The Possible Injustice of Different Goodbyes for Different Departures

I had a dream this morning, just before waking, that seemed to last for hours. I dreamed (for the first time in a year or so) about my old, dearly departed canine friend Angel. In my dream, for some reason, she still lived with me, but because she couldn’t stay safely with the two little dogs in the house, I had converted the garage to this doggie residential complex for her. She seemed sad there, though, and I missed her. My mother came to visit me, and came with me as I took my old girl for a walk. We walked in a city that wasn’t my current home, the strange city that I always wander in my dreams. It has a definite (if occasionally bizarre) geography, and Mom and Angel and I walked its odd parks and through its alien pedestrian malls with certain knowledge of my path.

Angel, in my dreams, was as she had been in the last sad, painful couple of years of her long life — underweight, her coat still full but her black face faded to white, struggling to walk because she couldn’t really feel her back legs (she had some arthritis in her spine, and toward the end she couldn’t even move her own tail). Still, she wanted so badly to walk, and she seemed happy. She had only the ghost of her old fierce, intense energy, but she was still herself. We met other dogs, and for the first time, she was safe with them, friendly (in her slightly over-intense, slightly intimidating way). I thought to myself that I should try to let her hang out with the terriers a bit when we got home, because she was being so nice, and then she could be with me again, all the time, just like before. I could *smell* her in the dream — two smells, actually, at first the sickly hospital smell of her fading days and then the warm, pleasant, clean dog smell of her prime, coming back with the sun.

I’ve been thinking about her a lot lately. I’m not sure why. She was my first dog, the first living being for whom I was entirely responsible, and she was my best friend for 12 years. She was sometimes difficult, sometimes brilliant and wonderful, and always a rather splendid example of how a dog is also a person. She was a being of dignity (a dignity much damaged at the end). Part of my grief for her is always composed of the sadness of those long last days, when she was suffering and I couldn’t bear to let her go (even as some part of me wished that she would let herself go at last). I told anyone who asked that I couldn’t just kill my friend because it was inconvenient to care for her in her decrepit condition (and it was difficult, and messy, and stressful, and it was no fun for either of us). Eventually, though, she let me know (somehow) that it was time, and I had to let her go. I had to help her to go.

As if in conjunction with my recent remembrance, I recently came across a blog post (can’t find it now, or I’d put up a link, because it was really very well written) by a young woman mourning the recent death of her cat, and I noticed something that bothered me. It bothered me for a few reasons, among them the fact that it is so common a sentiment for people grieving the loss of the pet that it seems normal. What bothered me is this: She felt the need, as people grieving for a pet so frequently do, to remind herself and her readers that she knew that losing a cat wasn’t like losing a parent or a spouse or a child or some other human attachment. It was just a cat, after all. She kept effectively apologizing for her own feelings, as if doing so could make the grief easier to bear — or as if it were somehow improper or unacceptable to feel the way she was feeling about a dead cat. Cat lives or dog lives or horse lives or bird lives, the message seems to be, do not deserve the same grief as human lives, and people whose feelings don’t reflect the knowledge of this “truth” are defective in some way. Nonhuman lives are not properly considered as important as human lives. My father used to remind me constantly that “dogs aren’t human beings,” as if I needed reminding about the proper order of things — as if it were important that my judgments and feelings about my dog should never, ever assume the same value as the feelings and judgments deserved by human beings. Hell, he still feels the need to remind me of this on occasion, and I can’t blame him for it. He is expressing the sentiment that is usual among humans.

It is a usual sentiment, however, that I find appalling. It indexes appropriate grief to species rather than to individual. This is not, I think, how grief actually works. I grieve for Angel’s loss the way I grieve for my grandfather’s loss, not because I think of Angel as a “human being” — she certainly wasn’t, and I wouldn’t want to insult her by saying otherwise — but because of who she was to me, because of the relationship (however confused due to species difference, however corrupted by power relations attendant upon that species difference) that we had, and because of who I was to her (as far as I could ever know it). Appropriate grief for the dog I lived with is the same as appropriate grief for the man I grew up knowing, because of the feeling there. I think my grandfather (a dog person, through and through) would have understood.

The common trick is this: “Which would you save, if you could only save one — a dog or a human?” My answer is: “How well do I know them?” If it were to be a choice between Angel and a stranger, I’d pick Angel, hands down. I would not necessarily count myself morally praiseworthy for doing so, but I would count myself rational. The intuition that it’s just obvious that the human life is worth more than the canine life is absurd, because it ignores so much else that’s actually important in making decisions of that kind. Was my relationship with Angel a friendship of the sort one has with a human being? Of course not — how could it be? That does not make it any less real or any less important to me or to her.

I will not apologize for my grief for a dog. Nor, I think, should anyone else. Loving another being is not a matter of ranking species value and adjusting one’s emotions accordingly.


About L. M. Bernhardt

Deaccessioned philosopher. Occasional Musician. Academic librarian, in original dust jacket. Working to keep my dogs in the lavish manner to which they have become accustomed.
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2 Responses to The Possible Injustice of Different Goodbyes for Different Departures

  1. Staggs says:

    That is a completely rational and understandable post; I remember your relationship with Angel, and I understand your grief. I actually had a cat who was going through a chronic set of health problems that was financially untenable, but I caught a break because there is a local clinic that will let you sign care & responsibility over to the clinic on the condition you never find out what happened to the pet. I have know idea if he was put down, or if he was cared for and is still living happily somewhere. But there were still months where I felt as though I let him down. Like I'd failed to live up to my end of our relationship. If you have to apologize for that, you're either a) fooling yourself about the relationship, or b) being dishonest about it. I resent it when someone tries to diffuse their grief by rationalizing “it's only a pet.” That's like losing a leg in a car accident, and being happy “it's only a leg.” Because IT'S STILL A FREAKING LEG!

    That said, I'm glad you're still putting wit & wisdom in between music videos, and my condolences on Angel's situation. It sounds like it was unfortunate and difficult.


  2. Matt Voigts says:

    You bring out the emotion so well that it's difficult to know what to add, other than sentiments like what's been posted above and that I respect how you chose to blog about something so personal. Grief over losses – and its cousin, nostalgia for the times we associate with the lost – are oddly resilient, preoccupying us seemingly at random months or years after we think we’ve somehow ‘gotten past’ some person, animal, or place that is no longer in our lives. I think of the end of A River Runs Through It – decades later, the writer saying “I am haunted by waters.” The emotion is so common yet so personal, an expression of a deep connection that can feel utterly selfish, something that (at least in the way it is typically handled in our culture) makes one want to cry for acknowledgement while apologizing profusely especially if it doesn’t fit within the typical shallow, sorry-about-X-Person sorry-for-your-loss grief narrative. I can contemplate, but I can’t ever quite know what it must have been like to pose and pose with one’s deceased child for a photograph, though I’d like to hope that the process involved some emotional release. The value in sharing serves us best when it shows something vividly, when it breaks that formulaic narrative, and I thank you for showing that, and express friendly empathy.


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