Because I live with animals and write about them, I think, it happens that people who are grieving intensely over their lost dogs and cats – sometimes horses – see me as a kindred spirit. They often contact me to tell me they can't stop mourning their pets, can't bear to get another one, can't move on from their loss and grief.
Grieving for animals, as it is for people, is personal thing, it is not for me to ever tell anyone how to grieve for a person or animal they lost. We all have to do it in our own way. But the truth is, I generally do not understand that kind of grieving, and I often wonder why so many people assume that I do.
I wrote a book about animal grieving called "Going Home: Finding Peace When Pets Die," and the book was, in many ways, an argument for perspective, for grieving moving on, and then availing ourselves of the miracle of animals like dogs and cats and horses – you can do it again. A lot of distinguished psychologists and psychiatrists cautioned me that extreme grieving for animals is often a reflection of other losses in life, not just the animals.
I understood what they were telling me. When people we love die, they can never be replaced. But I can get another dog and cat, and this is a miracle to me. If I love one, I can love another. This is preferable to me to grieving, although that is always an individual thing. I always remember that there are millions of animals out there in need of us in shelters, lots of Fates and Reds waiting for homes, So many are languishing in one of the cruelest creations on the well-paved road to animal Hell, no-kill shelters.
People read the book and then often message me, speaking of their devastation, their depression, their pain and suffering, quite often in great detail, almost always saying the know I will understand, when the truth is, I almost never really do.
I am sorry to see anyone in pain, I hope I possess the great gift of empathy. But this, I know, is the problem with advice. People generally like the advice they want, they ignore the advice they don't want. Fools never take advice, the seers say, and smart people don't need it.
People who mourn pets for long periods are not fools, but I do not grieve for my animals in that way. A woman came up to me recently when a laminated photograph of a dead animal, she told me she has been weeping for weeks and months and cannot get past it, she was so glad to run into me, she felt free to tell me because she knew I would understand.
I kept quiet, as I always do, people do not seem to notice. I am not interested in arguing with people or challenging them about the way they grieve. We lost a lot of animals on the farm in the past year – Lenore, Frieda, and Simon. I wrote book about each one of them and loved each one very dearly, as did Maria. I cannot imagine placing that on another person, or assuming their notion of grief was the same as mine. And they never ask me about the animals I have lost. I never want to think like that, to think that my grief is worse than anyone else's.
In our world, we all lose things: people, dogs, cats, horses, work, dreams. Everyone has suffered more than me.
I think of myself as fortunate.
We have each other, a new pony, a new border collie puppy, a wonderful dog in Red, two dear donkeys, work that we love. Honestly, I speak only for myself, but I can't grasp what reason I might have for staying mired in grief when I have so much to be grateful for, so much to love and care about. Lenore was not about grief, neither was Simon or Frieda. They all lived full and happy lives, Frieda and Simon suffered much along the way. My animals will never be a misery to me, always a joy and a gift.
Pope Francis, who took the name of St. Francis, a great lover of animals, is helping bring the world to a new understanding of animals.
"If we approach nature and the environment without this openness to awe and wonder," he wrote of animals, "if we no longer speak the language of fraternity and beauty in our relationship with the world, our attitude will be that of masters, consumers, ruthless exploiters, unable to set limits on their immediate needs. By contrast, if we feel intimately united with all that exists, then sobriety and care will well up spontaneously.”
Again, I am speaking only for me, I am not telling anyone else what to do, I do not think I know what others should do. My lost animals do not need my grief, I do not feel the least bit sorry for myself or for them. If I love animals, which I do, I will keep them in my life, I will approach them with an openness to awe and wonder, I will speak the language of fraternity and beauty in my relationship with them. And I will not see myself as a master or exploiter of them, they do not exist to satisfy my emotional needs and desires.
I guess if I am being honest about it, when people say they are telling me things because they know I will understand, I feel I have failed somehow as a writer because I often do not understand. How could I be so unclear about what I believe and feel? I suppose it's an identity question for me, I learned in my life to insist on being known for who I really am, as ugly as that often is, not as how others might choose to cast me. Identity is precious, it is the key to self, no one can define me but me.
I bow my head to those in grief, I wish them healing and peace and compassion. I hope I have helped some deal with their grief and am sorry I didn't help others. I cherish my hospice work and the brave and beautiful people – and animals – who leave the world in pride and joy and acceptance love, without lament or complaint. A beautiful thing to see, an inspiration for me to live and follow.