When a pet dies

By Jean Fitzpatrick

Spotted with tumors, hobbling around the kitchen with his hips out of whack, sixteen-year-old Toto was too tuckered out to even bark anymore, but he still nuzzled up to us, still refused to touch his dog food until we grated fresh Parmesan over it. He was a small dog but with tons of spirit, everyone said; too much to be put down. Palliative care was what he needed, we told the vet, and when she put him on steroids we started calling him "Arnold." Finally, the day before our parish's St. Francis Day pet blessing -- where Toto, a low-slung mop of shaggy cairn terrier fur, made a spectacle of himself every year, doing his best to hump every yellow lab and golden in sight -- he lay down beside his water dish and couldn't get up. My husband and I carried him on his final visit to the vet, who injected him twice, then pressed a stethoscope to his belly. "His heart's stopped," she said, wrapping him in his blanket. "He's running around in doggie heaven."

Sweet of her to say, I thought, as we hugged her and said goodbye, but the words sounded sentimental, like a story about the tooth fairy. To be honest, whether we're talking about humans or animals, my spiritual inclination is to turn not to promises of heaven, but to the divine presence in the here and now. Still, although I'd petted Toto's lifeless body, I was struggling to grasp how so much sheer terrier exuberance could just vanish. On the drive home I remembered how a clergy friend once told me that at funerals he preached the law of conservation of energy: that energy can neither be created nor destroyed, only changed from one form to another. Maybe that applies to Toto, I thought for a split-second, then pushed away the thought. Even in grief, I told myself, no need to turn into a flake.

That night in yoga class, one pose after another -- Down Dog, Up Dog, Old Dog -- was a sad reminder. I was beginning to wish I'd stayed home. But as we began our meditation, the teacher said, "Your breath and heart are the portal to boundless joy." Boundless joy: I couldn't think of a better description of Toto racing across the lawn, yipping at passers-by. Breathing deeply as I sat cross-legged on my mat, I had a sense -- a holy sense -- that somehow he and I were still connected in the love of God. It wasn't the first time I'd been surprised by the awareness that grace is far more abundant than I, with all my self-conscious fears of sentimentality and flakiness, can begin to imagine. After class as I put on my shoes, I wondered why in church, St. Francis and the cows in the manger aside, we don't talk about that deep bond between ourselves and God's other creatures. Time to do a little research, I decided. I wanted my head to catch up with my heart.

I started with All God's Creatures: The Blessing of Animal Companions (Paraclete Press), by Debra Farrington, a spirituality writer, retreat leader, and member of the Episcopal Network for Animal Welfare. If God created all, Farrington reasons, "I'm just as likely to encounter God's presence in a cat, dog, or other animal as a human being." She quotes St. Basil, who called animals "our brothers," and St. Bonaventure, who wrote, "For every creature is by its nature a kind of effigy and likeness of the eternal Wisdom."

How, I wondered, could that sacramental view translate into pastoring a family like ours? I contacted Rev. Margaret R. Hodgkins, rector of St. Andrew's Episcopal Church, New Providence, New Jersey, which maintains a pet cemetery rumored to be the final resting-place of the famous MGM lion. "We can't know if there is a special pet heaven," the Rev. Hodgkins told me. "But we do know that our pets are God's creatures, and that God loves them. He made them and he called his creation good. And just as we believe that God's love continues to unite us to those departed persons whom we have loved and no longer see, I believe it is the same with animals who are members of our families. We entrust these creatures into God's hands when they pass away, and that helps us let go." Although at St. Andrew's a simple graveside blessing -- the Prayer of St. Francis or the Lord's Prayer -- is offered in thanksgiving for a pet and for the comfort of the mourning pet owner, she says, they have "no special rites or liturgies for pet burials. No such rites have been authorized by the Episcopal Church."

Happily, I discovered, that doesn't stop people from writing them. After presiding over hundreds of services at the Hartsdale (NY) Canine Cemetery, the Rev. Rayner "Rusty" Hesse of St. John's in New Rochelle, New York, and his partner, Anthony F. Chiffolo, wrote We Thank You, God, for These: Blessings and Prayers for Family Pets (Paulist Press). The book is a collection of lovely prayers for all kinds of pets -- cats, dogs, ferrets, mice, snakes -- at various life stages. "O God, Creator of all things bright and beautiful," reads one blessing, "Bless all living things around us, especially the animals that you have given into our care, that our interaction may be one of peace and harmony in living; help us learn from them, and they from us, about your purpose for this world; and may we remember that we are created from the same primal dust, to which we all return. In a life replete with challenges, a life of joy and sadness, of great gatherings and lonely places, surround us with the Spirit of mutual respect, one for the other and make us companions along the way."

