My first job was in a pet store. It was a small bustling shop near my home in Walmer, a suburb of Port Elizabeth, South Africa. I loved working there and would ride my bicycle to work after school or on Saturdays to stock shelves and sell customers a new pet along with all the supplies needed for a happy life.
In this setting I learned how difficult it is for many people to deal with the death of a pet, particularly when they have young children. Often on weekend morning, a parent would come bustling into the store as soon as the doors opened and insist that I catch – out of a tank of at least 200 goldfish or a cage of 25 parakeets – the “one with the spot behind the right eye because it looks just like Freddy.” What invariably followed was a conversation about how Freddy had unexpectedly died the night before and the other parent had whisked the children out of the house while this one made a frantic dash to the pet store to find a replacement pet.
The desire to want to shield ourselves or a child from the reality of death is understandable and perhaps even necessary considering other losses we may recently have faced. But for anyone who simply wishes to avoid a difficult, emotional or confusing topic for which they feel they have no answers, I raise the same question I did to those parents years ago. Who will be there when you die? Isn’t this an ideal opportunity to begin the conversation about the finitude of life when you can be there to offer the assurance of the love we have experience and known?
We are so clearly and plainly loved by our pets that when they die, we are gifted with the opportunity, in their passing, to see the fullness of life. Kahlil Gibran wrote…
When you are sorrowful look again in your heart, and in truth you shall see that you are weeping for that which has been your delight.
This truth that we feel great sadness as a result of great love means that death offers us the opportunity not only to practice healthy habits of mourning but to celebrate life in all its joy and fullness, despite our pain in that moment.
I was born into a home with 21 cats, 3 dogs and 2 horses. None had been purchased, all were rescued. My mother’s ministry with animals is remarkable but more remarkable, I now realize, is that she never hid their deaths from me when I was a young child. I remember her explaining, as an end of life decision for an elderly or very sick pet approached, that we welcomed the responsibility of making the difficult decision because of the gift of love and trust we received from our pet and because we had the ability to help them at times when they couldn’t help themselves. We would travel to the clinic together and stand with the vet caressing our pet as they faded after the injection. Invariably, we’d leave sobbing but as much with tears of gratitude as sadness, sharing memories and relief that our loved ones was at rest. I remember petting elderly cats and dogs in special made up beds as we faced the reality that this would likely be their last night with us. And I remember digging holes in carefully selected spots in the garden and dressing shoe boxes with petals to keep a dear pet company in our garden.
I don’t suggest that all families need to see it through to the end this literally but I believe wholeheartedly that these moments are opportunities for conversation and prayer that can remind us of God’s presence with us and the joys of life even in the seemingly saddest moments.