Our English Setter, Sandy, died of cancer this past weekend. Facebook became church for us during Sandy's chemotherapy, and then at his death. With the outpouring of prayer and concern at his loss, I realized Facebook is not only sacred community for so many pet lovers, it is also a lesson in how to respond to grief with simple compassion.
Our online friendships help us celebrate puppy births, kittens rescued and given loving homes, and support us in the realization that the school guinea pig that needs a home is the beloved of our children.
It is in grief over pet illness and loss, however, where I most see sacred community and I also see the contrast to human loss, and a place where our human-only spiritual communities may be lacking.
I have learned a lot from my colleague, Rev. Dr. Dow Edgerton, and his book Listening to Grief that can be downloaded for free from our seminary website. It is so important to listen to grief, both one's own as well as another's. Dow writes,
"Your grief is speaking and telling you something about you and the world in which you live. How can you listen?"
How can we listen when humans express grief at the loss of other human beings in ways that can be so contradictory, muddled, and even sometimes ugly?
"Grief can express itself through thoughts and feelings that seem utter contradictions. Love that sounds like fear, pain that sounds like joy, doubt that sounds like faith, arguments that sound like prayers, prayers that sound like earthquakes, yes that sounds like no, and stories and dreams and dramas and songs and poems, and, and, and... In the face of this, a listener can simply be overwhelmed in the way that both a breaking wave and a slow surge can flood us out."
But the grief at the loss of a pet is rarely like this. Our beloved Sandy dog died, and I grieved for him. I told people on Facebook and the outpouring of love and care I experienced was, in a word, pure.
There is a directness, a simplicity both to the expression of grief at pet loss, and in the response of friends. Here are only a few:
"I'm so sorry; you loved him and he loved you."
"Sandy was a good dog soul. Isn't it amazing how much they teach us about living."
"What grace that you found each other!"
"So sad. Lost one of mine this week, so I am in parallel grief with you."
There were hundreds of others.
This simple presence one friend to another in grief is what really helps at a time of loss. Often, when it comes to human loss, however, there can be more silence and stammering in our sacred communities, a 'not knowing what to say so better not to say anything' kind of response. And the grieving person can feel isolated and alone.
Grief is a universal human experience. None of us escape it, but none should have to go through it alone. Simple, direct human contact does not erase the grief, but helps to make it bearable.
My dog's Facebook funeral showed me just how much simple and direct love and care matter in a world so torn with pain, grief and loss.