Dear Dr. Hurd,
In a recent Life’s a Beach column, you wrote, “The death of a beloved pet is certainly among the more difficult situations I face across in my office. I try to help people correct the mistaken belief that it’s somehow wrong to grieve. Indeed, one of the most traumatic events one can experience is the loss of a child, and for many people, pets are, to some extent, their children. It would be irrational not to grieve.”
What I want to know is how you can compare the death of a child with the death of a pet. How dare you?
Dr. Hurd replies,
Did you actually read the column? I implied no such thing. Perhaps you thought you read it, falsely attributed it to me, and then angered yourself. To say or imply that the death of a pet is no different from the death of a child would be like saying that humans and animals are the same. I didn’t write that either.
Humans are conceptual beings. Their intellectual capacity is superior to lesser animals. Humans cure disease, build bridges, spaceships, and develop technology. The good and smart humans help make the world more livable for us and our sweet little pets. Some humans use their superior conceptual faculties brilliantly and sensitively, while others abuse or waste it. Sadly, some of these humans can often lead you to prefer the company of cats and dogs.
Unlike our pets, humans can choose to be evil, controlling, abusive and otherwise irrational. Vast numbers of human beings underutilize their potential for accomplishment and good. In all honesty, a quiet and loving pet can sometimes offer more than a human being who has little or nothing worthwhile to say. Furthermore, pets are not sophisticated enough to betray their own principles. While a relationship with a principled human being can certainly surpass the relationship with a pet, the fact that so many humans disappoint gives pets a potential edge they wouldn’t otherwise have.
That’s why I encourage people who lose their pets to grieve freely. The writer of the above question seems to assume that grieving a pet takes away from grieving a child or other loved one. Ridiculous. Just as your love for one person does not take away from the love of another, your grief over the loss of a pet does not detract from your grief over the loss of a human being.
The error here is called the zero-sum premise; the false view that there’s only so much of a value, commodity, emotion, or even money, to go around. In the writer’s letter, the emotion she assumes is in short supply is grief. She implies, “How dare you take away grief for children by spreading it over to pets.”
Grief is not mine — or anybody’s — to spread. Grief happens for reasons, not because some therapist, writer or reader deems it proper in one situation and improper in another. Grief is the emotional byproduct of having valued someone or something that is now gone. It’s rational to grieve, and it’s also rational to eventually move on with your life.
Although humans are intellectually superior to pets, a good pet can offer more than an evil human. Our society is filled with adults who are disappointed with their children, friends, spouses, leaders — whatever — often for valid reasons. Pets can fill that void by benefitting from and appreciating, in their own innocent way, the best that humans have to offer.
There’s no competition between the love for a child and the love for a pet. The love of a valuable human is elusive for many, but still the highest value. Pets can’t replace a satisfying human connection, but in its absence they are certainly the next best bet.