when my parents let my dog out of the car along the side of the freeway and she ran into traffic and was killed before we ever reached our destination. I wasn’t prepared for the lesson, but I still remember it.
Our pets become part of our families and losing them can be nearly as painful as losing a family member. In fact, one of the friends said that when a relative posted on Facebook that a family member died, she received a fraction of the sympathetic comments that people expressed when she reported the death of her pet. (Maybe this happens because it’s more difficult to find the words to adequately communicate with someone who is grieving the loss of a loved one.)
Why is it we sometimes feel more sorrow when we lose an animal than when a person we know dies? WebMD tells us that pets are “natural mood enhancers,” can help fight depression, and keep us from feeling isolated. Their nearly unconditional affection (I say nearly because I don’t think my cat would be as loving if I didn’t feed him so often), and their calming presence might offer more consistent and reliable support than we humans are able to give. Whatever the reason, we know that when we love someone, animal or human, we can expect to find happiness and sadness bundled together within that experience. And for most of us, that is the hardest lesson to learn.