My good friend "Laura" has a dog named “Faith,” and I have never seen such a strong bond between pet and owner. Sadly, Laura is terminally ill. Laura told me last week that she and her husband were in the process of recording her voice—the sounds and words she uses exclusively to talk to the dog. The idea is that her husband will play the recording for the dog after she is gone. I have a huge problem with this. I think animals have the ability to grieve, but they don’t understand why something has changed. Years ago a friend had a German shepard and a cat that were best friends. The cat was killed by a car and every time a cat meowed on TV or outside, this dog would tear around the house, whimpering and crying looking for his friend. I want to tell Laura this story and explain that her idea might not be the best thing to do, but I want to be sensitive about her condition. Am I wrong in wanting to tell her?
—Please Don’t Torture the Dog
What you describe about grief was beautifully captured by Nobel Prize winner Wislawa Szymborska in the poem “Cat in an Empty Apartment,” which reads in part:
Footsteps on the staircase,
but they’re new ones.
The hand that puts fish on the saucer
has changed, too.
Something doesn’t start
at its usual time.
Something doesn’t happen
as it should.
Someone was always, always here,
then suddenly disappeared
and stubbornly stays disappeared.
Your friend is soon to stay stubbornly disappeared. Perhaps her ghostly voice will both comfort and disconcert her beloved Faith, but I assure you, the dog will cope. When Laura’s gone, if her husband can bear it, he will occasionally play her voice to the dog. I’m sure he will cry, Faith will nuzzle him, and slowly they’ll help each other through their loss. What you should do now is quietly be there for your friend, and stay silent about your qualms over her desire to live on in this small way.
My birthday is coming up and it’s a bit of an issue with me. I’m not sure why, but my birthdays make me sad. Thoughts enter my mind of the invitations from friends I've turned down, the mistakes I've made, the people I've hurt, and whatever else I don’t like about myself. My girlfriend assures me that these feelings are not normal and that people should be happy on their birthday. She loves to organize and celebrate birthdays and I know my attitude is distressing to her. Furthermore, the new office manager I work with is big on birthdays and is planning a celebration. How do I tell people my birthday is not something I want to celebrate? Or should I just put on my best mask of elation?
I have a suggestion for a birthday present: Get yourself a copy of Jonathan Haidt’s The Happiness Hypothesis and read how all of us struggle like riders atop an elephant to control our thoughts. What you describe is pretty much the human condition, and if you are only tormented by regret and self-criticism at birthday time, instead of nightly at 3 a.m., then you are lucky indeed. When your age is in the single digits, birthdays are a big deal and you can count on your parents throwing a party for you. But by the time you’re old enough to have co-workers, you should be able to decide how you want to celebrate—or not. If you’d prefer to note becoming a year older with a quiet dinner with your girlfriend, tell her so and say you’d have more fun enjoying a big blowout on her birthday. I don’t even know why your office manager knows your birthday. But it sounds as if you work at a place that loves an excuse for cake, so put on a brave face, blow out the candles, and wish that this time next year, everyone forgets your special day.
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