You cannot replace a person.
You can replace things. We all have things that break down and need to be replaced – cars, appliances like refrigerators and washing machines (we’ve replaced a few of those in our family), coffee makers (yes, lots of those too!), TVs, computers, and the like. You might feel regret when a well-used car “dies,” but there is excitement about the newer and usually better model that will replace it.
We replace our pets, although with less excitement and more sadness. I had a bunch of goldfish, and of course they died and were replaced. That was kind of OK, although I noticed one had a bigger tail, another was a different color, etc. We also have had birds, parakeets, for many years and replaced them several times. But they aren’t the same. They are different colors, but more importantly they have different personalities. We remember the yellow bird who liked to get out of the cage and hang out in our Christmas tree. He always found his way back into the cage. The blue bird we had, on the other hand, was quite hopeless outside the cage, always getting stuck behind or under furniture, and never made it back to the cage without help. So, we can replace birds, but we still know they are not the same.
When it comes to cats and dogs it is even more apparent. We develop deep relationships with them and we don’t forget them, even years after they have gone. I remember Rufus, my first cat, a big orange tabby cat. My father named him Rufus after a king called known as Rufus (the Red). Our family had two other cats, Tiger and Koshka, and two dogs, Tally and Brandy. I have so many memories of all of them; they are an important part of my childhood. My sister has dogs now, and when her first dog died, she kept her collar and planted a tree in her memory.
I think of my own cats often, Princess, Leo, and Mister Cat. They are all so different. Princess was the top cat, in charge, always supervising to make sure things were done right. Leo was the little one, very friendly towards people, but with a terrifying growl and hiss when she didn’t want to be approached. Mister Cat adopted us and lived in his own world, trotting across the street to take a tour of his territory – we think he went to other houses where people gave him treats! I had a little bell I used to call him home for breakfast or dinner. He was very special and many of his exploits appear in my short story “The Cat,” in The Catalpa Tree Fairy and Other Stories.
Pets are unique and our relationship with them goes beyond having them for entertainment or companionship. Each one has their own special character and we develop a personal relationship with them. That connection continues after they leave us, and we cherish our memories with them, and we often get a new pet to help fill the void they left behind.
When it comes to people though, you can’t replace a person with whom you have a relationship. Of course, a new person can fulfill a role. My first violin teacher died after I had a year of lessons with him (as I recall he was quite old so it probably wasn’t having me as a student that led to his demise). My mother found me a new teacher, and I continued learning violin for several more years. Our dentist suffered a tragic accident a few years ago, and the practice assigned us to a different one – not the same person, but she does the same job and takes care of our teeth just fine.
Yes, you can find a new person to do the same job, fulfill the same function. The people fulfilling those kinds of roles in your life are replaceable, in terms of function. You can and should find another person to fill the role that is now vacant – get another teacher, dentist, plumber, neighbor, good friend, colleague, mentor, even substitute grandparent or uncle to fill that important role in your life. But if you developed a personal relationship with someone, you feel sadness and loss when they leave. Their function can be replaced by someone else, but not the person, not the relationship you have with them. Our relationships are based on love; they are relationships of the heart. And love transcends the physical, material aspects of life. Just as we keep in our thoughts our loved ones when they are away from us on a trip or move to another part of the country or world, so we keep them in our hearts when they leave this physical world. And rather than replacing them, we anticipate a reunion when it is our turn to die.
That’s really the reason why people are not replaceable – we have an eternal spiritual life. You can’t just throw us away when we get old, like a machine that stops functioning. Sure, the body dies and can be buried, or even burned and the ashes kept in an urn or scattered somewhere meaningful. But that’s just for the people who still have a body to remember them. The person who dies loses only their body, not their spirit. Their spirit “ascends” to an eternal realm of spirit, where they find their loved ones who have gone before. This eternal realm is where we continue our existence, forever. So, it’s not really a good idea to “replace” a person like you replace a coffee maker. That person still exists, and maybe they are watching you!
Those of us who had beloved pets hope that we will meet them again too. For example, I really hope that Rufus, my first cat, was able to meet my father when he died. My Daddy loved Rufus very much, and I hope that cat came running to the “Rainbow Bridge” to greet him. I hope our other pets have joined my parents in their eternal home. I can imagine my cats still waiting, and then Princess rounding up the others, calling Mister who would be off on a tour of his territory, and giving little Leo a nudge to come and greet me when it’s my time.
Of course, this assumes that our pets have some kind of eternal existence, a spirit if you will, like human beings. Well, why not? We develop deep relationships with them during their physical lifetimes. If we human beings have an eternal spirit, I certainly hope my beloved pets exist at least in my spiritual home. It wouldn’t really be heaven without them!
How can we be sure that human beings have this eternal aspect? In simple terms, if love is eternal, so is life! There are many accounts of near-death experiences, and of messages received from deceased people who find a channel to communicate with those living on earth, and there are theological discussions too. For more information, the book I co-authored with Dietrich Seidel, Eternal Life in the Spirit World, reviews and discusses any experiences and theories about our eternal life in the realm of spirit.
We are surely all going to die, leave this physical realm, at some point. It’s a good idea to use our time here to prepare for that next stage in the spiritual realm by developing deep relationships with others, those irreplaceable people with whom we will spend eternity.