There were two significant deaths on the world stage last week — Whitney Houston and our family cat, Mocha.
I’ll get to our dearly-loved pet in a moment. But first, the celebrity.
After the news of Houston’s death broke, there was the more or less predictable public outpouring of grief followed by a flood of images like this:
The point is clear, I take it.
Although, I remain unconvinced by the abstract calculus of stacking up the millions who mourn the celebrity or public figure against the few who mourn those dying in the Horn of Africa. For that would seem to imply a flattening and universalising of our commitment to grieve death.
Of course, death is always a tragedy — and always to be grieved. In New Testament terms, it’s the last enemy.
And yet grief seems to me to be bound up with closeness and connection. So it may be that the sense of connection millions of people have with the Whitney Houstons or Steve Jobses of the world was illusory and unreal. But that does that mean it’s automatically wrong for us to grieve when we lose someone we love?
Was it wrong for Jesus to weep at the tomb of Lazarus? Does it somehow diminish the horror of other deaths that he did so? Or does it rather shed light on the truth of them — that God himself rages against it, knows the pain of it, and ultimately faces it down?
But what about our pet? Does my grief over her death and subsequent absence speak of my brainwashing by Disney or an anthropomorphic projection of personhood and agency onto her?
I’m not so sure.
Theorists of grief and loss tell us we can experience grief over all sorts of non-human — and even non-tangible — things. Things like expectations, hopes, and dreams. We can grieve the loss of a limb. Or the terrible trail of losses inflicted by ageing.
The Australian philosopher Raimond Gaita argues in The Philosopher’s Dog that it is the care and attention we bestow on others — including animals — that renders them appropriate objects of grief (and relationship in general). And this doesn’t seem far from the biblical vision of a world of creatures whose value — and even reality — is bestowed on them by the loving attention and care of the Creator.