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You may want to read the following story, previously posted on this blog, as background for this installment. The tale of Mavis’ Ladybug below has been excerpted from a chapter in my book, “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss”.—Sid
I was blessed to know a phenomenal woman named Mavis Vitums
for more than a decade. There were more times than I could count
when I saw evidence of her doing the work of angels in people’s lives,
my own included. She was the most giving person I think I’ve ever
known. In her sixty-eight years on Earth, she had fostered dozens
upon dozens of children and later gave homes to adults in need of
foster care, including my stepfather Leonard and his mentally
retarded brother Benjamin, who both lived quite happily in Mavis’
home until their deaths in 2001 and 2003, respectively.
After years of battling numerous forms of cancer and heart disease
— after even having died twice in the ER and been resuscitated — she
finally chose to let herself stop fighting and truly transform into the
celestial being I knew she always was on the inside.
However, while she was in hospice care in her nursing home
room, a few days before she died, I had said to her, “Mavis, we have
to work out an important detail. What are you going to send me as a
sign that you’re around and doing all right once you pass? I want to
be able to recognize it.”
She thought a moment and then said with a grin, “A ladybug.
Red with black spots. I think they’re classy.”
Well, she died on September 19, 2007, and I was to perform a
wedding ceremony on September 21. I’d gone into the ladies’ restroom
at the golf course clubhouse in Shakopee, Minnesota, for a
final freshening up before the ceremony was to begin, and when I
reached into a basket of paper towels to dry my hands, I stopped
short because there, atop the stack of towels was a red ladybug with
The members of the bridal party who’d been gathered there waiting
for the big moment said they’d seen it earlier and just thought,
“Oh that’s nice. It’s good luck.”
I told them of Mavis’ promise to send me a ladybug, and they
promptly cursed me out for making them all cry before the ceremony.
I put the bug on my left palm and ran around the party room, showing
as many of the 250 guests and/or wedding party members as I
could find. The ladybug just contentedly sat on my hand, occasionally
stretching its legs and preening but otherwise never budging. I
picked up my note cards and decided I would perform the ceremony
with a bug on my hand. The wedding went off without a hitch; I can’t
imagine where my newfound confidence could have come from!
My husband took a Polaroid picture of this as untampered-with
After about an hour of holding my palm turned upward, though, my
hand started to cramp. I said to the ladybug, “I’m going to have to have
you climb up on my dress, okay?”
As if it understood me, it began crawling toward my chest when I held
my hand next to me and wound up positioning itself on my dress approximatelywhere a brooch would go. It sat there for nearly another half-hour then got a little bit “antsy,” pardon the pun, and crawled along my collar.
I said to it, “Oh, I get it. You have to go now, right? I’ll take you
I placed the bug back on my left palm, where it sat, pouting, legs
tucked in and unmoving. My husband, Anthony, and I went outside
to near the waterfall beside which I’d just performed the ceremony.
The ladybug remained motionless until I said, “I see some impatiens
in the rocks over there. I’ll put you there, okay?”
The instant I’d said that, the bug began crawling up my palm to
the tip of my index finger, just like a trained flea circus performer. I
placed my finger next to a leaf on the purple impatiens plant, and the
ladybug readily climbed onto it. I turned for just a second to hug my
husband and say tearfully to the heavens, “Mavis, you rock!”
When I turned back, the ladybug had disappeared.
Later on, as we were leaving, I saw Stacy, a.k.a. the new Mrs. Jake
Adelmann, racing across the parking lot like a runaway bride, only
she was running toward us. She called out, “Tell your friend how
grateful we are she came to our wedding!”
Now that you’re caught up, back to the current story…Yesterday, I took my four Westies for a walk around beautiful Lake Calhoun here in Minneapolis. As I prepared to get them out of the back seat of my car, I placed my keys on the roof and stopped in my tracks. There on top of my car and right next to where I’d laid my keys was a ladybug.
This has enormous significance because it was another gift sent from the Other Side by my dear, departed friend Mavis Vitums. The timing was incredible, too, because the ladybug showed up on the afternoon of my opening night of “The Dixie Swim Club,” a play in which I play Jeri Neal, currently staged by Expressions Community Theater at the Lakeville Area Arts Center.
A bit more backstory is needed here. A few years ago, just a few months after she died, Mavis surprised me with ladybugs on another opening night at the same venue. This one was during Agatha Christie’s “The Mousetrap,” in which I played Mrs. Boyle. It was my return to the stage after a long hiatus. I’d gone into the ladies’ room deep within the theater building, and I was greeted by two ladybugs on the bathroom mirror right before I went onstage. (This was late October in Minnesota, it was cold outside and quite well past ladybug season.)
Knowing that my dear, dear friend is still a fan of mine and following my “career” on the stage is both thrilling and deeply comforting to me. Every time she sends me these messages, she reminds me that she is not gone, merely transformed into another form of energy—evidently a form of energy that has a lot of clout with ladybugs!
