When an Animal Loved One Dies
In the summer of 1997, my entire pet family left for heaven. The first to go was nine year old Rosie, the Brittany I had rescued some five years earlier. She had eaten raw sewage when the pipes had backed up and burst, and she was so ill, I had to put her down. I had faced mountainous vet bills her entire life for thyroid, incontinence, allergy and digestive problems. I felt guilty that I had not bonded with her like I had with the others. She was hard to love because she ate poop in the backyard and I couldn't kiss her. She gagged constantly. (Wouldn't you?)
Two days later, my dear 18 year old Siamese, Sasha, had a stroke and his kidneys failed. He was deaf and senile, having spent a good deal of his final year sitting on a (formerly) white chair, shrieking and screeching at the living room wall while vomiting intermittently. He would have died on his own within days, but I saw no reason to prolong his life and made another trip to the vet. As shaken and sad as I was, I consoled myself with the fact he'd had a wonderful, long journey and had not suffered at all. He looked like a kitten in repose.
Less than three months later, it was time to help my cherished and adored Weimaraner, Alex, leave this earth. For two years, his back end had been deteriorating. I had always said that when he was incontinent, that would be it for me. But when he was, I wasn't ready. Sometimes Alex could still stagger outside to relieve himself, but his legs would collapse and he would fall in his poop and I'd have to clean him up. One day after returning from the vet, I placed him gently on the driveway while I locked up the car. I turned to catch him rolling down the hill, looking frightened and helpless. I knew it was time to let this mighty dog, who had been so proud in life, go on. And yet, I wasn't ready to let him go. And he would need my help to leave.
Looking for Answers
I had my own live, call-in talk radio show here in LA at the time, and I did several shows looking for answers on letting go. Not everyone agreed it was time. When I told of Alex's plight, one listener suggested wheeling him around in a wagon. That smacked of selfishness. Would he want to be dragged around like that? This once regal, powerful, incredibly fast dog? My instincts told me no. I kept wishing he'd die on his own. I hated having to decide. Looking back, I am most glad that I was with him; that he died in my daughter's and my arms; that our faces were the last ones he saw. Animals sometimes need our help to leave.
My radio callers had told me to celebrate his impending passing, so we had a farewell party. Our friends all came to bid him Godspeed and we fed him filet mignon. The next day, one of my girlfriends arrived with a Whopper for his last meal. He gobbled it gratefully as I spooned with him on my bed. We took pictures and prayed and sang to him. We lit candles and played my daughter's birth music (my friend calls it "soul-traveling" music) and waited for the vet. Alex started to tremble. The vet was mercifully swift. Alex simply laid his head down in my lap and was gone. I stayed by his side until the people from the crematorium came for his body. Then I broke out the vodka and peanut M&M's.
Alex's ashes are still on my nightstand. I made an altar with candles on the spot where he used to sleep, with his obedience trophies and photos, and the collars from all three animals. It was comforting to think of them all together. But the house was deathly silent.
The pain was sharp and raw. I swore I could hear his tags jingling. I could hear all their tags. I saw wisps of Alex turning a corner. I felt his presence constantly and longed to touch him one last time. We had taken lots of pictures that we framed and placed all over the house. We had made a video. We had even kept some fur when he was shedding that last summer. I used to put my face in that fur, hoping for one last whiff, before all scent of him faded away. I felt gypped because he had lasted only eleven years. He had been the hardest dog to raise: stubborn and willful and really hyper. But he was my Boo Boo. I felt afraid without my watchdog. As a single mom, I had never feared with him around. His menacing looks belied his sweet heart.
People said, "It's only a dog." Well, I lost my youngest brother, Robert, to muscular dystrophy and Alex's loss felt the same. There was no difference. My daughter didn't feel the loss like I did. After awhile, when I would cry, she would become exasperated with me. I had to find other "pet" people, who understood, with whom I could wail. I just needed to talk about my dog. Now my daughter and I reminisce, which I can do mostly without tears, and we regale each other with stories.
Animals teach us many lessons. Their deaths gave me some perspective on the fretting we all do about our shapes. I have realized that the body is only a shell, a container for the soul. If you've ever seen a dead body of any kind, you know it is empty without spirit. Losing an animal makes you spiritual in a hurry. That shift is a great example of pain causing growth. That's why pain is a gift. Our animals continue to give to us even as they cease to live. I also felt that watching me care for the elderly animals, and seeing me make adjustments in our lives as they aged, enriched my daughter immeasurably.
I was so bereft after Alex's death that my therapist gave me a tape called Animal Death, A Spiritual Journey by Penelope Smith, an Animal Specialist. She communicates with animals telepathically, both living and dead, and counsels owners to assist them toward a more ideal relationship with their animals. She also performs grief counseling for those whose animals have left the earth. Now, for some of you, this may seem a bit out there, but if you are wallowing in sorrow and desperate for relief, you may find you are open to things you never before considered.
I wept away my grief to the sound of Smith's soothing voice. Although I was overwhelmed at times, I knew I wasn't stuck; I was moving, however slowly, through the worst of it.
In her book, Animals: Our Return to Wholeness, Smith writes,
Loss is the tearing from that which you are so in love. Staying inthe loss is hell. Coming through the pain brings a compassion so deep and rapture so ardent, you know it can only be won by the contrast--going through the depths to feel the heights.
As I tried going forward, the stabs of grief and their forcefulness often surprised me, even several months later. But as they came less and less frequently, I knew I was beginning to heal.
