My sister and her family recently moved across the country, just a few days after their pet cat gave birth to four kittens. When my sister’s family arrived in their new state of residence, they stayed with a friend of a friend while they looked for a new home. These hospitable strangers owned a dog.
A couple days into their stay as house guests, my sister and her husband heard their three-year-old daughter screaming. They ran to her aid but they were too late. The dog had killed all four kittens and my tiny little niece had witnessed the tragedy.
My niece was naturally traumatized. Her reactions varied from anger, manifested by attacking her baby brother; denial, such as requesting to play with the deceased kittens; to spiritual questioning about what happened to the kittens after the dog bit them and made them stop crying. Her parents used the classic Mormon glove example to explain to her about death. Her dad offered her a priesthood blessing. “Heavenly Father wants you to know that He is holding your kitties right now,” he told my niece as he blessed her. He also counseled her to share all the love that she wanted to give to the kittens with her baby brother.
My first memory of death was also the death of a pet. My first pet died when I was twelve. She was a cat that had resided with my family since I was four. My entire family grieved. We held a special family home evening style memorial service in honor of our deceased pet. We all talked about our favorite memories of the deceased cat. The death of this furry loved one must have been an unusually teachable moment for me, because I still remember details of that lesson. My parents shared a quote from former LDS church president Joseph Fielding Smith about how animals have souls and will be resurrected. They talked about how they believed our cat had fulfilled her mission in life very well—she had made our family happy, which is the primary purpose of a pet.
With a quick search, I found what may have been that very quote at the church website, “So we see that the Lord intends to save, not only the earth and the heavens, not only man who dwells upon the earth, but all things which he has created. The animals, the fishes of the sea, the fowls of the air, as well as man, are to be recreated, or renewed, through the resurrection, for they too are living souls.” (Joseph Fielding Smith, Conference Report, October 1928)
I have heard it said that a pet is a story with an unhappy ending. Children and grown-ups grow close to these creatures, but the relatively short lifespan of most pets almost guarantees that their human caretakers will watch them die. Perhaps this sad truth is actually another benefit of pet ownership. These animal/human bonds help us appreciate the sanctity of life and learn how to process our grief. They also give us opportunities to comfort each other. Such lessons will be invaluable as we suffer much greater losses in the future. My little niece is going through her first primer in human mortality—even though her teachers were not human.
However, even as I reflect so philosophically on the benefits of loving and losing pets, I wish my niece’s kittens were still alive. I am so sorry, sweetie.
Previous Posts in the Mormons and Death Series
Poll: Laid to Rest (5/29)
Mormon funerals (5/31)
unconventional funerals (6/1)
miscarriage/ stillbirth (6/2)
the death of a child (6/8)
the right to die (6/22)
organ donation (6/29)
giving comfort (7/6)
the after-life (7/13)