Many of us have loved and lost an animal companion. It is truly one of life’s most harrowing ordeals. When we have especially close relationships with our pets, they are members of our family, often as loved as human members. Their passing creates a void we know can never be filled.
Immediately after the passing of our pet, during the seven week period in which his or her mind is said to be in bardo, there are useful activities we can engage in (see:http://davidmichie.com/how-to-be-with-your-pet-during-the-death-process-tibetan-buddhist-practices/) Even if we have doubts about the Tibetan Buddhist presentation of the death process, these activities have a therapeutic purpose in getting us to focus on the one who has moved on from this life, rather than on ourselves.
But what about after the seven week period, when our loved one has embarked on their new experience of reality? What do we do then?
Several times recently I have heard people say things along the lines: “She wanted to get a dog, but she couldn’t bear going through the pain of losing another one.” Or “He was keen to have another cat, but it could never have taken the place of Cleopatra.”
We wouldn’t be human if we weren’t heart sore over the loss of a much-loved pet. But we also need to get real about the nature of prolonged grief. This has nothing to do with the being who has died. When we grieve, we are thinking about me. What I think. How I feel. How my life is this, that or the other. Like other negative mood states, we are in a place of self-absorption.
Buddhism has always held that there is no surer way to make ourselves miserable than to think about ourselves. If our grief over a lost pet prevents us from adopting a new pet, it becomes destructive. No matter what kind of mental acrobatics we may perform to try to justify our thoughts and actions, what we are doing robs not only ourselves of chances to be happy. It robs others too. We don’t honour the memory of those who have died by dishonouring the living.
At any moment there are thousands of pets, shut away in rescue centres, yearning for freedom, normality, connection. How terrible to keep them locked up because we can’t get over ourselves. What a very much better option to open our homes – and our hearts – to a new pet. They can never take the place of our previous companion. Nor should we expect them to. But they give us a fresh, other-centred focus, opportunities to practice kindness and compassion – in short, they offer us the gift of happiness.
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