Rabbi Gellman on His Dog's Death

A letter to Dr. Alan Coren, chief veterinarian of West Hills Animal Hospital, Huntington, N.Y., who is my friend and who was the veterinarian for my dog Miles who just died....

Dear Alan,

I could not write to you until now to thank you properly and personally for your compassion and care for Miles through his life and up to his last moments, when Miles died on the blanket you had spread out for us in room No. 2. Miles's debilitating renal failure was a death sentence, and thankfully his suffering is now over. As Miles turned cold in my arms and entered a breathless eternal sleep, I was utterly unprepared for the flood of tears and grief I felt at his death. Now I can only begin to sort out my feelings and the first feeling I need to express is a deep thankfulness for your care and love.

You have cared for all the guide dogs we have raised up from puppiehood to faithful service. One of them, Topper, who flunked out of Guide Dog School because he was an inveterate cat chaser, now pads around the house looking for his pal. I still find myself instinctively moving my feet under my desk expecting to slip them under Miles's head. Topper is some consolation, but Miles was less like a dog and more like a person in a dog suit. As you know, Miles came to us from my son Max, whose move to New York City could not accommodate Miles's need to chase rabbits and FedEx delivery guys.

I bury people, and I know that grief at the death of a pet is not the same as grief at the death of a person, but it is still grief. It is still deep and raw and shattering to our admittedly irrational expectations that we will never be separated from those we love. I tell people I counsel through their grief to try to give thanks for the pain they feel, because the pain is a measure of their love. Buddhists teach that the first Noble Truth is that suffering (dukkah) arises from our attachments to the beings of the world. Unlike Buddhists, I do not seek the removal of attachment ( tanhakaya ). I am happy to be a mess of tears now because I was, and my family was, loved by Miles unconditionally, and I savor this grief as the way the gift of unconditional love is painfully but properly repaid.

I also understand the bewilderment and impatience of those who have never loved an animal. Many of them openly or privately harbor condescending thoughts about pet lovers who often seem to them so willing to lavish love and attention on animals that they cannot seem to summon up for the souls for other human beings. My message to them is, "Shut up! Get a pet. Then you will understand."

I attended a rally to stop the killing in Darfur yesterday, and I was moved and deeply saddened and angered by the inability of the so-called civilized world to stop yet another genocide in the Sudan (and also in the Congo). However, I admit that I could not cry for the dead of Darfur the way I cried for Miles. At first I was embarrassed and ashamed at the constrictions of my grief for human beings, and the lavishness of my grief for a dog. Then I slowly came to understand that the reason for the difference was the distance and the invisibility of Darfur compared with the immediate and devastating absence of Miles's head on my feet. I remember what Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn wrote, "What seems to us more important, more painful, and more unendurable is really not what is more important, more painful and more unendurable, but merely that which is closer to home. Everything distant which for all its moans and muffled cries, its ruined lives and millions of victims, that does not threaten to come rolling up to our threshold today, we consider endurable and of tolerable dimensions."

So I hope that the cries from Sudan and Congo are not just distant but present and compelling, but I cannot and will not feel embarrassed at feeling bereft because of the death of my dog. I know. I know that they are not on the same moral level, but I remain convinced that the ability to cry for one tutors the tears for the other.

Alan, I know that you help families move through the grief of the death of a pet as often as I help families move through the grief of the death of a person. I know they need my steady soul to make it through the valley of the shadow. I just wanted you to know how much I needed you and how much I love you and thank you. You were a rabbi to a rabbi, and you were the steady soul of caring for a very good dog whom I loved more than I ever understood until this sad but healing moment.

God bless you,