The loss of a pet and the power of love

By Father Joseph Breighner
I’m writing this column on Easter Sunday night. The sounds of the Exultet – the triumphal Easter hymn of the victory of life over death – is still ringing in my ears. This is a day of profound joy. Instead, however, I’m feeling sad. I’ll be going to Pennsylvania tomorrow to see my niece’s cat, Jess, for the last time on earth. After months of anguishing, she has decided to put Jess down on Wednesday.
For those who may never have loved a pet, the thought of grieving an animal’s life might seem a trivial matter. Let me assure you that there may be nothing more painful.
Recently, on a men’s retreat, one of the men burst into tears in my counseling room. The day before the retreat, he had put his dog to sleep. “He wagged his tail. He jumped into the car. He trusted me”, he cried. “I killed him”.
Our mind can be a cruel tyrant and a mean judge. Literally, for months this man had done everything possible to help his dog. But after we make ‘the decision’ our mind is prone to second guess us.
I’ll never forget my personal pain when I had to put my cat, Luke, to sleep on Christmas night several years ago. I shed more tears over his death than I cried when my mother died.
What’s going on? I think it has something to do with Easter.
At Easter, we celebrate the ultimate triumph of life over death. But it was not a simply victory. A simple rabbi is put to death by the leaders of his own religion. A man who only did good is rewarded with cruelty. A man who could have been king ran away from the opportunity, but is ordered executed by a political lackey.
The story of the life of Jesus is a story of bitter defeat and disappointment. Until, of course, that special Sunday morning when the tomb was empty.
And that brings us back to the pain of the loss of a pet. We believe that Jesus, a human being, both God and man, rose from the dead. There is no resurrection mentioned of any animal. That thought would be ludicrous to many in countries where dogs and cats are actually menu items. We are shocked by such thoughts, much as people in other parts of the world would be shocked by us eating beef – the cow is a sacred animal. How can you people be so barbaric?
Put simply, we are all products of our conditioning – our conditioning by our family, by our life experiences, by our culture, by our religion, by our political leaders, by the media, and on and on.
What frees us from our culture? The same thing that freed Jesus from the tomb. The power of love. Death died on calvary, not life. And the tomb was empty because a God of love would not allow his son to stay dead. I believe that when we love an animal, we anoint them with God’s own power of love.
We preach that all of human life is sacred, from womb to tomb. Not everyone agrees with that sentence. But I further believe that, since all life comes from God, all of life is sacred. We see each other as individuals because that’s how our limited senses perceive each other. But God sees us all as one.
Over the years, the death of an animal was final. There was no belief of an animal’s continued existence. That’s why the pain of the loss of an animal friend was so profound. This was it. There is no future chance of seeing the animal again.
However, looking at it today through eyes of love, I believe we will see our pets in eternity. After all, how can we be perfectly happy when an important part of our happiness is missing? Life doesn’t die. Love wouldn’t allow it! Our mind may not be our friend, but God is!
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Copyright (c) April 12, 2013

Catholic Review

The Catholic Review is the official publication of the Archdiocese of Baltimore.