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The author of this StarTribune opinion piece, Dudley Clendinen, expresses beautifully what it means to approach one’s death with intention, defining what quality of life means and knowing when to accept death as our next phase of existence. I wish him godspeed.—Sid

How to die with grace

  • Article by: DUDLEY CLENDINEN
  • Updated: July 30, 2011 – 8:10 PM

Photo: Dean Rohrer, NewsArt


I have wonderful friends. In this past year, one took me to Istanbul. One gave me a box of hand-crafted chocolates.

Fifteen of them held two rousing, pre-posthumous wakes for me. Several wrote large checks. Two sent me a boxed set of all the Bach sacred cantatas.

And one, from Texas, put a hand on my thinning shoulder, and appeared to study the ground where we were standing. He had flown in to see me.

“We need to go buy you a pistol, don’t we?” he asked quietly (he meant to shoot myself with).

“Yes, Sweet Thing,” I said, with a smile. “We do.”

I loved him for that.

I love them all. I am acutely lucky in my family and friends, and in my daughter, my work and my life.

But I have amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, or ALS, more kindly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease, for the great Yankee hitter and first baseman who was told he had it in 1939, accepted the verdict with such famous grace, and died less than two years later. He was almost 38.

I sometimes call it Lou, in his honor, and because the familiar feels less threatening. But it is not a kind disease. The nerves and muscles pulse and twitch, and progressively, they die.

From the outside, it looks like the ripple of piano keys in the muscles under my skin. From the inside, it feels like anxious butterflies trying to get out. It starts in the hands and feet and works its way up and in, or it begins in the muscles of the mouth and throat and chest and abdomen, and works its way down and out.

The second way is called bulbar, and that’s the way it is with me. We don’t live as long, because it affects our ability to breathe early on, and it just gets worse.

At the moment, for 66, I look pretty good. I’ve lost 20 pounds. My face is thinner.

But it’s hard to smile, and chew. I’m short of breath. I choke a lot. I sound like a wheezy, lisping drunk. For a recovering alcoholic, it’s really annoying.

There is no meaningful treatment. No cure. There is one medication, Rilutek, which might make a few months’ difference. It retails for about $14,000 a year. That doesn’t seem worthwhile to me.

If I let this run the whole course, with all the human, medical, technological and loving support I will start to need just months from now, it will leave me, in five or eight or 12 or more years, a conscious but motionless, mute, withered, incontinent mummy of my former self. Maintained by feeding and waste tubes, breathing and suctioning machines.

No, thank you. I hate being a drag. I don’t think I’ll stick around for the back half of Lou.

I think it’s important to say that. We obsess in this country about how to eat and dress and drink, about finding a job and a mate. About having sex and children. About how to live.

But we don’t talk about how to die.

We act as if facing death weren’t one of life’s greatest, most absorbing thrills and challenges. Believe me, it is. This is not dull.

But we have to be able to see doctors and machines, medical and insurance systems, family and friends and religions as informative — not governing — in order to be free.

And that’s the point. This is not about one particular disease or even about Death. It’s about Life, when you know there’s not much left. That is the weird blessing of Lou. There is no escape, and nothing much to do. It’s liberating.

I began to slur and mumble in May 2010. When the neurologist gave me the diagnosis that November, he shook my hand with a cracked smile and released me to the chill, empty gray parking lot below.

It was twilight. He had confirmed what I had suspected through six months of tests by other specialists looking for other explanations. But suspicion and certainty are two different things.

Standing there, it suddenly hit me that I was going to die.

“I’m not prepared for this,” I thought. “I don’t know whether to stand here, get in the car, sit in it, or drive. To where? Why?”

The pall lasted about five minutes, and then I remembered that I did have a plan. I had a dinner scheduled in Washington that night with an old friend, a scholar and author who was feeling depressed. We’d been talking about him a lot. Fair enough. Tonight, I’d up the ante. We’d talk about Lou.

The next morning, I realized I did have a way of life. For 22 years, I have been going to therapists and 12-step meetings. They helped me deal with being alcoholic and gay. They taught me how to be sober and sane.

They taught me that I could be myself, but that life wasn’t just about me. They taught me how to be a father. And perhaps most important, they taught me that I can do anything, one day at a time.

Including this.

I am, in fact, prepared. This is not as hard for me as it is for others. I have eperience.

I was legally responsible for two aunts and for my mother, all of whom would have died of natural causes years earlier if not for medical technology, well-meaning systems and loving, caring hands.

I spent hundreds of days at Mother’s side, holding her hand, trying to tell her funny stories. She was being bathed and diapered and dressed and fed, and for the last several years, she looked at me, her only son, as she might have at a passing cloud.

