A Man and His Dogs

By: Mark A. Wessels
Monday, November 9, 2015

Mark Wessels, a pastor for over twenty years, shares his story about the loss of his loving pet, May, and explains that the loss of a companion animal can be traumatic. It is not something that either professionals or laypersons should make light of with insensitive comments or inactivity. If you have lost a companion animal, try to be understanding of the nature of that relationship and honor the grief that accompanies the loss. Don't ever apolpgize for loving someone including your pet.

by Mark A. Wessels

“All living things everywhere are forever one with us.”
          —William Ricketts, Australian artist and conservationist

She was a great companion, traveling everywhere with me.

At my office, she greeted visitors, and at the psychiatric ward she elicited smiles from strangers, prompting delight on the face of a familiar friend in unfamiliar surroundings. While other human visitors were unable to reach the depressed, the nervous, and the uncertain, my Iris Setter, May, broke down the artificiality of created barriers. A friend to children and elderly alike, May accepted them all.

As a pastor serving congregations in Australia and the United States over 20 years, I have seen my Irish Setter be an integral part of my personal and professional life. Each of them—Kelly, Katy, and May—have had their own unique ministry of pastoral care through their wagging tails and warm smiles. Most of the members of the churches I have served have been receptive to them, many even bringing biscuits and treats when they visited the office, or conversely, offering the setters a bowl of water when we made home visits. Many of the children in the churches have drawn and presented to us numerous renderings of my own versions of Big Red. They were proudly posted on filing cabinets and bulletin boards.

When May was recently diagnosed with stomach cancer, my grief was profound. There was nothing I could do to stop the cancer; no method for saving her from a certain death was within my ability. All I could do was make her last days as peaceful as possible, trying to walk the fine line between her satisfaction and suffering. Not wanting to be premature in a decision to euthanize her, but determined not to let her languish, I proceeded to grieve her loss while she was yet with me. In this process of grieving, I was reminded that we do not only grieve what we have lost, but what we are losing each moment. Every moment with May in those final weeks was precious; every activity we did together was filled with the significance that was heightened by grief.

As a pastor, and in my capacity as a humane educator, I have counseled dozens of families at the time of their losses—not only when human companions have died but also when their beloved pets have passed away through tragedy or euthanasia. I have been privileged to share in the reality of grief which comes when a companion animal dies—a grief not dissimilar to that when a human dies. I have come to recognize that there are many persons who are grieving a lost companion animal who have no one who truly understands the value of this unique bond.

The English author and Christian anthropologist, C.S. Lewis, married late in life. When his beloved wife, Joy, was diagnosed with cancer and eventually died, he wrote a book about his experience, A Grief Observed. It is a worthy book for anyone suffering a loss of a loved one whether it was a human or companion animal that has died. Lewis’ reflections about his own grief are profoundly helpful. He shared his own insight and observations about the powerful and potentially destructive nature of grief is it is not grappled with in a healthy manner. According to Lewis, a grief observed is a battle of faith and belief, a struggle for everyday salvation.

In the case of the loss of a companion animal, what then of a hidden grief, a grief that is not observed by those around the one who has had the loss? How does one grieve in a healthy manner when the grief is unobserved by family and friends who think of the deceased animals as merely a pet–an object, or thing? People need to have their grief acknowledged by others–especially those around then–for healing to occur. People need to understand and respect the special link between humans and non-human creatures and to mark with respect the loss of such a relationship. Celebrations can be helpful. Kind words and caring thoughts can be a salve upon the grieving soul.

The loss of a companion animal can be traumatic. It is not something that either professionals or laypersons should make light of with the insensitive comments or inactivity. If you have lost a companion animal, try to be understanding of the nature of that relationship and honor the grief that accompanies the loss.

May’s death has brought to heart these thoughts which stir within me. She was a great companion and a gentle soul.

Her death, and my grief, will not go unobserved.

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