The Animal, The Human, and Their Relational Spirituality of Death

Photo Credit: Anita Maroun, SC

He is lying without movement on the exam table. I am holding him and making efforts to be cheerful while encouraging him to remember that he was a “good boy” and we loved him. He knows what is about to happen. The doctor, an irenic instrument between our anguish and submission, listens for his heartbeat and looks at me, ruefully, as if she can hear my own heart cracking. In our regular vet’s waiting room there is a candle with a sign in front of it saying, “When this candle is lit, please be respectful. Someone is saying good-bye to a beloved pet.” The someone is me today and Sister Anita. The pet is Finn, our beloved, handsome, blond mischievous member of the family who is about to mercifully exit life and enter wherever it is that treasured pets go for an afterlife.

Death, for the animal, is similar to what it is for the human. We are both sentient beings. The animal is frightened because this unknown invader is so mysterious. He cannot chase it away like an interloper on the property or the letter-carrier delivering mail. When feeling its growing presence, Finn would empty the closets of our shoes. He would crumple the throw rugs in the house vigorously trying to shake the tightening grasp of Death. You could almost see him asking, “What is this thing I cannot get rid of?” 

When he is healthy, the animal would never comprehend why Someone would take him away from running in green hills, fetching a stick in the woods, greeting his beloved at the door. But when the animal is sick, a different reality sets in. I observed Finn was better during the day when he could feel the throbbing of life almost like hearing a pulse; footsteps in the house, swaying trees outside, even the loud cacophony of motorcycles and trucks. This is life. It calmed him in the last days as he lay on our porch his eyes closed, as if while listening to life it assured him he was living. But night was a different story. Life wasn’t so active; the throbbing pulse got quieter. The unknown invader was making its presence more real. Finn would walk the floors coughing incessantly, once more scrunching the throw rugs, angry at an unseen foe. He was fighting Death. Then he would look at me soulfully and ask, “Who is taking me away?” I would tell him, softly, God wants you in heaven as much as we want you here. Then I would hold him like millions of people were doing in their darknesses holding a mother, father, child, even a pet moving into eternity.  


Theologians like Elizabeth Johnson have written beautifully on the connection between the animal and the human citing a relationship between the two and with God at the same time.  Richard Rohr dedicates his most recent book to his deceased dog, Venus, “Without any apology, lightweight theology, or fear of heresy, I can appropriately say (Venus) was Christ for me.”

I suggest whether you have had a pet or not, you might read Johnson’s Ask the Beasts, or Rohr’s The Universal Christ, or Mary Oliver’s book of poetry, Dog Songs. There are other writers and theologians you might want to suggest to all our readers. Please submit on the comment line.

Finally, think of any favorite animal companion you may have had in life. What did s/he provide in your growth in spirituality? Someone famously said, “Whoever has not loved an animal has developed only one half of their soul.” Does this provide spiritual comfort or a challenge for you?

I kissed him one last time and said to Finn, now still and in another life, “Good night, sweet Prince,” for that is what he was to me.

12 thoughts on “The Animal, The Human, and Their Relational Spirituality of Death

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  1. Finn was a Prince because you treated him as such! He was a lucky little guy to spend his last years in such a loving home. So sorry for your loss, Mary Ann. Finn’s love for you was so evident to all who witnessed you together.


  2. I’m so sorry, Mary Ann. You were so blessed to have each other, but the pain of saying goodbye cannot be described. A spiritual director once told me that getting a cat would teach me a lot about God. And it has. They love us unconditionally it seems, right up to the end, and accept each day as it comes, so happy to have someone’s lap to sit on or a freshly washed face to lick. I have no doubt that Finn is still with you somehow and is awaiting the day when the Master says, “Go fetch, Finn!” We have so much to look forward to….


  3. Never did anyone write more eloquently or more sincerely about her love for her beautiful dog. I am fighting tears as I feel this pain of separation.
    May our loving God hold you close.


  4. Oh Mary Ann, I am so very sorry about the loss of your beloved companion. You are so right, those that have loved an animal is enriched in a way that cannot even be put into words. My deepest sympathy to you and the other sisters in your home. I hope you can find comfort in knowing that no one could have loved and cherished Finn more than you and he thrived surrounded by your love.
    Beth Parnn


  5. My heart is breaking for you as I read your message about Finn. I knew how much you loved him and how he was a big part of your life. I was close to tears reading about his final time in this world. I’m sure Finn is in heaven wagging his tail and watching over you. Take comfort in knowing you gave him a good life . Pets are so special and the emptiness of their loss can be overwhelming. I will pray that God will help ease your pain in some way.


  6. Ma’am,
    Vivid are my memories of observing you and Finn in the backyard day-after-day
    for so many years.
    From these the word “mutual” arises
    along with the phrase,
    “bouyant gestures of loyalty”
    and this Spirit Haiku,
    Love freeing itself to love.

    Thank you for your gifts to humanity,
    for cherishing Finn.

    Suggested Reads:
    INTIMATE NATURE, THE BOND BETWEEN WOMEN AND ANIMALS, Edited by Linda Hogan, Deena Metzger, and Brenda Peterson.
    ANGEL DOGS, Divine Messengers of Love,
    by Allen and Linda Anderson.


  7. So sorry for your loss of Finn. Many of us have traveled this journey with you, perhaps remembering when we have also suffered the loss of a beloved pet, and continue to pray for you and all in your house. Meanwhile, I’m sitting here crying and wishing you did not have to go through this. Peace, my friend.


  8. Behind in my reading, so sorry for all you are enduring during this time. Our fur babies are precious, and I know how dearly you held Finn in your heart. My prayers go out to you and all those missing your Finn!


  9. Oh Sister Mary Ann, heartbreaking news.
    I am astonished by the way Finn fought death and think of Luther telling his ailing dog: “Be comforted. In the Resurrection thou too shall have a little golden tail”


  10. Thank yo u, Diane, for such comforting words. I absolutely love Luther’s words to his ailing dog. Finn would have loved these words too since his tail was mistakenly docked too much and he literally had no tail. As a cocker, this was a major embarrassment, I’m sure! Oh, the thought of a golden tail. There is a heaven, after all, he would say!!!


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