Thank you, Mavis, for remaining my steadfast friend even after death! My every performance in this play is dedicated to your memory. XOXOX
P.S. Added Monday following the play’s opening weekend: Mavis sent another live ladybug, which landed on and stayed on a barrette on the back of Bonnie Rae’s (Vernadette) head during the show on Saturday night! As I was informed of this on Sunday, another live ladybug flew over our heads in the dressing room and landed on the window above my makeup station! I think Mavis loves the press she’s receiving from this!!!—Sid
The following blog entries document the series of emails between Ms. Shelley Strain of Minneapolis and me as she prepared for and went through with facilitating the passing of her beloved 17-year-old orange tabby cat, Rusty. I’m sharing the majority of each of our messages to let you glimpse her process. I believe she was incredibly wise and courageous to prepare in this way so that she could be fully ready for what was to come and learn as much as she could from the experience. I’m grateful she choice to utilize my Animal Chaplaincy Services, as well as honored to have met her and her mom and the awesome Rusty at such a pivotal time in his life and transition.
To her I say: Thank you, Shelley, for so graciously sharing your heart with others (it’s the life coach in you, I’m sure) so they can learn from you how to take care of themselves when they are faced with such a sad time.—Sid
First message on Wed, Aug 4, 2010 at 2:22 PM
I have been on several websites today looking for resources, articles, etc. on preparing to euthanize my cat and was getting frustrated until I stumbled upon an article/blog with your name in it. I read about what you do and feel that you are one that can help me.
I’ve had Rusty for 10 years and he has been by my side through divorce, other relationship losses, and everything else that life throws at us! He is a gentle, sweet orange and white tabby, and it’’s killing me to have to let him go.
I’m considering finding a vet to come to my home rather than take him to a cold, sterile environment. I have a psychology degree, run a real estate business, and am a life coach, and can’t seem to “coach” myself through this painful process. I’m a huge animal lover and losing a pet (best friend) has to be at the top of the list of “most painful experiences!”
Can you provide any resources/advice for me. Thanks in advance for your time Sid
First of all, I am so very sorry for your impending parting from your precious Rusty. I know only too, too well the kind of pain you’re facing now. You are to be applauded for seeking out support beforehand. It is a very wise and courageous thing to do. You are honoring Rusty by acknowledging how very much he means to you in that you know you will be emotionally devastated for a time.
He deserves your tears, so don’t try to stop them up. But that’s only part of it. Along with that devastation, you’ll find small ways to remember and celebrate his life with you. You’ll eventually remember him and smile more often than cry. That is the goal as you take time to heal. You learn to cope with a pet loss, you never completely get over it.
I agree that it is optimal to have a vet come to your home if it is possible. I’ve wanted to do this for my last two Westies, but they chose to need to pass over on the night before Thanksgiving and a Sunday, respectively, both times when no house-call-making vets were available. If you do go this route, make sure the environment is as soothing as peaceful for you both as possible. You may want to light a candle, play a CD of birdsong or music that has meaning to you, etc. Take all the time you need to thank Rusty for all he’s brought you and taught you through his life with you. Let him know how much you’ll miss him, but explain that you’re going to be strong for him so he doesn’t have to stay on your account.
If you have friends or family members who were close to Rusty, invite them to come and say their goodbyes, too. They might be able to stay with you through the actual process, too. Or, you could ask a pastor or animal chaplain (like me) to say a blessing over Rusty when he transitions. Afterward, you can buy an attractive, personalized urn or other display case/marker. See my blog’s Pet Loss Memorial Products link for ideas. (I make no money from any of these, mind you, so I’m not hawking products.) Or, of course, you can scatter his ashes somewhere special or bury him.
If it’s in keeping with your spiritual beliefs, you can ask him to send you clear signs that he is all right when he makes his transition to the Other Side. This could be a visit in a dream or perhaps a sound, a smell, etc. that strongly reminds you of his presence. Believe me, receiving evidence that his spirit lives on and is accessible to you can really speed a broken heart’s healing.
If you need ongoing support, there are websites like <www.chancesspot.org>, support groups you can connect with through the local Animal Humane Society in Golden Valley, grief counselors that specialize in pet loss, or the social work services at the University of Minnesota Veterinary Medical Center at 612-624-9372. I am also available to speak with you if you need it. Just call me at 612-822-0888. I’d be happy to help you create a memorial ceremony, too. There are many helpful suggestions in my book, too, which you can buy or simply request from your local library.
I hope some of this has been helpful. Be sure to take care of YOU as you work through this heartache. Try to take a day or two, minimum, off from work or plan for this to occur before the weekend so you can curl up and cry as long as you need to without prying eyes. Once enough time has passed and enough healing has occurred, perhaps you can open both your heart and home to another animal in need of rescue. Ask him nicely and Rusty just might introduce the two of you in the future.
