A friend of mine lost her only child today – he was 14.
Does this break your heart? It certainly should! Without knowing his personality or what he looked like, you feel sympathy for the family in their loss. Even if I told you he was severely handicapped and would always have required their constant care, it doesn’t change the fact that they loved him deeply – not because he was the smartest or handsomest or nicest, but because he was theirs. This is why all good parents love their children. Although a child’s achievements may make their parents proud, they don’t increase how much the child is loved by mom and dad.
It may surprise you to learn that my friend’s son, Samson, was a 14-year old Labrador retriever. (To all of you who are calculating “dog years” to correct me and to tell yourself he lived a long life, you should understand that a “dog year” is just a proportional computation of a dog’s life expectancy compared to a human’s. For all intents and purposes, he was 14 years old.) Right now, please note what emotion you are feeling. Is it disgust with me for having “tricked” you? Or is it relief that it was “only a dog?” If it is anything other than the deep sympathy you felt when you thought it was a human child, you should ask yourself why. My friend and her husband have no human children, and their other child (dog) passed away only a year ago at age 4. You need not have or even like dogs for this to impact you. When a human dies, you don’t grieve for the deceased, but rather the family they left behind. Perhaps you can’t comprehend how a dog can be so important, but you shouldn’t trouble yourself over that. To my friend and her husband – whether or not you agree – Samson was their beloved child and they will grieve for quite some time.
While it is true that some families don’t see their pets as their “children,” most of those families have their own human children also. That’s not to say that you shouldn’t show sympathy to them as well, but it is different when someone has only animals – especially only one animal. I acknowledge that a dog is not a human being, but it can still mean the world to someone. I believe society has conditioned pet owners to feel like they can’t really mourn a loss because it was only a dog (or cat, hamster, rabbit, etc.). You may not ascribe high value to pets, but be sure to show sympathy to those who do. Instead of focusing on what they lost, focus on how difficult it will be for them to deal with the loss. And beyond that, imagine what it’s like to have to bottle up that grief so no one thinks you’re “overreacting.”
When we see others who are sad, it isn’t for us to decide if their tragedy is legitimate. If another human being has a heavy heart, that should be enough to evoke the deepest sympathy from everyone else.