There are many lessons that can't be learned from
books or from observing other people's experiences.
I was no stranger to dying and death. Many times in
the past I had sat for hours with the family of a
dying person. Many times I had officiated at
funerals where I tried to comfort the bereaved.
Many times I was present at the funeral of someone
in my own family tree who had passed on. I thought
I understood the pain survivors felt when a loved
one was dying and then was finally dead. But when
Ms Bear died I learned that there is a pain and
sorrow and a sense of loss that can't be taught
or communicated. It must be experienced.
Now I knew the difference in sympathy and empathy.
I always knew the definitions and now I knew the
feelings. We can feel sympathy for anyone; we feel
sorry for their ills, their loss, their pain.
But to empathize, we enter into their feelings
and that can't be done unless we truly know what
they are feeling. When Ms Bear died I felt futility.
So long as there was a spark of life in that little
armful of fur and energy, I didn't feel futility.
The moment she closed her eyes in death, I felt
totally helpless. One moment she was here, lying on
the Vet's table the next moment her body was still
lying on the Vet's table but she was gone and I felt
the loss. To know that all the riches and medical
sciences in the world could not restore life to a
little lifeless body is to experience pure futility;
In the days that followed Ms Bear's death I thought
of some events that showed me the difference
between sympathy and empathy. I felt sympathy for a
lady friend whose dog had died. My dog was very much
alive at that time so I felt sympathy for the lady
when Sarah told me that the pet dog had died and the
lady wrapped it in plastic and stored its body in
her freezer. Sarah said she almost fainted when the
lady summoned her to come look at what she had in her
freezer and there was that frozen small dog. She was
waiting for her son to come in from college before
she buried the dog. I felt sympathy but there was no
way I could feel empathy until Ms Bear died. Yes, if
I could have preserved Ms Bear some way, I guess I
would have. I know I would have.
I have known people who kept a dog all it's life
from puppyhood to old age. These dogs were so close
to their owners that they just couldn't give them
up when the dog died; their dog was cremated and
those remains move where ever they move. Sympathy
says, "I'm sorry for you but I don't understand your
actions". Empathy says, "I'm sorry for you and I do
Earlier in these writings I mentioned a lady friend
named Linda who had a dog named Stash. I used to do
emergency odd jobs for Linda because she didn't
have anyone else she could call on. Linda had a big,
nice house that was built so close to the ground
that there was no crawl space. She had trenches dug
which followed the major plumbing and cooling pipes.
I had been under that house a few times and it was
dark and scary; no place that I would linger in.
It was some time after Ms Bear died that Stash died.
That was all we heard about that. Stash died. One
day a long time after Stash died, Linda asked me to
go under her house to replace a leaking water line.
The only access to the trenches was from a sunken
den. A small access door was hidden under the steps
leading down to the den and it wasn't easy to squeeze
through that small doorway into the darkness of the
trenches. I had a flashlight in my hand and I was
dragging a bag of tools. Linda was standing on the
steps, looking down on me as I struggled to wiggle
through the hole.
I got my arms through, then my head, then my
shoulders and when I was in far enough to sort of
straighten out before dropping into blackness of
the trench below, I thought it was time to look
around before advancing. I brought the flashlight
beam around slowly checking the rocks, dirt, and
other debris for signs of undesirable lifeforms
that thrive in the darkness and suddenly I let out
a yelp. My flashlight beam had moved in a semi-
circle beginning at my right hand side all around
to my left hand side and there in the semidarkness
about two feet from my face the light beam had
illuminated a skeleton! It was an animal skeleton.
Linda heard my exclamation and she yelled, "Doug,
are you all right? What is it?" I said, "It's a
skeleton, a small animal skeleton". She said, "It's
probably the neighbor's missing cat". I said, "Yeah"
and as my racing pulse slowed from danger level
to apprehension level, I continued with my work.
It wasn't until later that I put two and two together.
Stash + skeleton = Dead Stash. There was a time
that I would have felt sympathy. After losing
Ms Bear I felt empathy. I thought, "Bless her heart,
she couldn't give up Stash so she put him under the
steps." I once would have thought that was stupid.
Now I thought it was private business and acceptable
under the circumstances. Losing Ms Bear taught me
that sympathy can be shallow but empathy runs deep.
One of my neighbors had a woodworking shop. He cut
out a Scottie silhouette and I mounted it on Ms Bear's