Inter-species blessings you could call these, it occurred to me; why wouldn't the church authorize them? For a theological perspective I wrote to the Rev. Andrew Linzey, a member of the Faculty of Theology in the University of Oxford, who holds the world’s first academic post in Ethics, Theology and Animal Welfare and was awarded a Doctor of Divinity degree by the Archbishop of Canterbury in recognition of his "unique and massive pioneering work in the area of the theology of creation with particular reference to the rights and welfare of God's sentient creatures." Strange that a tradition that has countenanced the blessing of cars, houses and foxhunts has no liturgies for the death of a companion animal, the Rev. Linzey observed. "Our very worship bolsters an exclusive view that only humans matter," he wrote in an email. "I wince when I hear the UK Eucharistic line that humans are the "kings" of creation -- in fact the biblical view is almost entirely the reverse. In Genesis 2, the garden is created and humans are put in the Garden to till it and serve it (Gen. 2:15)." Linzey referred back to early Eucharist prayers in the Apostolic Constitutions (4th century) that "genuinely celebrate and give thanks for the whole of creation -- indeed it is the purpose of humankind to offer the Eucharist for 'all things' and to articulate and represent the voices of creation before God. The truth is that our God is too small. We think that God is only interested in one species that she has made. The result has been a narrowing of our spirituality. We foolishly think that spirituality is about cultivating of our souls rather than caring for the creation that God loves. We have become spiritually impoverished without recognising it."

Nothing flaky about it: an awareness of God's love for all creatures is a long-standing part of our tradition. It was an Anglican clergyman, Arthur Broome, who called the first meeting in 1824 that led to the founding of the then SPCA, the world's first animal protection society, Linzey noted in his book Animal Theology (University of Illinois Press). "Broome was the Society's first secretary, resigning his London living to work full-time for the cause, employing inspectors out of his own pocket and ending up in prison trying to pay for the debts of the Society." He also cited the conclusion expressed without dissent at the Lambeth Conference of 1998 that "the redemptive purpose of God in Jesus Christ extends to the whole of creation." As if that weren't clear enough, Linzey said, "I can be sure – as sure as I am of anything – that the merciful God disclosed in Jesus Christ will not let any loved creature perish into oblivion. To deny this gospel of hope to all other species except our own strikes me as an arrogantly mean doctrine of God."

Given that God's compassion is far greater than our own, how can God not love Toto as much as we did?

The Rev. Linzey offered a prayer from his book Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care (The Pilgrim Press), written after the death of his own dog Barney. We'll be saying it when we scatter Toto's ashes.

Pilgrim God
who journeys with us
through the joys and shadows
of this world

be with us
in our sorrow
and feel our pain;

help us to accept
the mystery of death
without bitterness
but with hope.

Among the shadows
of this world,
amid the turmoil of life
and the fear of death

you stand alongside us,
always blessing, always giving
arms always outstretched.

For this we know:
every living thing is yours
and returns to you.

As we ponder this mystery
we give you thanks
for the life of (Name)
and we now commit him/her
into your loving hands.

Gentle God:
fragile is your world,
delicate are your creatures,
and costly is your love
which bears and redeems us all.
Amen.


[(c) Andrew Linzey, Animal Rites: Liturgies of Animal Care published in the U.S. by The Pilgrim Press. Used with permission.]

Jean Grasso Fitzpatrick, L.P., a New York-licensed psychoanalyst and a member of the American Association of Pastoral Counselors, sees couples and individuals in her private practice. A layreader in the Diocese of New York, she is the author of numerous books and articles on the spirituality of relationships, including Something More: Nurturing Your Child's Spiritual Growth and has a website at www.pastoralcounseling.net.

Comments (3)

Thank you for this beautiful essay. I am convinced that God's love extends to all of His creation -- with all of its sentient beings -- and that our role is to reflect God's love in the world by caring for the creation, especially the creatures. How, indeed, could a loving God disregard the steadfast love our pets model for us?

I would add that reflecting God's love by caring for His creatures extends beyond our pets -- many animals are desperately in need of human intervention to stop their suffering. The Episcopal Church has recognized that responsiblity in GC Resolution D016 from 2003, which condemns the suffering caused by factory farms, puppy mills, and other systems of mistreatment calls on Episcopalians to work to improve their conditions, including advocating for legislation to protect them.

Thank you, again, for this essay, which reminds us how our animal companions can help us to become more fully human.

Lois Wye

The church does not have to authorize prayers and liturgies for us. We use liturgy to make sense of our living and our dying - thanks for the resources.

I've been on both sides of this: grieving deaths of my own pets, and providing pastoral care for those grieving pets. As a professional, I don't make any distinction between grieving a pet and grieving the loss of a loved human. As every relationship is unique, and each griever is unique, the support has to reflect those factors and grieve as necessary for that mourner. It's still an area where others may not be as understanding; but for my work it isn't a difference that makes a difference.

Marshall Scott

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