What do you do when you’re experiencing grief without belief to give you comfort?
When a pet dies, some carers find solace in the idea of the Rainbow Bridge – a beautiful, lush place between heaven and earth where animals are healthy and whole again, where they play all day and never know discomfort, and where they wait to be reunited with the humans who loved them.
Other pet carers turn to their faith and/or spiritual beliefs of an afterlife to help them process their pet’s passing.
But what if you’re an atheist (i.e. you don’t believe in a god or afterlife) or agnostic (i.e. you don’t believe it’s possible to know for sure that a god exists)? What if the Rainbow Bridge doesn’t bring you comfort because you don’t believe we go anywhere when we die?
Please be reassured that many pet carers feel this way.
How can we make sense of grief without belief to comfort us?
How do you deal with someone you love dying (animal kin or human) if you believe there is nothing beyond death? This can be a truly uncomfortable question to wrestle with.
There is something incredibly vulnerable about trying to align your logical, pragmatic views of what happens when a living organism dies with the emotional need to believe in a “greater purpose”.
Many of us end up finding comfort in the very science that tells us there is probably no life after death.
Maybe this will help you if you’re grappling with grief without belief.
Think about what we do know.
Your pet’s DNA was an astounding collection of genetic material from previous generations. Even if they didn’t have any young of their own, somewhere in the world other members of their species share some of that same DNA. This means that some of their quirks and traits continue to live on.
If your pet was a parent, they have directly contributed their unique collection of DNA to future generations.
The Butterfly Effect
But even if we put thoughts of DNA to one side, the world is different because your pet lived.
This is the perfect example of the “butterfly effect” – the idea that something as seemingly small and inconsequential as the flap of a butterfly’s wing can lead to big, complex changes elsewhere in the world.
Because your pet existed, they shaped your days. Every time you hung out with them or even thought about them, it sent you along a different course of events than would have happened if you hadn’t thought about them.
Maybe you are kinder, more empathetic and caring because of your pet. In turn, this means you show these qualities to other people, making someone else happy because of the kindness your pet inspired. Who knows where this might lead the people whose lives you have touched?
It’s amazing what a ripple effect a pet can cause. The world is changed because of them and that will ripple until the end of existence.
The cyclic nature of life on Earth
None of us want to think about what happens to a loved one’s physical remains after death. However, it can be comforting to think about an animal returning to the earth and making it possible for new life to grow or come into being.
In this way, death isn’t an ending at all but simply a change in form and energy.
Speaking of energy…
In physics and chemistry, the law of conservation of energy (the first law of thermodynamics) states that energy can neither be created nor destroyed; rather, it can only be transformed or transferred from one form to another.
This means that the energy that was your beloved pet still exists in the universe. That energy cannot die.
There’s a stunning interview with writer and performer Aaron Freeman in which he says we should all want a physicist to speak at our funerals. Although he’s talking about human death, his words apply to our animal companions too.
Freeman says that a physicist will remind us of the first law of thermodynamics and that every particle, vibration and unit of energy that was our loved one remains in the world. Scientists have measured this and it’s a provable fact.
A physicist will tell us too that every photon that ever touched your pet is now racing around the world on a different course because of that contact. Your pet literally changed the fabric of existence!
Energy gives off heat and so, the energy from your pet can be felt in the warmth of the air around you.
Finally, Freeman concludes that when someone dies, “According to the law of conservation of energy, not a bit of you has gone; you’re just less orderly”.
There was a time before any of us existed
For some people, it’s comforting to remember that there was a time before any of us existed. We have no memory of the billions of years that came before our birth.
If you believe your pet’s consciousness ended with their death, then you can take comfort from knowing that they’re not alone waiting for you, they’re not reflecting back on their life or regretting the circumstances of their death. They aren’t lonely or suffering.
You carry everything they were or will ever be in your memories. They aren’t beyond your reach now. In fact, they’re firmly inside you to carry for the rest of your life.
Multiverses, parallel worlds and infinite possibilities
It might be a sci-fi favourite but there are a growing number of scientific theories that support the idea that we live in a multiverse, i.e. that there are parallel universes running alongside our own in which we might be living an infinite number of possible lives.
This means that your lost pet could be alive and thriving with you by their side in multiple other universes. While this might not bring you comfort (why can’t they still exist in this universe?), you might find solace in thinking of them being close by, just hidden by the veil of space and time.
A miracle of science
With or without belief in a god or an afterlife, grief is deeply personal and inevitably challenges what we know to be true. For some people, it reconfirms their beliefs. For others, it sets them on a new path.
As we always say, there is no right or wrong – only what feels right for you.
It’s understandable if you find sentiments like, “They’re in a better place now” or “They’re waiting for you at the Rainbow Bridge” upsetting. After all, is there really a better place than where they were loved and happy?
People say these things to offer comfort and because we’re all searching for a way to find some meaning out of loss.
Perhaps all we can do is remember that no one lives forever. If we did, would we ever stop to appreciate just how precious life is?
Because the truth is that the time you had with your pet was nothing short of a miracle. The odds of you both existing at the same point in time in an infinite universe are infinitesimal. How lucky you both were! Maybe this can give you comfort. Through the butterfly effect of the universe, everything conspired to bring you and your pet together and the future was changed because of it!
Very best wishes from Shailen and The Ralph Site team
The Ralph Site, non-profit pet loss support