A Familiar Grief: A Memorial Essay by Alice Kuder
I hadn’t expected the emotions I experienced when Nicholas died. We had been together for fourteen years; he was the most constant source of love in my adult life. I never took for granted how lucky I was to “own” Nicholas. Nevertheless, I was totally unprepared for the suddenness of his death, or the familiarity of my grief.
The veterinarian said Nicholas had ‘kennel cough,’ the canine equivalent of a very bad cold. I wanted to believe her.
Eventually, his cough dissipated, but he was slowly losing the effervescent spirit which had always been his hallmark.
I was stunned when X-rays showed Nicholas’ lungs to be filled with cancer. The doctor got only as far as to tell me that when I silently, uncontrollably dissolved into tears and unashamedly cried for the next seven days.
I realize now that Nicholas said his good-byes to me that day in the car on the way to the vet’s office. As he had when he was a puppy, he lay calmly on the seat beside me, but kept nuzzling my hand, demanding that I continuously pet his head as I drove. Each time I removed my hand to shift gears, he would push his nose up to remind me to return to the petting position as soon as possible.
The next day, he lay in my arms as the doctor injected him with the sleep he now welcomed, taking only seconds to drift away.
I always appreciated how much love and joy Nicholas added to my life, but he was my pet, my dog, an animal being, and somehow I expected my sorrow when I lost him to be different from that of losing a human being. As if we humans have a separate set of feelings and emotions for animals, which are similar, yet clearly lesser, or even inferior to those we feel for people. So I was unprepared to recognize the face of this grief so completely.
I recognized the anguish of looking forward to going home to see him, and then suddenly remembering that he wouldn’t be there. I recognized the loneliness when I longed to hug the loved one who had disappeared. I recognized the frightening feeling of being so much more alone in the world than I had been before. And I recognized myself-pity over losing one who loved me.
I knew there would be those who could not understand the depth of my grief over a dog. Anyone who has ever loved a pet, has at one time or another felt a bit embarrassed when a non-pet-owner declares, ‘it’s just an animal.’
What value is there in the ‘love’ of an animal?
Pets bestow the rarest of gifts — unconditional love. We humans try our best to love unconditionally. We promise in songs, poetry and vows to love one another forever. But despite our best intentions we eventually fall short of that promise. Our egos get in the way of giving truly unconditional love. Our self-esteem is too easily threatened by change. When our lover has a bad day and takes it out on us, we take it personally. If our partner needs time alone, we fear abandonment.
Animal beings do not suffer from ego. They love our truest self; that core part of our being whose essence does not change from cradle to grave.
When we suffer anxiety over our own self-worth, animals challenge us to accept our own goodness, and reassure us that we are lovable. They allow us to grow and change without fear of losing their love.
Perhaps we often consider human love to be more valuable than animal love because of all we have to overcome to give and receive it. That people love one another despite the difficulties of overcoming ego is amazing. People choose to love. When they choose to love us, we feel the miracle.
Pets love us unconditionally and forever because of our core goodness. Humans choose to love us despite our faults. What incredible gifts!
Nicholas taught me invaluable lessons about love and sorrow. I hope I leave as rich a legacy.
Copyright November 1997