Published by: Ingrid King. Last Updated on: July 22, 2023 by Crystal Uys

Owner hugging her cat

Today’s post resonated deeply with me when I first read it on the New England Pet Hospice Blog. It reflects much of what I experienced with Buckley toward the end of her life. She, like no other cat  in my life (or human, for that matter), taught me about opening my heart. As a result, my life expanded in ways I never could have imagined. I am honored to share this very special guest post with you today.

Written by Heather Merrill

Sharing our lives with animals is a huge lesson in vulnerability. We know from the outset that we will almost certainly outlive them. That they will become sick, old, challenged, and that it will be us who must care for them and advocate for their welfare making excruciatingly difficult choices along the way.

And yet they bring us the most pure form of joy, contentment, and happiness. They inspire us and our creativity in countless ways.

According to Dr. Brene Brown, researcher professor at the University of Houston Graduate School of Social Work,  joy is the most difficult emotion to experience because we must be vulnerable to experience joy. If our heart is filled with joy, the opposite of that is deep sorrow. We do not know when that sorrow will come, when our beloved animal will become sick or die, yet we can anticipate it. Some do not allow themselves to experience the joy for fear of the sorrow. Some choose not to share their homes with animals for the very reason that they fear the sorrow and heartache that is inevitable.

How many times have you heard someone say, “I could never have a pet – they don’t live long enough; it would kill me to watch them suffer.” Or, “I had a pet who was everything to me and when he died, it killed me. I could never go through that again.”

My heart breaks when I hear that. Why? Because in striving for the certainty that the person will not have to face the pain of parting, the person has deprived him or herself of the incredible joy an animal brings to our hearts and homes. I have absolutely no doubt that I am a better person because my animals teach me to live in the moment, open my heart to pure joy, stop running and start loving, appreciate and bask in the moments of bliss. They make me laugh every day.

happy cat with closed eyes hug owner
Image Credit: Veera, Shutterstock

If you live your life with animals dreading the end of their lives, you will never fully embrace the joy they bring us on a daily basis. You will never fully engage with them. You will never learn the many lessons they have to teach us.

If you are reading this, it is likely that you have accepted and perhaps even embraced this dance of vulnerability to both joy and sorrow. I invite you to stop for a minute and think how this lesson our animals have taught us might work in other areas of our life. When could you open your heart to experience pure joy without “waiting for the other shoe to drop”? Without fearing that your heart will be shattered into a million pieces when and if the joy ends? What whole-hearted living are you depriving yourself of by your own intolerance for vulnerability?

Vulnerability plays a special role in our hospice work. There are few things (maybe nothing) more vulnerable than loving a being at the very end of life. You know the end is imminent. Your instinct is to begin protecting your heart from the pain you can tangibly perceive. Some opt for the certainty – avoiding the dying being, being absent in heart or spirit, planning and attending to practical details rather than being, thinking only of the “after” rather than the now. The uncertainty of what might happen in the next second may be so intolerable that we opt for euthanasia rather than watching how reality plays out. Our imaginings of what could happen, the potential for fear, pain, suffering, uncertainty, panic and sorrow overwhelms us.

But if we can let down our armor, allow ourselves to be fully vulnerable, to live in the knowledge that we don’t know and that our sorrow will indeed be great – no matter how the end happens – we can find moments of pure joy at the end of life also.

  • The joy of comforting a being in great need.
  • The joy of honoring the individual journey of each creature on this earth.
  • The joy of opening your heart and expressing what your loved one has meant to you, sending him or her off in a vessel of love.
  • The joy of deep connection.
  • The joy of your warm body sharing space with his or hers.
  • The joy of peaceful sleep.
cat owner looking at her pet
Image Credit: U__Photo, Shutterstock

Allowing ourselves to find and feel moments of joy even at the very brink of deep sorrow may be one of the hardest things we will ever do. If you can do that, opening yourself to joy in the rest of your life will be a piece of cake.

This is perhaps the most important of the many, many lessons our animals teach us. Can we be fearless enough to learn it?

Heather Merrill is the founder of New England Pet Hospice. New England Pet Hospice is deeply committed to the hospice philosophy of tending to the needs of the whole being – physical, social, emotional, mental and spiritual – at the end of life, and supporting the entire family through the final illness, death and mourning periods. I encourage you to visit their website and blog for more information and a wealth or resources.

Featured Image Credit: Wanwajee Weeraphukdee, Shutterstock

About the author

20 Comments on How Animals Can Teach Us the Value of Vulnerability

  1. I have been through extreme agony in the deaths of 4 of my beloved creatures,but I have chosen to have 3 of them euthanased.The article seemed to imply that this is somehow the wrong approach.Perhaps it was not meant that way?For me,with the last 2,it was a huge challenge to try to understand if they wanted me to take them to the vets,or not.I TRIED so hard to “get” what they were trying to tell me,but,of course,sometimes I think I got it wrong.Poor Venus seemed to be so unhappy,I even had her on antidepressants!But eventually it was her fall out the window,& the damage she did to herself that had me take her down.I would never do it for my own convenience,but sometimes I think they DO want to go?What do others think?

    • I don’t think the author meant to imply that euthanasia is wrong, Bronwyn. I certainly don’t believe that. I also believe that sometimes, the animals are ready to go long before we’re ready to let them go. It’s just so hard to “hear” them through the fear and pain we feel at the thought of losing them.

    • I’m glad you enjoyed the article, Pam. Sometimes, the planets line up just right and you find the perfect photo to go with a post.

  2. Another great reminder that the pain at the end is so worth it! I feel really sorry for people who can’t open their homes and hearts to a furry child. They have no idea what they are missing.

  3. It IS so hard to lose a pet, but the flip side is they make me laugh, every single day, even when they are being naughty. Nothing else in the world can give me that.

    • As hard as it is to lose them, I agree that the joys of sharing our lives with pets far outweigh the pain of loss in the end.

  4. Too many are afraid of vulnerable situations… but fortunately that can change, and with a little help they can dare to love.

  5. Wonderful post and beautiful photograph. Yes, it’s difficult for our humans to let themselves be vulnerable. It took HH a long time before she was ready to adopt the boys after I ran off to the bridge…. It’s always worth it to let someone into your heart.

    pawhugs, Max

    • It took me a long time to adopt Allegra after Buckley died, and even longer to adopt Ruby after Amber died, but like you said, it’s always worth letting someone into your heart again after loss.

  6. “This thou perceivs’t, which makes thy love more strong
    to love that well which thou must leave ‘ere long.”
    (Shakespeare, Sonnet 73)

  7. beautiful, simply beautiful. When you love an animal you learn this lesson even if you don’t want to 🙁

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *