Wise and Touching Words from a Man Grieving a Pet's Death
None of them ever could have imagined what happened in the days they were gone, but it devastated and changed the whole family.
Bonnie is the marketing chief for the South Florida Regional Transportation Authority/Tri-Rail; Malcolm is cantorial soloist at a Parkland temple. He wrote an essay for his temple bulletin, and has allowed me to share it. I hope it offers some comfort to others who have lost an adored pet.
The season had finally come to an end. “VACATION” in colorful capital letters dominated my calendar. We were headed out to sea for a four-night relaxing cruise of the Western Caribbean. Remarkably, this would be only the second vacation in 19 years that my wife, Bonnie, and I had taken without our son, Andrew. Andrew was attending summer classes locally at college and couldn’t get away. We left him at home in charge of the house and our nine year-old Sheltie.
We were able to reach home by cellphone from our first port of call and were comforted to hear that all was quiet and normal at home. The remaining days, communication was limited to e-mail. In our second e-mail exchange, Andrew intimated that something had gone wrong at home, but refused to reveal it until our return. Although I found this quite perturbing, I kept it in the back of my mind and never discussed it with Bonnie. Bonnie had to go directly to work when we returned. You can assume I broke more than one traffic law in my rush home after dropping her off at her office.
Every conceivable scenario raced through my mind as I raced through traffic. I was convinced that he had wrecked the car, and I was OK with that since I knew he was all right. When I reached home, Andrew hadn’t yet returned from his morning classes. Once I pulled into the garage, I knew what was wrong. It was silent. The barking that had greeted me daily was replaced by silence. I ran into the house searching for my dog and finally came upon a letter from Andrew – our dog had died from heart failure.
Less than a half-hour later, Andrew returned from his classes and explained the details of exactly what had occurred and how he had taken the dog to the animal hospital, consented to providing all means of saving her and how, despite every effort, she died. It was all so surreal; it didn’t make any sense how she had been there four days earlier in perfect health and now she was just gone. Our grief was real and profound; we were mourning. But how could I justify this? How could I, who have comforted congregants after the loss of a parent or spouse, justify my behavior at the loss of an animal?
They say that every human experience is included in Torah, so I decided to search for answers in Torah – perhaps I’d find something about pets or animals and to my surprise, I found more than I had hoped for. The Torah fortified me with words of consolation and wisdom. First of all, Torah places great value on the life of an animal classifying it with mankind as having a nefesh chaya, a living soul. Care and compassion for animals is considered a great virtue. Moses was chosen by God to lead the Israelites partially based on his skill in caring for animals. Compassion for animals, according to the Torah, reveals a special quality in people. In fact, our Matriarch Rebecca was deemed a suitable wife for Isaac by the kindness she exhibited by watering Abraham’s servant’s camels. These passages and the proverb, “The righteous person regards the life of his beast” convinced me that my feelings were justified and that my feelings of loss placed me in very good company.
The greatest lesson, though, came from of all places – the Book of Job: “Ask the animals and they shall teach you.” Job’s words couldn’t have been for compelling and true - for because of an animal, I witnessed my son evolve into a man in the matter of four days. His response, the tough decisions he made with little time for reflection, his compassion for the animal, his sensitivity in withholding the information from us until our return in order to allow us to enjoy our vacation while shouldering the news himself, and the role reversal as he consoled Bonnie and I all demonstrated that the teen-ager we had left at home had become a man – a mensch. Was it fate that this should occur in the only four days all year that we weren’t home? Was it fate that Andrew couldn’t join us as usual? We’ll never know, but it raises the hair on the back of my neck…
Postscript: Bonnie seriously thought she would go mad from grief, and couldn't stand not having a dog in the house, so the Arnolds contacted a breeder and quickly got a ''new little girl:'' another Sheltie, who is warming their broken hearts.