I ran across a lovely poem about death last week. I know, 'lovely' and 'death' in the same sentence seems a bit strange, but this piece by my favourite poet Mary Oliver is actually more about life:
When Death Comes
When death comes
like the hungry bear in autumn;
when death comes and takes all the bright coins from his purse
to buy me, and snaps the purse shut;
when death comes
like the measle-pox;
when death comes
like an iceberg between the shoulder blades,
I want to step through the door full of curiosity; wondering:
what is it going to be like, that cottage of darkness?
And therefore I look upon everything
as a brotherhood and a sisterhood,
and I look upon time as no more than an idea,
and I consider eternity as another possibility,
and I think of each life as a flower, as common
as a field daisy, and as singular,
and each name a comfortable music in the mouth,
tending, as all music does, toward silence,
and each body a lion of courage, and something
precious to the earth.
When it's over, I want to say: all my life
I was a bride married to amazement.
I was the bridegroom, taking the world into my arms.
When it's over, I don't want to wonder
if I have made of my life something particular, and real.
I don't want to find myself sighing and frightened,
or full of argument.
I don't want to end up simply having visited this world.
Oliver, Mary. New and Selected Poems. Boston: Beacon Press, 1992.
It's been seven weeks and a bit since my cat died, and I've reached the stage where I'm more or less used to no longer having her around, and have dealt with my guilt for not ending (and not fully recognizing) her suffering sooner. But life, as they say, marches on (I actually had to go to work almost right after leaving the vet's office), and remaining stuck in grief or guilt serves no one I suppose. It's been interesting though to think about grief and the process of grieving once the surreal fog of losing someone lifted.
Because when you lose someone (veganism in one way can be described as the battle of having other animals recognized as 'someones' rather than 'somethings'), you lose more than that being; you lose a part of your identity as well. Lose a spouse, and all of a sudden, you're no longer someone's wife or husband. Once my mom dies (my dad's already passed away), I will no longer be someone's daughter. I will instead be, in a sense, an orphaned adult. Without a kitty running around at my house (for the first time in nearly thirty years with the exception of a brief span of two months), I am no longer owned by a cat, or any other animal companion.
But what I find most interesting is that even grief is claimed as an exclusively human domain by most. Take the old saw of the one thing that separates humans from animals and you'll find included in the ever-shortening list (the use of tools is one example of something that's been scratched off already) the idea that only humans think about death. Poppycock I say.
Other animals may not ruminate on the meaning of death the way human animals do (at least, that we know of), but that death does mean something is evident I would think in their desire (in most circumstances) to avoid it. And in their willingness to embrace it when ready.
As for grief, even without having read any of the books on animals and grieving, I would venture to say that we've all heard anecdotes about the loss and bewilderment shown by companion animals searching for their sibling or buddy who one day is no longer around. The companion animals who very quickly pass on after their human guardian has died. Geese, sea lions and dolphins, to name a few, have all been observed to mourn the loss of their mate, child or friend. Not to mention the bellowing that occurs when calves are taken away from their mothers. If that isn't grieving, what is?
And what about the rituals that elephants engage in when coming upon a deceased member of their own kind? That would certainly indicate awareness of death, an awareness thought by some to be reserved for humans only. We may never know in full what grieving is like for other animals, but to dismiss it as a human experience only is folly. And it brings to mind a quote that haunts me to this day, and hopefully puts to rest this notion that death has symbolic meaning for humans only:
I had bought two male chimps from a primate colony in Holland. They lived next to each other in separate cages for several months before I used one as a [heart] donor. When we put him to sleep in his cage in preparation for the operation, he chattered and cried incessantly. We attached no significance to this, but it must have made a great impression on his companion, for when we removed the body to the operating room, the other chimp wept bitterly and was inconsolable for days. The incident made a deep impression on me. I vowed never again to experiment with such sensitive creatures. --CHRISTIAN BARNARD, surgeon
As for an afterlife, as an agnostic/atheist I am most comfortable in thinking that when this life ends everything stops, although I would hope to be open enough to whatever the 'cottage of darkness' may hold if it indeed holds anything. The idea though that even an afterlife is exclusively reserved for humans (some argue that by definition animals can't have souls), is nothing short of insulting. Because a part of me believes that if an afterlife DOES exist, only other species are deserving of it.
At any rate, let's at least stop this insistence that humans are special, that humans are separate from other animals by one arbitrary trait or another. And let's maybe delve a bit more deeply into this seemingly human psychological need (or pathology if you will) that seeks to differentiate itself at any cost. Because what exactly does it say about the fragile human psyche? That maybe what really differentiates humans from other animals is the irrational need to falsely elevate ourselves?