Mourning the Death of a Pet
Megan McArdle was chastised by an insensitive blogger of whom I’ve never heard for posting a poem on her blog mourning the passage of her dog, Finnegan. She is, understandably, perplexed and angry at having the legitimacy of her emotions called into question.
Obviously I do not think that losing a dog is like losing a person; no one sane believes that the two things are the same, though I grant you that some people do make creepy implications (calling themselves their dog’s “mom”) in that direction. Losing a dog or a cat is in some sense sadder, because they don’t understand what is happening to them, because they live such a little time, and because with a pet, you generally have to choose the moment of their death. And in many other ways it is not nearly as sad, because they have no dreams or aspirations to die with them; because one can never be as close to an animal as to (some) sentient beings; and because hey, everyone’s a little bit speciesist. But psychologists will be happy to tell you that we use the same basic mental equipment that loves people to love our pets, even if we can never love them as fully as we love people; and when they leave us, the same basic mental facility that grieves for people helps us scar over the hole our animals leave behind them. It’s not some completely alien process that has no business being compared to human death; it’s a difference of degree, not kind.
For most of us who have had pets, let alone lost them, there is no need to explain.
Our pets, while not people, are part of the family. That’s especially true for those of us whose dogs and cats live in our homes and sleep in our beds. We therefore bond with them and tend to anthropomorphize them. Whatever the felicific calculus for such things are supposed to be logically, most of us take the deaths of our pets much harder than the deaths of all but the people closest to us.
There’s no need to apologize for that. Emotion is, almost by definition, not logical.
UPDATE: Dave Schuler recently wrote a long tribute to Qila, his pet Samoyed, who died recently. Here’s an excerpt:
I don’t know how to explain to you my relationship with this dog. I don’t look on him as my child. He’s not precisely a friend—the relationship is closer and more intimate than any friendship. I have spent nearly every moment of every day of the last ten years with him. During his puppyhood and young adulthood I still maintained an office and took him with me every day.
He has gotten me up every morning and seen to it that I went to bed at night. He made sure I got plenty of exercise. When I was sad, he comforted me. When I was lonely, he was there.
He is my own, personal therapy dog. Or, perhaps, my other self—the better part.