Monthly Archives: December 2015

Three Continuing Human-Animal Bonds

The following stories are true. I am posting them here because they demonstrate some of the ways that people find to maintain a continuing human-animal bond. Doubtless, there are many others.

Taking Timmy Home

One day while doing chaplaincy rounds in a veterinary hospital, I noticed a woman sitting in the waiting room. She was staring into space, deep in thought. I introduced myself as the hospital chaplain. She seemed surprised and said, “I didn’t know they had chaplains for pets.”

“I’m waiting for Timmy, my son’s cat,” she continued. “He’s not well. The doctor said he’s got esophageal cancer and recommends euthanasia.” She told me that her son and the cat were very close. Both were ten years old, and they were like brothers. The euthanasia was set for tomorrow, and she was going to take Timmy home today so they could say goodbye.

She had many questions. “Should I bring my son to the euthanasia? What do I tell him? He prayed to God for a healing. How do I tell him that God didn’t answer his prayer?”

The woman’s concerns were all too familiar to me. In my work as a veterinary chaplain, I frequently encountered pet owners who struggled on their own with these difficult questions. Should children attend euthanasias? Does God love pets as much as people love their pets? Is God even aware that my pet is dying? Do pets have souls? And do pets go to Heaven?

I asked the woman if she had talked with other family members or clergy about her concerns and questions. She had not. She didn’t know anyone who she could talk to about Timmy and her son, and her husband had dismissed the issue as trivial. “It’s just a cat,” he had said. She was clearly looking for support, but had not found anyone to help.

These questions are not easy to answer. I told her that I thought it was a good idea to give her son the opportunity to say goodbye to Timmy, but that attending the euthanasia may be difficult for someone his age, especially if you don’t know how the vet is going to handle the procedure. I told her God loves all creatures, including Timmy. God hears your prayers, but God doesn’t always give us what we pray for. I couldn’t tell her whether Timmy would go to Heaven because that’s not for me to know, but the Bible does tell us love never ceases, so I told her the love she and her son share for Timmy will always be with them.

The woman asked me to attend Timmy’s euthanasia. Her son was not there — she had been worried that it would be too difficult for him. We prayed together as Timmy was euthanized. Later, I conducted a memorial service for Timmy when they buried him in their back yard. She thanked me for being there and helping them through this difficult loss.

Ashes in the Closet

I ran into Dr. Jim, Professor Emeritus, on campus one evening. We talked briefly. As we spoke Dr. Jim told me a story about a friend who lost his dog ten years ago and has kept the dog’s ashes ever since in an urn in a closet. Dr. Jim said the man later lost his mother and put her cremains in the closet along with the dog’s ashes. The man recently took his mother’s ashes to West Virginia, where she had grown up, and buried them in the family cemetery. But the man couldn’t bear to part with his dog’s ashes, and the urn remains in the closet.

The Whale Watcher

I attended a work-related conference at the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey. While taking an early morning walk on Fisherman’s Wharf, I introduced myself to Ben, who was a guide for a whale watching service. He and his brother lead tours out of the wharf. Ben was a strong man with large, rough hands who spoke in a brogue. As he described his whale-watching tours to me and some early-morning customers waiting in his shop, Ben told us stories about the whales and other animals we might see on the tour. As he spoke, he wove in stories about his pets, including three dogs that had died and that he had cremated. He still remembered and loved all his deceased animals, and for many years he kept their cremains in three urns on his mantle. He even mentioned a fourth urn, which contained the remains of his pet goldfish. While he spoke about his pets, Ben paused and wiped a tear from his eye. He finished his speech with the following words: “When I go over the side, me pets’ ashes are goin’ wit’ me.” This was a powerful moment for me, to witness this big burly man publicly demonstrating his enduring love for his deceased dogs and his goldfish!

Reflection

In reflecting on these stories, what comes to mind is the dilemma that many people face when they love and lose a pet. On the one hand we are supported and encouraged when we attach to a new pet. Neighbors and friends welcome our new pet and treat the pet as a member of our family. The media is full of images of happy families with their pets. It’s almost part of the quintessential American Dream: two kids, a house and a dog. The pet industry encourages us to spend money on our pets, from expensive pet toys, clothing and bedding to food specially formulated for puppies and kittens, overweight or aging animals.

Pet illness and death is a particularly thorny issue and is not widely discussed or understood. When pets are sick, people are often faced with expensive treatment options and difficult choices — the same options and choices we face when a human loved one is sick. But euthanasia is a unique and particularly difficult dilemma that pet owners face. When is it time? How can I possibly choose to end the life of a pet I love like a child? Am I killing my pet? Many pet owners struggle to deal with their intense feelings of loss — I can’t possibly let my pet go — and feelings of intense guilt at the same time.

To make a difficult situation even worse, however, pet owners grappling with these perplexing choices and difficult feelings have little emotional support. Researchers call this lack of support “disenfranchised grief.” In the pet loss support group that I founded at the SPCA more than eight years ago, we have a saying: “Grief lasts longer than sympathy.” A pet owner can typically expect two or three weeks of sympathy. Sometimes they get no support or worse, they hear comments like, “It’s just a pet,” or “You can get a new pet.”

Pet Chaplain was established in an effort to respond to this lack of social support. Some veterinary hospitals now offer psychological counseling to their clients. None, to my knowledge, are offering pastoral care. This is a serious problem for many people who may have spiritual or theological questions when a pet dies. The situation has created an entire underclass of people who are denied a very common form of social support that only chaplains can offer. As a result, their questions are forced into a clinical box, treated psychologically rather than spiritually. Their grief is medicalized and treated as a personal mental health issue, when it should be humanized and treated as a social issue.

Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka

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The Brickyard Preacher

In 2004 I founded Pet Chaplain, a non-profit veterinary pastoral care service. I began working with people who had lost pets, providing grief support and pastoral care.

When I reflect on this work,  the image of the whale comes to mind. I often recall the story about Keiko, the killer whale, that was the inspiration for the movie “Free Willie.” When Keiko died, a chaplain named Thomas Chatterton performed a memorial service for nearly 700 people. Chatterton said, “Keiko was not one of our kind, but nonetheless he was still one of us.”

The connection between whales and my work as Pet Chaplain first appeared to me in an impromptu conversation with one of the “brickyard preachers” at North Carolina State University. At the time I was a doctoral candidate studying pet loss and bereavement. The NC State brickyard is a large common area outside the university library. Students gather there for various activities, raising money for Habitat for Humanity, celebrating Earth Day, or just hanging out and talking with friends. Itinerate preachers also harangue students there, some preaching “hell-fire and damnation” others arguing about the meaning of passages in the Bible. One preacher, Jonathan, reads from the Bible. You can see him pacing or standing beneath oak trees with his thick black beard and prayer shawl, reading aloud from Isaiah, Ecclesiastes or another part of the Bible in his signature, piercing voice, which can be heard from all corners of the courtyard and beyond.

In 2005, I met Jonathan as I was returning from my Pilates class in the university gymnasium. Unlike most of the preachers who frequent the Brickyard, Jonathan is less interested in preaching his interpretation of the Gospel to the passers-by than just reading the Bible. I saw him and paused to chat. We had talked before on several occasions. I would sometimes stop to listen to part of the passage he was reading and ask a question, as many students did.

In our conversation that evening I mentioned that I was providing pastoral care online and in person to people who have lost a pet and that I called my ministry Pet Chaplain. His brow furrowed, and he began to stroke his beard and looked searchingly into my eyes.

I mused that Jonathan was either concerned, intrigued or inspired. I never know what to expect when I tell people that I provide pastoral care to those who have lost a pet. He querried, “Do you mean to say that you believe animals have souls?” I had a three-mile bicycle ride ahead of me and the sky was quickly darkening, so I tried to dispatch the topic. I told Jonathan that I could not say for sure, but that the question often comes up in conversation with people who have to euthanize a pet. They want to know if it’s OK, and they want to know if their pet will go to Heaven. They want to hold on to some hope that they will see their pet again.

The preacher began to search through his dogeared Bible. He turned to a passage in the book of Jonah and began reading aloud. He read the part where the king of Ninevah, having heard Jonah’s story, believed in his prophetic message. The king threw off his robes, put on sackcloth and sat in ashes. The king ordered all of the people of Ninevah to do the same for themselves and to also put sackcloth and ashes on the animals. After reading, the preacher looked at me and added, “You know, when Jesus comes back he’ll be riding a horse.” I smiled. The passage Jonathan had read confirmed to me that the Book of Jonah included the animals in Ninevah’s ritual of reconciliation with God.

The following week I received an unexpected phone call from the NC School of Veterinary Medicine. The woman who called asked if I would help them develop a grief and loss program for students, faculty, staff and clients. I had never been to the vet school so I was awe-struck when I walked into the lobby for our first meeting and saw a full-size whale skeleton hanging high overhead from the atrium ceiling. It reminded me of my conversation with Jonathan about Jonah’s story. It seemed like a sign, a good omen. As it turned out, the vet school hospital administrators I met with that day agreed  to let me have a go at creating a grief and loss program there.

The connection between my work as a pet chaplain and whales surfaced again the following semester when I attended a work-related conference at the Portola Plaza Hotel in Monterey. While taking an early morning walk on Fisherman’s Wharf, I introduced myself to Ben, who was a guide for a whale watching service. He and his brother lead tours out of the wharf. Ben was a strong man with large, rough hands who spoke in a brogue. As he described his whale-watching tours to me and some early-morning customers waiting in his shop, Ben told us stories about the whales and other animals we might see on the tour. As he spoke, he wove in stories about his pets, including three dogs that had died and that he had cremated. He still remembered and loved all his deceased animals, and for many years he kept their cremains in three urns on his mantle. He even mentioned a fourth urn, which contained the remains of his pet goldfish. While he spoke about his pets, Ben paused and wiped a tear from his eye. He finished his speech with the following words: “When I go over the side, me pets’ ashes are goin’ wit’ me.” This was a powerful moment for me, to witness this big burly man publicly demonstrating his enduring love for his deceased dogs and his goldfish!

In my work as a pet chaplain, I knew that the experience of a continuing human-animal bond is normal for people who have loved and lost a pet. Many who experienced a special relationship with an animal continue to express that connection after the animal dies. Research confirms my observations, clearly demonstrating that humans who lose a pet maintain the connection long after the animal’s death. This connection is called a continuing human-animal bond.

For me, the deep emotional connection that Ben expressed with his deceased pets is like a whale hidden deep beneath of the surface of the water. Sometimes that connection only becomes apparent when we lose the animal and are surprised by our emotion, often years later, affirming that our love for the animal remains strong. This connection is confirmed by the Book of Jonah and the whale and Ninevah’s insistence that animals are an important and continuing part of our spiritual life and our relationship with God.

….!
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Pet Chaplain Rob Gierka