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July 17, 2008

The Grief Over a Pet's Death Opens a Gateway to God

The Humane Society of the United States

Do your views about animals influence your faith? Contributors to The Francis Files share their stories.

by Carol J. Adams

Nine years ago, a homeless woman came into the day shelter my partner directs in Dallas. In her hand was a very, very tiny baby rabbit. She told a horrific story about an attack on a mother rabbit outside the Greyhound bus station.

Some shelter workers rushed over to the bus station, but found nothing. Everyone was upset about what Mabel had told them, and concerned about whether she could take care of the baby bunny, but they gave her an eyedropper to feed the bunny and inquired about the bunny's nutritional needs.

The next day Mabel returned to the Stewpot and surrendered the bunny, recognizing the needs were greater than she could meet on the street. As our household already was known for taking in homeless and abandoned domesticated rabbits, the baby bunny came home with Bruce. I took her to the vet. She had an infection on her ears, feet and tail which required that I soak her ears, her tiny feet and even tinier tail twice a day. Along with feeding her with an eyedropper, this involved a couple of hours of my time each day for many weeks.

Eventually the infection cleared up; she could abandon the eyedropper, and she was introduced to the other bunnies. Several years later, Snowball, as we called her, died. From great love comes great grief. I was devastated. Stories of such grief are told everywhere. Many adults report that the most striking occasion in their childhood was the death of an animal friend.

By trying to short circuit the natural grief process any of us goes through, we deny ourselves and especially our children three things:

1)  We lose the opportunity to understand that grief, especially grief over the loss of an animal friend, is intense, but it is survivable. There will be many times in one's life that one loses an animal friend, or learns of the death of an animal, or the death of many animals. Unable to trust the process of grief, many people feel they have to close off that part of them that truly cares about animals. Unable to grieve, they are unable to know what it means to be fully human. Giving voice to our grief through prayer helps us experience our ability to survive it even in the midst of feeling it isn't survivable.

2)  Short circuiting the grief process tells the child that perhaps that animal friend just wasn't as important as they believed him or her to be. "Only a dog"… or only a cat, only a rat, only a hamster, are probably among the three cruelest words in the English language.

3)  Short circuiting grief deprives the child (and ourselves) of God at a moment in time when God might be most present. God is the one who listens to our prayers. What an incredibly powerful message to a child -- that God is listening to their sadness. At a moment when they feel bereft of the companionship the animal friend provided, they are offered a different kind of companionship, equally intense and rewarding.

When Snowball died, my sisters sent me flowers; people called. I was surrounded by a gentle love that allowed the grief its natural expression. But grief is a frightening and powerful emotion, and we often want to protect our children from such intense feelings. Even with adults, it is as though our culture says, "yes, a family member has died; hurry up and get over it. You have three days."

About six months after Snowball's death, I went walking in a nearby park after an ice storm. I was struck by the fragile beauty of the place; I recognized that fragility because it seemed an outward representation of my inner self since Snowball's death. When I saw ducks walking on ice something cracked open inside of me and I began to write a prayer, which included these lines:

When the ducks landed on the ice
Were they surprised by this unsteady and slippery place they
landed on?
God, I also know unsteady and slippery places.
Sometimes I am the unsteady and slippery place.

[from Prayers for Animals, New York: Continuum: 2004]

Just as the sun was melting the frozen branches, I felt something melt inside and I realized that my experiences of caring for Snowball and grieving had brought me closer to God. Because I knew the importance of my relationship with Snowball, I knew God knew it too.

After the death of Snowball and the revelation of the ducks walking on ice, I started writing a daily prayer to God about some aspect of relationships with animals. From that came Prayers for Animals, a book for adults and GOD LISTENS (Pilgrim Press), a series of four books of prayers for children about their relationships with animals. I wanted these books to provide a pastoral presence, an opportunity to be honest, and an affirmation that God is in the midst of all of our relationships. We can trust God to hear the range of our emotions – our love and our care, but also our fears and our grief. I believe our faith communities can be a place to discover this about God, and that faith communities can help children pray for animals.

Dear God,

I've been thinking of all the sadness You must learn about.
I know how sad I feel.
You know, too, because I have told You.
And I have friends who have been so sad, too.
And yet God, You aren't alone are You?
I know [name of animal] is with You.
Right now, You must be amidst dogs who are sticking their noses all
over the place and dogs who are wagging their tails!
And You must be with cats who are purring and cats who are stretching!
Salamanders must be turning beautiful colors nearby You.
You are among guinea pigs, and rabbits, snakes, turtles, and birds, aren't
The fishes themselves must be breath-taking!
God are You playing with them right now?
Even with all the animals there, every one is special to You, aren't they?
Is [name of animal]  in Your lap right now?
Is that why You can hear about so much sadness?
You are never alone are You?

[from God Listens When You're Sad: Prayers When Your Animal Friend is Sick or Dies. Cleveland: Pilgrim Press, 2005].

Carol J. Adams is the author of the GOD LISTENS series, a book series of prayers for children (and adults) who love animals. Ms. Adams  has authored more than 16 books including Prayers for Animals (Continuum, 2004). Adams, a noted feminist-vegetarian activist and speaker, lives in Dallas.

Do you have a story to share of how your view of animals has influenced your faith or how your faith has influenced your view of animals? Submit your story and we may share it with our readers. The opinions of the authors expressed herein do not necessarily state or reflect those of The Humane Society of the United States.

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