I also welcome you to write a tribute to Rusty and attach a jpeg photo of him to be added to the Pet Passings section on my blog. My book has several suggestions for means of memorializing your cat, and you can simply request it from your local library if you don’t wish to purchase a copy. (However, if you do order one from my site, I can inscribe it in loving memory of Rusty; and $2 will go to support a local no-kill animal shelter.)
You will both be in my thoughts and prayers. Please do keep in touch whenever you need more support.
I can’t thank you enough for this email. It was exactly what I needed. I’m on my way to Barnes & Noble to purchase your book, which they have in stock (yah!).
I will most definitely take advantage of the resources you suggest, and will be spending the day petting Rusty and reading your book.
I may need to call you at some point. I live [near you, so] perhaps I can steal a few minutes of your time in person.
Much gratitude for you, the work you do, and your wise counsel.
SHELLEY WRITES AGAIN:
Good morning Sid,
Wow, I’m reading your book and it’s helping me tremendously. It’s so easy to get caught up in the memories and the sadness of letting go of Rusty, and lose clarity about the process of life, and learning to let go and not be “attached.” I loved your last sentence about “hope you find this process rich and rewarding.” I DO want this process to be rich and rewarding. I’m working desperately to balance the grieving and decision making, with having clarity about the amazing process of life. I’ve always had a fear of death, so I believe that fear is making this process harder. Also, I have been single for a while and live alone, and Rusty has been my best friend and companion who has always been there. So hard to fathom my dear, furry kitty disappearing…
It’s funny because I teach detachment to my clients in terms of not “clinging” to things that are out of one’s control. I want to practice this with myself. In your book, in part six, you provide “other spiritual perspectives” which I LOVED as it gave me some new perspectives for this process. I especially liked the Zen Buddhist perspective: “Impermanence is a natural law or truth of the Universe. Animals accept these changes. Suffering comes through attachment. Bear witness to feelings without being overwhelmed….in holding on to the feelings of sadness, we trap both them and ourselves.” That is a great reminder for me to “let go.” While painful and sad, it’s all OK.
Sid, I don’t know you but feel a strong connection and would love it if you have ANY time tomorrow or this weekend to visit over the phone. I truly want this experience of letting Rusty go to be a good one. I have to watch him and decide when to have the vet come to my home and send him to kitty heaven. I keep going back and forth as I watch him from minute to minute. He seems fine; then I’m not sure. Then he’s eating and drinking water out of the faucet; then he seems distant. I’m really confused. A discussion with you may help. While I have MANY great friends who are loving and supportive, I feel I must connect with someone who, I feel, can guide me through this process.
I NEVER write emails this long and am NOT a rambler but feel I need to get this out to you, someone who can completely identify with what I’m going through. Thanks for listening and reading and let me know if you have any time today, tomorrow or this weekend to chat.
With MUCH gratitude,
I’m thrilled you are finding nuggets of truth in my book that resonate with you at this point in your grief journey! That’s so very fulfilling of my purpose in writing it. You mention having a fear of death, so I’d urge you to read the Afterlife Connections: Humans section if you haven’t already done so. I find those stories very hope-giving, and they’re one step back from the rawness of pet loss, so they’re easier to take when things are particularly intense regarding your Rusty.
[OMITTING BORING STUFF ABOUT MY SCHEDULE HERE.]
Wishing you strength and courage to be selfless for your dear furry friend,
I’m really fighting the battle today; very emotional. I have an appointment [for work] at 12:00 so need to stay strong until afterward. The emotional roller coaster ride is quite a fascinating phenomenon.
If you are available Monday around 1:15/1:30 I would LOVE to have you there for moral support. I would, of course, pay you for your time as this is a onetime deal and I want it to be as peaceful for Rusty, and ideally, also for me (although I know how hard Monday will be). Having someone there who has more experience with this, and who has the wisdom and spiritual beliefs you have, would probably make this a much richer experience.
Let me know what you think. If you cannot make it, I truly understand and simply appreciate your offer.
I’d be glad to join you and Rusty on Monday at 1:15 p.m. Just tell me where to be and how to get there. Is there anything you need me to bring along, or will myself do?
Hang in there. This part can be the worst, I think. Once it’s over, it all still hurts but your healing can at least begin.
I’m SOOOO happy you are going to be here for Rusty’s transition! It’s so strange that we have not met in person yet; however, I’m in great need of your support through this!
Rusty and I have been hanging out today. Sat in the back yard on a bench; sat on the front steps; laid in the cool air-conditioned house. Gave him a few licks of his favorite soy yogurt. Just trying to spoil him as much as possible. I can’t help but feel weird to be doing this when he’s still getting around and eating and drinking. I realize, however, this is a better time, as I want his last few days/hours to be as comfortable as possible. That might not be the case if I wait another week.
