Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Thoughts on death while burying a pet chicken

One of my old hens died last night.  She apparently went peacefully in her sleep, because I found her under the roost where she usually sat.  As I was burying her out in the woods, I found myself thinking back to when I was a child, and how my mother told me it was useless to have pets, because, she said,  "They only die anyway."  I don't know where she got this attitude.  Did she have a beloved cat or dog that died in her own childhood?  Or was she simply repeating something that she herself had heard as a child?  She never told me.  All I know is that although she eventually relented and let us have a dog, she never really bonded with him. 

The Talmud tells us that Adam and Eve felt much the same way after Cain killed Abel.  Adam was so heartbroken over this, that he didn't have intercourse with Eve for 130 years.  (see Talmud, Eruvin 18).   Why bring more children into the world if they are just going to die anyway?  But God wanted Adam and Eve to "be fruitful and multiply," so eventually they slept together again.   And so it continues to this day.  

Unlike my mother, I have had many, many companion animals over the years.   And I have outlived all but the ones that are still with me.  The fact of the matter is, the human lifespan is much longer than that of most animals.  Which means that the individual animals who were alive when I was born 63 years ago are already dead, with perhaps the exception of a few long-lived species like parrots and Galapogos tortoises.  Why should this be?  Perhaps it is God's way of helping us deal with the impermanence of life on earth.  I have grieved at the death of each of my animals, but I have also learned, over the years, that death is not something to be feared.  It's a natural part of the cycle of life. 

Animals seem to know when death is coming.  I once had a dog named Shunka (which is Lakota for "dog") who would walk with me in the woods.   As he got older he went deaf and was somewhat confused, perhaps from a minor stroke, but he knew the trail well.  Every morning we would walk the same route, past the chicken coop, into the woods to the big oak tree, then back around to the house.  One morning, we got as far as the coop when Shunka lay down and looked at me with his big brown eyes, as if to say, "I can't do this anymore."  He then walked back to the house, and by morning he was dead.   He had lived a good long life -- 18 years -- and was ready to go.  I cried when I found his body, but I also knew that he was old and tired, and that nothing lives forever.  We had those years of happiness together, and I still cherish those memories.  Sometimes, when I walk in those same woods, I feel as if Shunka's spirit is walking with me.  Maybe he is.

So my mother was wrong.  While it is true that pets eventually die, it is not useless to have them.  While they are with us, they give us much love and joy.  And when they go, they help us accept the day when we, too, will cross that rainbow bridge and join the circle of life. 

Dawn in Pine County, MN


Shunraya said...

Alright, now you have hit a personal note...

There was a time, lasting many decades, when I was a terribly angry and bitter creature. I had watched a whole world die, and its death had remained in my nostrils and in my pores. I would never mourn any of it. What isn't able to survive, I told myself, is not worthy of surviving. Never said Kaddish for a single soul.

I saw myself the same way. The self I had been was gone. He was too weak to survive, and so, good riddance. I told myself that he wasn't worth mourning.

Well, there is only so far you can get with that attitude. It took years before I was able to face things head on, remember the things I had willfully forgotten, and learn to live with them. But the end of it all was a renewed appreciation for what is impermanent.

Gradually, over the course of a long life, I have come to value what is fragile and impermanent. It has a strength of its own, far beyond our ability to understand. In the end, I've learned to see that it is just those things that pass away before our eyes that are the most precious of all. And so I have learned to value life as a value far beyond mere survival.

Perhaps your animal companions have shown you something similar, though I am sure that is only one of many lessons they have taught.


Yonassan Gershom said...

Shunraya, thank you for this inspiring comment. This is indeed one of the lessons my animals have taught me. There is a Native American (Indian) saying that "Nothing is permanent except the sky and the mountains." And even those change with time. But you are right, the fragil, impermanent things are most precious of all. Which is why I try to treasure them for the brief time they are here. Peace & blesings to you :)

Deb said...

What timing this is. We recently had a bear attack our chicken house, and as a result several of the chickens went free range for a couple of days (before I decided they were better off in the chicken house). I became attached to a few of those free rangers, and my youngest son and I gave them names. I had to confront my own fears of naming, and therefore attachment. We lost maybe one of the named chickens. I mourn the loss but at the same time the experience gave me a closer connection to all of our chickens and I approach the task of keeping them with more compassion.

Yonassan Gershom said...

A bear attack! Gosh, and I thought our fox attack a while back was dramatic. Either way, though, it's hard to lose an animal.

You know, Deb, I've always thought that when Adam named the animals in Eden, it was more than just naming the species. When you name something, you take responsibility for it, you become attached to it. So Adam was forming a personal connection to the animals, I think.
So it must have been doubly hard to leave the harmony of Eden.

Proto said...

My favorite pet, a peach faced lovebird passed away two days ago.She was 17.Your words are helping me through the mourning process.I have three other parrots, all should live longer than I, but they know of the passing of the lovebird, their songs are silent today.The house is quiet.I know death is part of life, but I miss my little friend.

Yonassan Gershom said...

Proto, I'm so sorry for your loss. Animals do miss their companions who have passed on. When my cat Koala died (he got his name because he had a broad face and a dark nose), and I was burying him, four of our other cats came to the funeral. They all sniffed his body then just sat there as I dug the hole and put him in. It was uncanny. But animals do know about death and they grieve with you.

Anonymous said...

My cat, Bridgette passed on yesterday. I, along with my family are extremely heart broken. She came into my life suddenly, and left suddenly... my mother, brother and I fell in love with this precious little girl quickly and permanently. While we were burying Bridgette, I decided to run back into the house to grab my favorite scarf to put in with her, I wanted her to have the scent of one of her "mommies" with her always. The scent of one of her family members who loved her dearly on this earth. When i came back out, a beautiful black butterfly came out of nowhere, almost like it was waiting for me to come out with my scarf...it danced up and down in front of me almost deliberately...followed next to me as i walked towards her grave...and then zoomed off happily. I feel this was a sign that she is healthy, renewed..and forever joyous.

We love you always and forever Bridgette! We are so proud of you for making it through the rough time you went through before you met us, your family.You taught me to be stronger than what I have been lately. You are the strongest, most beautiful, precious little girl we've ever had the privelege of loving. "Kisses, and Purrs"...love, your family

Yonassan Gershom said...

What a beautiful touching story! Butterflies have long been associated with souls and rebirth -- I remember reading that hundreds of butterflies appeared at Ground Zero after 9/11 -- see http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/pages/frontline/shows/faith/interviews/meyerowitz.htmlfor one account. These things are not coincidences.

Anonymous said...

I'm sorry for your loss. Grieving is a hard process, my best buddy for 18 years also died 3 months ago and like you I still miss him and thinking and imagining that his spirit is still with me. I would like to say thank you to all my friends and my family who sent sympathy and understand me and also to the pet cremation in houston who help us to give Shammy a great service. And then lastly to my beloved Shammy, a best buddy for 18 years and thank for all the sweet memories and I know we will see each other again.