Who is Harder to Mourn: Dogs or Humans?
Jayme Stayer, SJ over at The Jesuit Post, recently lost his beloved Basset Hound, Tristan Xavier. The pain, I assume was twice as bad as when he had to choose between his dog and joining the Jesuits. I can remember a friend described a conversation he had with the members of his religious community when they discussed the possibility of getting a dog.
Priest 1: “Hey, we should get a dog!”
Priest 2: “Not just ‘No” but “Hell, no!'”
Priest 1: “What? Why not?”
Priest 2: “Because we all say that we’ll take care of the dog and nobody will and then one day we’ll look in the corner and say ‘OMG! The dog died!’ That’s why!”
True enough and Jayme ponders whether religious communities could have pets considering their mobility every few years. But as you know, I have a deep fondness for my own Chihuahua, Haze Hayes, and recently went through a tough time where he very nearly did need to be “put down” because of two major infections that antibiotics didn’t seem to be able to kick. In the end, Haze bounced back mightily with the help of the fine folks at the Blue Cross Animal Shelter, who I will be nominating for sainthood one day. It came at great personal expense to my wife and me to have the dog go through surgery. But we indeed are glad we did so, even if it means we are broke and that we’ve discovered the evils of our Pet Insurance Company who did not deliver on their promises.
I too, was very grateful for my work colleagues. They covered things for me in my absence and I’m sure that the urgency of a dog’s care, for some, is less a priority than saying financially solvent. My dog is still a young Chihuahua, so we made the effort. One of our vets said that many people would not have made the effort that we did. That many consider a dog more utilitarian, fine to own, but not the equivalent of a relationship. Simply put, it would be cheaper (much) to get another dog than to have a surgical procedure performed on a pet. One vet noted:
“That’s indeed true. But the new dog won’t be THAT dog. The one you have a relationship with and that you have raised all these years.”
And indeed that was the deciding factor for me. Difficult though it was, my dog lives and I pray he will live for a long time post-surgery. Call me crazy, but I love the dog and when the dog finally died, I know it will be a hard time for Marion and me. Jayme points out the difficulties in mourning a beloved pet.
The beloved, if ill-defined, place of a dog in our affections makes the problem of mourning for a dog complicated. It is easier to expect sympathy from others when we are grieving a friend or relative. But most people avoid the melodrama of announcing to acquaintances that their dog has died. John Homan, in his book What’s a Dog For?, notes: “Caring for a dog at the end of its life and grieving after it’s gone is in some ways more complicated than grieving for a person, because the question of what a dog is is far from settled.” I would press Homan’s point further. It’s not just a problem of essence (what a dog is) or function (what a dog is for). It’s a question of relationality: what our relationship with a dog means. The problem of mourning for a dog is bound up with the problem of believing that we love a dog. And love can mean lots of different things. The emotionally traumatized may find that it is a dog’s love that brings them back to life; the relationship that epileptics or the blind have with their dogs enables them not merely to survive but to flourish. Nevertheless, while dogs might offer us practical skills as well as something resembling unconditional love (they will play with us even if we’re ugly, insensitive, or sarcastic), dogs never challenge us when we’re being stubborn or petty.
There is no risk in loving a dog. And so what it means to love a dog is necessarily limited. There is something pathetic about Leona Helmsley—wealthy, tyrannical—clutching her dog and grinning at the camera. What does her love for a dog mean when she was so monstrous to the humans around her? It’s generally clear what we mean when we say that we love our parents or friends, because that love participates in, and derives from, divine love. It’s also clear what we mean when we say that we love nature, a movie, a book, or a sport, because that love is reverence for divine creation or the human genius that is its reflection. But when we say we love a dog, we’re not referring to a point that exists on a continuum somewhere between human-love and object-love. We seem to be referring to some other category altogether.
True enough, with one glaring exception in my opinion. There is risk in loving a dog, (or anyone else for that matter) and the risk is this. That the receiver of your love may in fact, one day no longer be with you. We all die, eventually. We don’t like much to focus on that, but we do. Death is indeed, is sad for us, but it is also a part of life. The love shared by those in life is never killed by death, but rather it is transformed into what is everlasting. I believe that is true for the love we share with creatures who are not human as well, of course, as those we share with our family, friends and colleagues from whom we risk, not receiving the response of love we get unconditionally from our pets and ultimately from God.
In tribute to “Tristan Xavier Stayer—the dumpiest, doofiest, dim-wittedest, and dearest basset hound that there ever was” I will share his dulcet tones, now silenced.
And I pray that when Jayme and his family meet the end of this life’s journey, they will find themselves led into God’s Kingdom by a bounding, jowl dripping, dear basset hound, who will be one of the many reasons that evidences that their reward in heaven awaits.