It's not unusual for a family who has lost their dog to seek pastoral support.
In fact, I can recall several instances over the years when a family whose cherished dog died were so distraught that they requested me to invoke some of the traditional prayers of mourning in Judaism. I used to be taken aback by the depth of their emotion and the implication that mourners for a deceased dog should be accorded the same rituals as those grieving for a human being.
I did not think of myself as hard-hearted or insensitive, but rather a rabbi who wants to be empathic, realizing of course that there are limits to excessive grieving -- even for humans mourning humans.
Sure, there are laws going back to biblical times about treating animals with care. God tells us that humans will have stewardship over the animal kingdom. The laws of the covenant code in Exodus demand that humans allow their animals to rest on the Sabbath just as humans are commanded to desist from work. Unfortunately, there are no laws about mourning for dogs and neither are there stories in the Hebrew Bible about the unique relationship we have with our dogs today.
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So what are we supposed to do when they die and we are devastated?
I had underestimated the depth of this issue in our souls.
When I was a child, my Sealyham terrier, which I had had for about nine years, became sick. My father took her one day and that was it. I was not ready to deal with her death on any level. We didn't discuss it much and yes we were sad, but that was it. Years later, we raised our daughter with a calico cat and Lhasa Apso dog. Our beloved Melach lived 16 years, but her time had come. I took her, along with my 12-year-old daughter, to the veterinarian, and the three of us stood together and watched her die peacefully as he administered a dose of medication to end her pain. It was traumatic, but we went on with life. By the time of my daughter's Bat Mitzvah, we had Emmi, an adorable 7-week-old Basset hound.
Well the years went by and Emmi became a second daughter in our family and now howls along the streets of Hilton Head Island. In December 2011, Emmi was diagnosed with lymphoma and ultimately developed a carcinogenic tumor on her trachea. I was taken aback this time by my own emotions and the utter desperation and fear I felt at the thought of losing her.
Now the roles were reversed. I was the distraught human with nowhere to go. Should I read Psalms for comfort? Well, I went to the veterinarian staff at the Charleston Pet Hospital, which put her on a regime of chemotherapy for five months. In the meantime, I adopted another dog from the Hilton Head Humane Society, thinking this would soften the blow of Emmi's impending death. I prayed for Emmi, while caring for the two dogs and I wondered if I had lost my mind.
Two years have passed since the initial diagnosis, and Emmi still romps down the street with Bassett, greeting barks to all dogs and people with a wagging tale and magnificent countenance that caused one neighbor to say, "That's Emmi, so much to say."
Today she takes her daily chemo pill, and the oncology veterinarian is amazed how she has "beaten the odds." She might be a miracle dog for her survival but also for the love and the joy she brings to life. She's a blessing from God to our family.
Is it all crazy that we go this far in relating to or spending the sometimes exorbitant sums that veterinary care costs for our dogs? Even now the veterinarians are developing hospice care drugs and facilities for dogs.
Can we learn to be better people from caring for our dogs and cats? Will our world be a safer place if we learn from animals to be compassionate to humans? Does God care about our pets like we believe God is supposed to care about us? Is there an after-life for our pets like many believe -- or at least hope for --to greet us after we die?
I don't believe we have to give families second-tier counseling for the loss of a pet. Clergy and volunteers have developed innovative services and prayers to strengthen us to cope with illness as well as joyful occasions with our pets. Surely we can innovate creative prayers that acknowledge the passing of a cherished pet as well.
The very core of the matter is showing respect for animal life itself, including the biological, spiritual and ethical dimensions of the well-being of our pets and ourselves.
The poet Mary Oliver in her new book of poems titled, "Dog Songs" wrote:
"We become religious
Then we turn from it,
Then we are in need and maybe we turn back.
We turn to making money,
then we turn to the moral life,
then we think about money again.
We meet wonderful people, but lose them,
In our busyness.
We're as the saying goes, all over the place,
Steadfastness, it seems,
is more about dogs than about us.
One of the reasons we love them so much."
Columnist Rabbi Brad L. Bloom is the rabbi at Congregation Beth Yam on Hilton Head Island. He can be reached at 843-689-2178. Read his blog at www.fusion613.blogspot.com and follow him at twitter.com/rabbibloom.