The Path to Healing
I asked Smith for ways to ease the pain of grieving. She stresses the importance of accepting your feelings. "Don't try to rush the process. Don't deny your feelings. Don't minimize them. Love is love. Grief is grief." No matter for whom it is felt. She reminds us that animals are not lesser beings. We are all spiritual beings with form and purpose. She also recommends getting into a support group. You can meet with others who are struggling with their pets' deaths and it will normalize your own feelings. I had a male friend who confessed in bewildered amazement that he'd gone into therapy after his dog died. He had survived his divorce and relatives' deaths, but losing his beloved Claude had driven him to the therapist's couch. I know from experience that it's not healthy to let the grief accumulate inside you. It will find a way out in the form of physical aches or illnesses if left unexpressed.
When I spoke with Smith, I was eager for her to reveal ways to contact animals that have departed. She encourages making contact, saying, "Animals are spiritual beings. They love to communicate; most communications reveal their joy, love of life, patience, and generally refreshing perceptions."
Sit in a quiet place. Visualize your animal. See them as they were in life. Tell them you would like to feel them, to communicate with them. Tell them you are hurting, you are open, and you want to be in touch. You may not feel them right away. There are lots of ways to be contacted. You may be washing dishes later and you'll know they are right beside you. Or you'll hear them scratch at the door. If you invite them, they will make their presence felt. Often they visit in dreams, as do living animals, because we are most accessible during those times. When you awake, trust what you get and ask what you are supposed to learn from it.
Sasha and Rosie come and go in my dreams, reassuring me they are happy and carefree and whole. Alex comes with them, he comes alone, and he comes with other Weimaraner pals. He visits often. At Christmas, they all showed up with golden halos, howling and singing and flying around, showing off their wings and airborne abilities. Sometimes my brother Robert runs with them, freed at last from his wheelchair in life.
About a year after the deaths, while I was rebuilding my pet family, I had a dream about a little female cat that needed saving. So strong was the pull, I got up the next morning and headed straight for the pound. There she was, a fluffy little Siamese-mix kitten, pushing her paws through the cage to touch me. I felt an instant connection to her and knew she was meant to be mine. My daughter named her Phoebe. Smith talks of her being beckoned to pet stores and finding an animal that was calling to her. She tells of the lizard that literally hopped in the box to go home with her when his cage was opened. Animals have their own life path and spiritual course, just like we do. Smith explains, "Some animals don't want to be saved. Dying gets complicated for domesticated animals when they or their people do not want to let go of their life together. They may feel obligated to stay in their worn-out or mal-functioning bodies for their people's sake." She advises seeking the best treatment, then being ready to let go. We grapple today with whether or not to extend human life at all costs. Many people have "Do-Not-Resuscitate" orders for themselves, yet cannot do the same for their animals. Sometimes the most loving thing you can do is to let them go.
Often a family's first encounter with death is that of a pet's. Animals teach us how to deal with life's passing. I believe my animals died in the order they did to help me manage the grieving process, and I am very grateful to them for their wisdom and sacrifice.
Smith also talks about people who feel they've let their animals down because they weren't with them at the exact moment they left this world. She feels that some can't leave while their humans are hovering, and they need space to pass on. "It is very common for animals, like people, to die when everyone leaves them alone," Smith says. According to her, it's not unusual for some animals to die in order to follow their person to the other side. I am reminded of a friend who lost his wife to cancer and within three months of her death, their dog and two cats died too.
Some people will be ready to get a new animal right away; others may need a lot more recovery time before they are willing to risk their hearts again. Some may feel disloyal for "replacing" the pet that died. I knew I needed to fill my empty arms immediately, but I questioned getting another dog since Alex's loss had been so profound. I've heard many pet owners proclaim they'd never love another pet the way they had loved the one they'd lost.
Since I had sold my home and was living in a place with no yard, a dog was temporarily out of the question. And so my daughter and I began our new family with two Siamese kitten cousins, Willyum and Shadow, in addition to Phoebe. Having these new little beings to love was very healing. Still I longed for a dog. I couldn't pass one on the street without stopping. And so as soon as I could, I moved us again into a house and we got our beautiful Vizsla puppy named Cecil.
Cecil picked my daughter and me. When we went to see the puppies, which were just two weeks old, this little guy wiggled out of the heap, his eyes still closed, and wobbled toward us. He reached out with his tiny paw until he found our fingers. He came running to us each week that we visited him, until we could bring him home. He knew we were his. Now I have velvet ears to kiss and puppy fur to sniff again. He reminds me of Alex every day. For awhile, my daughter was convinced he was Alex. She would look at the new animals wondering if the old ones were somehow inside them. Smith feels that many companion animals do, in fact, return to their people. Some within weeks, others take years. I asked her how one would know if an animal has reincarnated and she said the new pet would show signs, like imitating habits or demonstrating preferences of the former pet. You may think an animal has come back, but he could be a new soul who is a lot like the one you lost, who has been sent to help you in the same way his predecessor did. "Wait and trust. The universe will provide," affirms Smith.
Part of the inherent contract we make with our animals is that we will take care of them and they will predecease us. Once I experienced the death of my pets, I realized I could survive it. As painful as it was, I knew I could endure it again. That freedom in knowing releases me to welcome new pets and receive all the joy their new lives bring. Smith offers hope to those of you whose grief is lingering; "Death is not the end. It is the change from one realm and form of life to another." Amen.
Katie Boland, Director and Founder, is the author of the popular I Got Pregnant. You Can Too! How Healing Yourself Physically, Mentally and Spiritually Leads to Fertility. Boland was diagnosed with lupus during her 3-year battle with infertility, a battle she ultimately won. She is the mother of an 11-year-old daughter, Mimi.