Father Mark, Reflections

Part of the family…

Word is out that in the last few months there has been a beeline to animal shelters to adopt pets. This evidence reveals what an important place animals can have in both family and personal lives. Dogs are usually pack animals, and we’re the pack with whom they hang. There isn’t a place or time that Shiloh (above-if you haven’t already been inundated with pictures of her by me at other times) doesn’t want to go with us, often throwing a hissy fit when we leave her behind. I am partial to dogs because I grew up with them. I like cats but am allergic to them so my experience with them is more limited. Although my daughters when young just had to have that Siamese cat which meant I should have bought stock in Benadryl back then. Sigh.

Having a conversation with church members and others has conveyed to me over time how important, how attached and how integral dogs and other pets become in our lives. Personally, Shiloh just turned 11 (where did the time go? I thought she was 5!) and I am already having moments of anticipatory grief which is a normal experience of “pre-loss” when we wonder how long we have with her and how excruciatingly difficult it will be to “part ways” whenever the time comes. I call it “dread” in the back of my mind. Knowing many of you, I am not alone.

The loss of a four legged family member (I’m not intentionally leaving out birds or other pets) not only brings grief but can also included “disenfranchised grief.” The latter is when the people around you lack a sense of what you’re going through is normal and in many indirect ways ask or tell you, “Why don’t you just get over it.” They want you to get over it because your grief triggers their own repressed grief that they would rather not address. Of course they aren’t aware of this when they resist yours. The mind is quiet complicated in how it works…to avoid suffering.

My own story is that I had a boxer given to my younger brother and me at Christmas when I was 5 years old. “Boots” (she had 4 white paws) with her fawn body, minded better than my brother Steve and myself. She lived until the end of my first quarter of college, when I came home in mid December and a few days later found her dead on the kitchen floor by the back door, one of her favorite places to lay. The previous year was difficult as we had to carry her outside to do her business because her arthritis in her hind quarters had gotten so bad. We had talked about putting her down but my brother and I couldn’t bear the thought of it. The faucets in my eyes opened wide for what seemed like hours. I wrapped her body in an old blanket and went to the garage, hauled off some 1 x 4’s into the basement and went to work on the table saw making her a casket. Then I went outside and in the back yard, a few yards from the back fence, I was able to manage digging a 3 foot hole through the frozen snow covered clay. My tears seemed to have anti-freeze in them as they kept flowing. Finally, taking the casket from the garage to the hole and then wrapping her reverently in a blanket, I placed her in the casket, nailed it shut, said some prayers and thanksgivings, shared some memories and then filled in the hole. That was mid-December 1969. I never wanted another dog after this. I had had my “dog.” There wasn’t another that I had really desired.

My wife and my two daughters, now in 10th grade and 6th grade, lived in Colorado Springs in 1996 (27 years later). I made a habit of getting spiritual direction once or twice a month with an ordained minister who also was a therapist–best of both worlds when they are integrated. It helped release the stress and reflect spiritually and psychologically so my mind and spirit remained clear in the midst of the stresses of parish work. I was in the middle of a session with the spiritual director when my thoughts stopped, and out of nowhere, memories of Boots flooded my mind. Then I “lost it.” This was not expected at all. I thought I had gotten through it. Fooled me. I learned something new that day.

First of all, it was reinforced to me that our pets are not really pets, but are deep friends (if we cultivate this) and companions and they are a part of us. I also learned that grief isn’t something you “get over.” If you think this, you’re fooling yourself. Grief changes over time and we adapt to our losses but that we can have “moments” anytime when we least expect it–and that this is normal and OK. I know as I’ve spend years being educated and working as a professional grief therapist/pastoral counselor, besides going through grief myself–as we all have.

There are probably many reasons still unknown to me while I decided to address this. Three that I hope you receive are that I want you to have some compassion for yourself when you lose a four leg human friend. The Shoshone in Wyoming I knew call dogs, horses and the like, “four legged people.” They are like people to us and sometimes I think they read us better than spouses or other family members who have our minds clouded with so many things, we fail to realize how profound these kind of losses can be.

Four Legged People Friends

Secondly, if you know someone who has lost a four legged person, don’t blow them off. Give them a few moments and listen to them. Let them talk. Their experience is real and it doesn’t detract from their humanity one bit. Jesus teaches us to have compassion, one of the most difficult gifts that we have to acquire. Why? Offering compassion to others means that we have had to receive compassion and have been compassionate with ourselves. Compassion means to keep one foot in your world and put the other in theirs and listen–then hear (means to receive them). Listening helps. Fixing makes things worse because we invalidate others, adding to the grief. Therein lies the connection with the Holy Spirit manifesting himself when we practice Jesus’ words, “Blessed are those who mourn….”

Lastly, don’t mix up grief with depression. They are not the same. Grief becomes clinical depression when one does not go through the grief process. Anti-depressants actually complicate the grief process because they block the physiological sensations of loss which are necessary to experience in order to heal. You have to feel it to heal it. Else the grief lies latent and begins to affect the immune system later on creating physical illness. In another church I had three women become widows in a matter of 4 months. All were hospitalized for physical illnesses within three months of their husbands’ deaths. All three had pushed grief counseling away. One of my pet peeves is when a PCP gives anti-depressants to someone who is experiencing grief who hasn’t been to some kind of grief counseling. Only in the rare occasion is this really necessary. PCP’s are not trained to be grief counselors unless they’ve specialized in the field.

Grief, yes even for four legged people, can create all sorts of symptoms: insomnia, lack of focus, confusion, identity diffusion (who am I now?), thought blocking, nausea, racing thoughts, fatigue and others. So be loving to yourself as Christ is and get a few friends to mix with who are able to listen. Allow yourself time to sit and be still to allow thoughts and feelings to emerge that need to be released, and check in with a professional, either pastor or counselor who has some background in grief work so that you can get some feedback and have your experience normalized. Yes, all of this is N-O-R-M-A-L. Grieving does NOT mean that we lack faith. Grieving means that we have more faith because we are trusting God with what’s really going on in us.

Things will get better. But not my tomorrow morning. And not in a straight line.

Enjoy each moment with your four legged person. They are a gift from God. Love them well.


Fr. Mark