“Yes, But Should people love their pets so much?”
I was having lunch with my friend Sara, and the conversation turned to my work in Pet Grief Counseling. She was very interested in learning about the unique bond that many people experience with their animal companions, and about how I help people through their grief when the animal passes away.
“Yes,” she said, impatiently, “but, Joy, I have to ask myself: should people love their pets so much? I mean, shouldn’t all that energy be going toward people and not animals? Yes, yes, I understand all about the ‘unconditional love’ and the animal is ‘a member of the family’—but still, it’s an animal member of the family. Isn’t there something misplaced here? How do you help these people form connections with humans?”
My first reaction was amusement at the human need to judge and to change anything that is not immediately understood. So unlike a dog or a cat, I thought. Animals teach us to stay with curiosity a little longer, before judging. Animals also teach us that if we are not being directly threatened, we can skip judging and choose to go straight to acceptance, even if we do not understand.
“Well, Sara,” I said thoughtfully, “I don’t see it as my role as a counselor to assist people to not feel what they feel, or to love differently. If a person has a strong connection to an animal companion, there is a reason for that, and that connection is beautiful and to be honored. In fact, a big part of my work is to help people to not judge their own feelings—but just to sit with them, be curious about them, and observe.”
Sara has been noticing that her aunt is suffering a prolonged grief after the death of her schnauzer. Part of Sara’s impatience with pet grief is that she does not want to see her aunt suffer. She would like to see her aunt recover, move on, be happy and engaged as she was before. So part of Sara’s way of coping with her own discomfort in the face of pet grief is to judge it as invalid or somehow “wrong.” Standing in that position, she does not need to feel empathy; she can distance herself from her aunt’s pain by seeing her grief as “misplaced,” or “inappropriate.”
I have noticed that people who find a great deal of emotional support in an animal companion may have been deeply hurt by a person or people in general in the past. In some cases, the animal is emotionally available and loving in a way that people may not always be. However, my observation has also been that people who do have this unique bond with an animal do also have human connections. They are not isolated with their animal companion, shut off from human contact. They generally do have friends and loving connections with family. Each relationship, human and animal, meets some need, provides some comfort or support. Each relationship, whether with humans or animals, is unique. It is a spirit-to-spirit connection.
Sara’s question, “Should people love their pets so much?” is an interesting one. It inspires other questions: Why do we love the beings we love? Should we love anyone at all? What is the point of loving others? How does it benefit us to love? How does it benefit the world if we love?
Accompanying people through pet grief, I feel honored and deeply conscious of the privilege of being allowed to bear witness to the beautiful and deep connections between beings. The grief is, in a way, beautiful because it acknowledges deep love.
We love because we cannot do otherwise. We were born to love. “Shoulds” do not enter into it.