Only a dog

A colleague recently shared a story with me, one from her days working in a veterinary clinic. A man had come in during a shift that she worked. He was a big, older guy, burly, wearing overalls. He most likely lived in the country, my colleague said. Perhaps a farmer.

He had brought his elderly dog with him. It was time to say goodbye.

The vet techs and the doctor gently lifted his dog onto the table. The man stayed faithfully beside his dog, standing over him. When the moment came, there was no initial sedative, just the one shot.

The doctor gently administered the injection. As it was being given, the dog lifted his head, looked straight up at his man, and licked his face. Then he lay down his head and passed away.

“It was only a dog.”

“It was just a cat.”

Have you heard these words before? Even though comments like these are usually well-intended, the truth is, they often hurt more than they heal. When a person is grieving the loss of something very precious to them, one of the most important things their friends and family can do is support them, be there for them, and indicate to them that they are not alone. But the words “It was only a______,” communicate a much different message. They say:

“I don’t understand your feelings, and I’m making no effort to,”

“I think there is something wrong with what you are feeling, or how deeply you are feeling it.”

“You need to move on.”

I am sure no friend or family member would ever want to communicate these things to their loved ones. We want to say helpful things, things that comfort and heal, or things that will “fix” the grief. But these words are not healing words, and there is no simple fix for grief. When we say, “it was only a____ ,” we indicate that, through our lack of understanding of our loved one’s feelings, we are not there for them in the way that they need us to be. By saying these words, we communicate that not only do we do not understand their pain, we think there is something wrong with it. This further isolates our loved ones at a time when the loss of their beloved companion may have already left them with a great deal of loneliness. And by indicating that they need to move on and “get over it,” we are imposing a timeline on their grieving process. Rather than expediting the healing, this can often have the opposite effect.

When a human is grieving the loss of another human, we would never assume we fully understand their relationship. Human relationships are private, and complex. We sympathize, we express words of support and comfort, no matter how distantly related the individuals, no matter how long it’s been since they’ve spoken.

Are relationships with pets that different?

They are not human, but that doesn’t hinder us from developing a deep relationship with them. They live in our homes. Sometimes they share our beds. We see them every single day. They are joyful when we are joyful; our joy gives them unbridled happiness, and their joy gives us life. They feel our pain with us; they bear it with us. They offer comfort unlike what any human could ever provide, when no words could possibly say what we need to hear. There is great profoundness in the quiet, simple, steadfast presence of a pet. In their silence, they speak things humans never could.

Of course, our friends and family may not be aware of the depth of the relationship we have with a beloved pet. They weren’t present for the perfect silly joy, or the moments of sorrow, or the countless days of our precious, mundane routine. They may simply not understand. They may have never experienced this themselves.

The way I like to think about it is like this: there are those who have “the animal piece.” They understand.

And there are those who don’t have the animal piece. They just don’t get it, and that is perfectly fine. But they need to know something:  the people with “the animal piece” are not wrong, or defective, or weak, or strange. They simply have a “piece” that others may be missing. And I think that when people say “It was only a____,” they reveal to us that they don’t have that piece. Though those words sting, if we can re-frame the moment, pause and step back, and view it with the understanding that the words came from a place that is missing that piece, then maybe we can try to shrug off the hurt it may cause, and instead remind ourselves that our hearts have that beautiful piece, and that others are merely missing out.

Maybe you are trying to cope with your own, fresh grief. Perhaps you have just lost a most beloved furry family member. Perhaps you have recently heard these well-intended, but painful words. If so, please know that it was not only a dog, or a cat. He or she was a dearly loved, integral part of your family, and that is a profound loss to bear. Please know that we hear you, we understand your pain, and we support you as you begin to walk through this time of grief. If you ever need a listening ear or a supportive word, we are here for you. We and our team of social workers all have that “piece,” and we are more than willing to be that support for you that you may not have in your circle.

Maybe you are a person who has recently spoken those words to someone, in the hopes that it would help. We all want to comfort our loved ones when they are grieving. We wish we could “fix” their pain. We all desperately want to say the right things. If you have said something like this to someone in your life, it is ok. Please do not feel guilty. We are not speaking to you from a place of judgment or resentment, but rather in the hopes that we can provide a deeper understanding of a very complicated, very painful time in our loved ones’ lives.

The story of the farmer and his dog is true, and it is one of the most beautiful, powerful, profound things I have ever had the honor to hear. The steady, abiding, mighty love between an animal and his human.

Only a dog? It’s true.

Only a dog could show such immovable, unwavering devotion. Only a dog could give so pure, so selfless a final act, for his only thought in the last moment of his life was his love for his man.

Only a dog, only a cat, only our precious pets can show us such profound, mighty selfless love, the purest example of unconditional love we have on this earth.

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