I can’t thank you enough. Please don’t be alarmed if I’m sobbing my eyes out when you get here. This is a traumatic experience for me. I’m trying so hard to coach myself, and to make this a rich and rewarding experience like you recommended. Thanks for that advice…
I’ll be there, bawling my eyes out, too. If you’d asked me even a year ago to voluntarily attend a pet’s euthanasia, I’d have sent you packing. I never dreamed writing this book would take me down this path and that I’d put myself in such a painful position on purpose. I sometimes think I’m far too big a mushball for this vocation, but then again, the day I’m not moved to tears is the day I should walk away from animal chaplaincy altogether.
I do see it as an honor and a privilege to be there for you and Rusty on this occasion.
See you Monday.
[NOTE: BEFORE HE DIED, I HAD SPECIFICALLY ASKED RUSTY TO SEND HIS MOM A SIGN THAT HE WAS AROUND AND DOING FINE ONCE HE’D PASSED!]
THE DAY AFTER, FROM SHELLEY:
Thank you so much for being with Rusty and me yesterday for his transition. It meant a great deal to me, and Rusty I know. Last night, my boyfriend and I went to get a smoothie and then I wanted to get a funny movie to relieve some of the grief. We laughed a bit, but I got tired soon and went to bed. I was lying in bed (you know when things settle down and your faced with the deafening silence in the house), and tears rolled down my face and I cried a little while missing and thinking about Rusty.
This morning, my boyfriend left early, and as soon as he left and I locked the door behind him I started sobbing again, uncontrollably. I knew this was coming. I actually cried out, telling Rusty how much I missed him and just kept repeating it. Then, the calm came again, and I could breathe and think. Such an emotional roller coaster.
You’ll like this next part…
I was sitting in the kitchen just getting myself pulled together and decided to wash my sheets. I took them into the basement and while standing at the washer I saw, out of the corner of my eye, something run along the basement wall. I quick turned to look and saw a little black mouse. I’ve lived there 3 years and NEVER saw a mouse in the basement. I immediately started wondering about this.
Next, the little mouse came around the front of the washer toward me. I kind of felt freaked out but stayed with it. I went and got a little box to catch him and he ran in, but after I put the cover on, he came out a little hole in the box! Dang.
Next, I went to the other end of the basement to my storage closet to get a different box and wouldn’t you know it, the mouse followed me! What? Shouldn’t mice be scared and run the other way? Anyway, I got him in the box and ran upstairs to release him in the yard. He ran out then ran back in and sniffed around. Then ran willy-nilly around the yard and started heading for the house again. He finally ran under the deck and was gone. My mind was racing about this sighting…
Then, I got dressed and decided to go into the office to get some work done (i.e., distract myself). I got my purse and went out the door and locked it. I walked down the steps and onto the sidewalk and right in the middle of the sidewalk where my next step was the mouse again! Or at least “a” mouse. What are the odds that “the” mouse or “a” mouse would be sitting right there? He wouldn’t move either. I bumped him, and he was alive but wouldn’t budge. I scooped him up with a stick and my book and put him on the grass. I just couldn’t believe I ran into the mouse twice, or saw 2 mice in one day, after never seeing them before. What do you think?
OK, sorry for the novel but knew you could appreciate this experience. I will admit, I did say out loud, “Rusty? Are you sending me signs?”
Sid, I can’t thank you enough again, for your time and compassion. You are a wonderfully loving and compassionate person, and from one fellow animal lover to another, thank you for loving our fur babies who give us such joy, love, laughs, but pain, too. You are a kindred spirit indeed.
HERE’S MY SLIGHTLY ENTHUSIASTIC RESPONSE:
OH MY GOD, I LOVE, LOVE, LOVE RUSTY AND THE WAY THE UNIVERSE WORKS!!!!!!!!
Yes, your brilliant, loving, tremendously smart and sassy cat sent you the mouse as a messenger!!!! No, mice do NOT approach humans. No, mice do NOT repeatedly run back into your house when you’ve set them free. What better messenger from a cat who is giving you permission (and now a need) to get another cat someday!!!!!!
Rusty, you rock!!!!! And thank you, brave little mouse!
I’m jumping up and down for joy!!!!!
Listen, girlie girl, if you overthink and try to talk yourself out of accepting this enormous GIFT from Rusty, I’ll have to take you over my knee!
Would it be all right with you if I excerpt any of your letters to me and this story in my blog? This is so thrilling, I can hardly stand it!!! Your story is going to go in some of my talks, too. (No names, of course.)
I am sorry for your waves of pain and floods of tears, but because you set things up in the smartest way possible and knew to expect these reactions, you’ll come through like a trooper—stronger, wiser and more accepting of life and death as a result. I’m very proud of you!