Sitting in the new library at home, a tidy but disorganized space containing bookshelves and a smattering of unopened moving boxes, I glance out the window and catch a glimpse of the night sky.
The trees cover much of my view, yet I can still make out the different shades creeping through the panes. The sun has been down now for more than an hour. Painted now with midnight, graphite and a heavy coal black.
If stars are burning in the heavens, my melancholy state holds their shine at bay, and I cannot see them. A close friend has died, and the world seems a bit darker in his absence.
Frederick Austerlitz the Fearless. Fred for short. Our Golden Retriever. Our Golden boy was laid to rest.
Comedian and sage George Carlin said it best. “It’s inevitable when you buy the pet. You’re supposed to know it in the pet shop. It’s going to end badly. You are purchasing a small tragedy.”
While this is a very personal reflection, I wanted to share how my family is navigating our loss to provide one example of what has been a constructive means for us to process our grief. Perhaps others will find it a helpful model.
I wasn’t there during the purchase of the tragedy named Fred. I would not meet my spouse, Lauren, until a year after she and her mother adopted Fred and his litter mate Moose. Yet, when we met, Fred loved me instantly.
Like many of his noble kind, his was a warm love. Genuine and given unabashedly. Often expressed with a tail wag that could scatter items resting on a coffee or side table with ease.
His affection for me was only trumped by his love of food. If the random cabinet door creaked open or the refrigerator cracked enough to let out a beam of light, Fred and his appetite were at my side.
Head raised with his Michael Keating-like eyebrows working, we shared many a late-night snack together. Because of all this, I loved him instantly too.
Like many relationships, ours changed over the years. The arrival of children altered our closeness. This transition was hard on us as we tried to figure out our new roles with one another.
While he wasn’t mean or snappy with our daughters, his attitude toward them was indifferent. His need for attention did not extend past Lauren and I, especially in his later years.
In the last year, we watched his decline. He diminished so quickly. As we prepared to move, Lauren and I started having those uncomfortable but inevitable conversations that all pet owners have.
Fred’s health took a dive a few weeks before the movers were scheduled to come, but he rallied. But a week after our arrival, he was showing all the signs that break a human companion’s heart. We called a mobile veterinarian service and prepared ourselves.
As I said, I was not there at Fred’s beginning. But I was there for his life’s conclusion.
As a minister, it was a space I’ve been in before. For fellow ministers reading this article and interested in ways to help individuals and families grieving the loss of a pet, what follows is the general process I’ve used that has been well received.
I have offered and been welcomed into homes to sit with people as they prepare to “lay their best friends down” one last time. I’ve sat on floors, rubbing their head and ears telling God’s furry creations that they were good and made life better for all that came in their paths.
In those moments, I usually shed a few tears myself. Some for the animal. Some for their human(s).
And some for the folly of humanity for trying to separate itself from God’s creation instead of realizing that they, like this animal, are part of creation. Practicing irreverent isolation causes one to miss the meaningful connection with the critters we share a world with and often walk beside.
Finally, I bless the animal with oil and offer a final prayer.
I did much the same when Fred’s time came. Only this time, I couldn’t find the vial I usually have on hand as it was still packed from the move. Instead, I went to the kitchen and found some olive oil, but my eye caught a small jar of honey.
Alone, I mixed the two substances together and headed back to Lauren to kneel beside Fred. As was his way when a bowl of any size approached him, his head came up. Hungry for whatever I had to offer.
I blessed his head, telling him the oil was affirming his holiness. The Creator was there with us, continuing in that mysterious way to make all things new, even in the face of tragedy.
And then, while caressing him, I told him I had added the honey. Something I had never added before and am unsure if I ever will again.
“Honey is sweet Fred, just like you. You were the honey, the sweetness, in our lives. You made bad days bearable and made us feel like we mattered. Thank you for reminding us of the goodness in this world. Let this honey and oil bless you the way you have blessed us. Rest easy, you beautiful creation of God. Amen.”
Senior pastor of Second Baptist Church, Suffield, Connecticut. Cox received his theological education from Campbell University and Wake Forest University School of Divinity. He is an ordained minister affiliated with the Cooperative Baptist Fellowship and is currently enrolled in the Doctor of Ministry program at McAfee School of Theology. Besides reading, baking and amateur gardening, most of his time is spent with his spouse, Lauren, and their two daughters.