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Issue 06

Friends from the Beginning

Ricardo Cardenas

Ricardo Cardenas and his family reside in Commerce City, Colorado, where he is the branch manager at Anythink Library and the lead pastor of Calvary Commerce City, a new church plant in their community. Ricardo is an Associate Fellow of the KLC. Photographs by the author.

In the beginning, there was Jack. 

Not the beginning of time, of course, but the beginning of my marriage. Jack is the name of our family’s golden retriever who just passed away a few weeks ago. I bought him as a surprise gift for my wife when we had been married for a little over a year. After struggling for a bit to come up with a name, we finally landed on “Jack.” As a first year seminary student, this was a tribute to one my favourite authors, C. S. Lewis. 

Jack was a loyal companion to our family for nine eventful years. Since we brought him into our home so early in our marriage, he was there before almost any other significant milestone that our family has experienced. He was there before I graduated from seminary, and before my wife ran her first half-marathon. He was there before the commencement of my career in libraries. He was there before we bought our first home, before the birth of each of our four children, and he was there before we started our church. 

But now, he is no longer here.

The loss of a pet brings a peculiar type of grief. There are two common attitudes toward pets we are prone to drift toward when considering such a loss. For some, their pets carry a place in their hearts akin to the place of a child. You hear this sentiment among those who refer to their pets as “fur-babies.” I was also reminded of this tendency when, in his last days, I had to take Jack to the animal hospital and the receptionist kept referring to him as my “kiddo.” While completely understandable to carry this level of love for our pets, as a father to four actual children, this characterization is not relatable, nor is it biblical. I loved our dog, but the love I have for each one of my children is infinitely greater.

At the same time, I think there is an opposite error to avoid in our grief, and that error is to ascribe too little value to the lives of our animals and the meaning they carry. Our pets are not merely objects, material possessions or property to be bought, sold, and traded. Such a view of animals is also less than biblical. We ought to feel sad when our pets leave us. While their lives may not carry the same weight as a son or daughter, their meaning should certainly outweigh our appreciation for our favourite handbag or new tech device.

So where does this leave us? How might we think about the loss of our pets and the corresponding grief that comes with it? Theological insight is helpful here – and specifically insight from the doctrine of creation. These resources can help us to better understand our relation to our animal friends and our grief. Genesis 1 and 2 remind us that in the beginning, God created all things, and that all that he created – including animals – was good.

Meister Bertram von Minden, Creation of the Animals

The creation account doesn’t stop there, however. It goes on to share that in the process of seeking a helper suitable for him, the first man was invited to take part in naming these creatures – those who were formed from the earth just as he was, but who did not share in bearing the image and likeness of God. There is a cooperation of man with God in giving these animals their rightful place and identity in the original creation. Ultimately, as we know, Adam is only able to find a suitable partner in Eve, but the creation narrative expresses a relationship between humans and animals that shares a special type of closeness, care, and even some level of kinship (even if it is of a different type than what we share with fellow humans).

If this is true, then of course we experience a particular type of grief when we lose such a relationship. It’s a grief that does not measure up to the loss of a brother, but it is much more than the loss of a favourite book or even a beloved plant in my garden. We’ve experienced the loss of a good friend that God has blessed us with. That is certainly worth mourning.

The night before we took Jack in to be put down, we sat with him and our four kids. We looked at old pictures on our phones from over the years that captured memories we had with our loyal companion. There were pictures from before we had kids, out on a walk, playing fetch at the park, or making a goofy face as I crammed for seminary midterms. We have photos of Jack welcoming each of our newborn children home when we first arrived from the hospital. As the years go on, we have pictures of Jack becoming a pillow for toddlers reading books, or a horse for kids who don’t know they’re not cowboys. And in other photos, we capture moments where Jack is not the focus at all, but he is within the frame, in the background of a scene, loyally attentive as life happens around him. The pictures tell a story of our dog that we loved and for whom we took great care, but they also reveal that Jack took a special type of care for us.

And now Jack is gone, but not without a sense of deep gratitude, even if mixed with a peculiar sadness. God has given us many good gifts in this creation, and Jack was one of them. His loss brings with it the longing for the new creation; the age in which God promises to wipe away all tears and sorrow – tears that come from scraped knees, tears that come from the loss of a dear family member, and, somewhere in between, tears that come from the loss of our animal friends. Friends who have been there from the beginning.