I don’t want that experience for anyone who loves me. Lingering would be a colossal waste of love and money.

If I choose to have the tracheotomy that I will need in the next several months to avoid choking and perhaps dying of aspiration pneumonia, the respirator and the staff and support system necessary to maintain me will easily cost half a million dollars a year. Whose half a million, I don’t know.

I’d rather die. I respect the wishes of people who want to live as long as they can. But I would like the same respect for those of us who decide — rationally — not to. I’ve done my homework. I have found the way. Not a gun. A way that’s quiet and calm.

Knowing that comforts me. I don’t worry about fatty foods anymore. I don’t worry about having enough money to grow old. I’m not going to grow old.

I’m having a wonderful time.

I have a beautiful, talented daughter who lives close by, the gift of my life. I don’t know if she approves. But she understands. Leaving her is the one thing I hate. But all I can do is to give her a daddy who was vital to the end, and knew when to leave. What else is there?

Last month, an old friend brought me a recording of the greatest concert he’d ever heard, Leonard Cohen, in London, three years ago. It’s powerful, haunting music, by a poet, composer and singer whose life has been as tough and sinewy and loving as an old tree.

The song that transfixed me, words and music, was “Dance Me to the End of Love.”

That’s the way I feel about this time. I’m dancing, spinning around, happy in the last rhythms of the life I love. When the music stops — when I can’t tie my bow tie, tell a funny story, walk my dog, talk with my daughter, or tap out lines like this — I’ll know that Life is over.

It’s time to be gone.

Dudley Clendinen is a former national correspondent and editorial writer for the New York Times, and author of “A Place Called Canterbury.” He wrote this article for the Times.


How many of you saw “Toy Story 3”? Among you, how many of you cried at the end? If you said yes to both of my questions, you have my permission to keep reading. If you didn’t, you may want to continue surfing the Web because I’m going to be talking about my grieving process over giving up a stuffed Kodiak-like bear named Basil.—Sid


Basil is a BIG bear, well over three feet tall when sitting and four feet wide. I can’t fully get my arms around him even at his narrowest point below the shoulders. He has been a member of my family and moved with me six times over the past nearly quarter century. I bought him in 1988 as a birthday present for my first husband who collected bears. (When we split in 2001, he kept the Robert Bateman limited edition print of a grizzly, and I kept Basil.)

Several years after I “adopted” him from The Wooden Bird Factory store (specialists in wildlife art and collectibles) for about $300, my “nephew” Schatze the schnauzer chewed a hole in Basil’s foot. It wasn’t repairable, hence, you see an Ace bandage wrapped around it.

On Halloween and Christmas, Basil wore costumes (once, he wore a fedora and slung a raincoat over his shoulder and bore an astonishing resemblance to Gene Kelly in “Singin’ in the Rain”) and oversaw parties and celebrations from his corner perch. He and his entourage of other stuffed toys such as the stuffed dog I’d given my mother while she lay in hospice, dying of lung cancer, finally wound up in our bedroom corner after my current/second/final husband’s and my last move. I saw him every day of my life for almost 25 years, frequently pausing to pet him.

I really, REALLY love that bear.

But my hubby bought a much-needed art deco armoire (Victorian houses such as ours are notorious for having too little closet space) that could only fit in Basil’s corner of our bedroom, where he’d been sitting atop our Westie Ambrose’s crate. I couldn’t place him on the ground or risk our latest adopted Westie Oliver’s chewing on or marking him. That left me with two choices: leave him forever stuck on top of a plant stand in my husband’s office or give him to a new home.

After much deliberation and MANY tears, I decided to bring Basil over to my “Attack of the Moon Zombies” director Christopher R. Mihm’s house. He has four young children, and I recalled how my great-nephew Grayson had loved to climb on Basil when he was a toddler. I asked Chris’s wife Stephanie to guarantee me two things: 1) someone in the house would call him Basil; and 2) if he got destroyed in the kids’ playing with him, they wouldn’t let me know. I went into this realizing it was a good possibility Basil would be “loved to death” in his new home, but I just couldn’t bear, pardon the pun, to watch that. Either way, he’d probably prefer, like the Velveteen Rabbit, to be loved to pieces rather than molder on a plant stand or, worse, wrapped in a plastic bag and stored in the rafters of my garage. Images of him “suffocating” made me wail with despair.

Heck, I’m still crying as I write this. How pathetic am I? I know Basil is an inanimate object and the only “feelings” he has are ones I project onto him through my anthropomorphic tendencies. But I feel just like the college-bound kid in “Toy Story 3” as I say goodbye to my dear, stuffed pal.

Add to this the fact that there were likely lingering tidbits of wistful feelings from when my first marriage was truly happy attached to Basil, too, which require still other layers of letting go. And, at this same time, I also had to donate 16 grocery bags full of my clothes that had become too big for me, including many all-time favorite outfits I couldn’t hang onto for fear that to do so would mean subconsciously planning on gaining back the weight I’d worked so hard to lose just so I could wear them again. This was a major week for feng shui-ing my life. I know it was necessary on many levels, but I can’t say I only feel good about it all.

Getting back to Basil, I know for a fact that this is probably exactly what millions of people have had to face recently in having to relinquish their pets to new homes because of the economic downturn, foreclosures, etc. You can know you’re doing what’s in that pet’s/stuffed bear’s best interests, but it is still the loss of a loved one, the death of a relationship. It hurts like hell. You wonder if you’re doing the right thing. There’s a ton of guilt. (In the case of my grieving a stuffed bear, there’s a fair amount of embarrassment, too. You think pet loss is a disenfranchised form of grief? Try getting sympathy for stuffed-kodiak-bear loss!) There’s a kind of missing them that can’t be mitigated by, say, an afterlife visitation that assures you they’re still around you and doing fine. There’s worry that the new owner will not love and value them as much as you did. What if, for instance, that whole household of kids totally ignores Basil because he’s not a video game and they think stuffed bears are passe? (I don’t pretend to understand what’s appealing to this new generation of kids.)

It’s been several days since I made the decision to give away Basil and delivered him to his new home. I’m clearly not past the grief yet. I know that with any new experience of grief come remnants of all other past grief feelings that bubble up along with the new ones. You never say goodbye to just that one person/place/pet/thing. You say goodbye again to everyone and everything you’ve lost. Goodbye, Basil. Goodbye again, first husband (the version of you I loved with my whole heart). Goodbye again, youth and innocence (and all the beloved toys I’d sold at a garage sale to buy a new bike when I was 17). Goodbye again, Mom…Dad…everyone I’ve lost. Goodbye again, previous beloved homes and parties and holidays therein. Goodbye again, Schatze, the sweet, chewing schnauzer…and my Westies Tuppence and Ludwig who knew you…

And so on…

Gee, I guess I had the right to feel kind of low about all this. Who knew one stuffed bear was connected to so many heart-strings?

Dearest Basil, I hope you know I gave you up with love and the hope that you’d now bask in the attention of a household of playful kids and not feel neglected. Forgive me if that’s not what eventually happens. It’s no longer in my control. I thank you for being my steadfast friend and housemate for nearly half my life. I will miss you and remember you always.

You were the best bear EVER!




Update, Christopher Mihm just let me know that Basil is, indeed, in good hands. His 3-year-old daughter, Alice, just threw her arms around Basil’s neck and said, “I love you, bear.” Sigh.

The following story embodies for me what an incredible bond is forged between animals and people, even when the animal in question is no one’s personal pet. Yes, the polar bear cub’s tragic beginnings—being rejected by his mother and rescued by a human—plus LOTS of marketing helped this along, but I would imagine no one who witnessed Knut’s untimely death remained untouched by his passing.
I think this is in part due to our sense of responsibility toward this particular animal. It is said, save a life and you’re responsible for it from that day forward. It is also partly due to how comparatively young Knut was when he died; that made us feel he was somehow short-changed. It may be in part that his being in captivity and seen by thousands of visitors each year was a noble calling on his part—to represent the dwindling numbers of his brethren in the wild and remind humans to be better custodians for the Earth and all its inhabitants.
The fact that hundreds of people, young and old, gathered to create a memorial to this beautiful creature also reveals a vital human need to mourn a loss, to share grief with others who understand our feelings, and to pay tribute to the one who has passed away. This is in no way different from our need to hold memorials/funerals for humans who have died. A loss is a loss.
Sometimes people can allow something that is really outside their life to open a door to their hearts in ways things that are too close to them cannot because they get stuck in more complicated emotions. That’s why we willingly go to three-hankie movies, intending to bawl out our eyes for fictional characters on a screen, while we may avoid or bury our feelings of sadness over a more personal loss. We likely believe we can better control the intensity of emotion when we’re a step back from it—a safe catharsis.
In this way, Knut’s passing did us all a great service. It let us release a little of the universal sorrow that, in this world of ours—with its rampant wars, strife and natural disasters—has surely stockpiled within us.
Goodbye sweet bear. And thank you.—Sid

Fans gather at Berlin zoo to mourn death of polar bear Knut

By KIRSTEN GRIESHABER , Associated Press

Last update: March 20, 2011 – 11:51 AM

Knut, photo by Markus Schrieber

BERLIN – Hundreds of fans of Knut the polar bear flocked to his zoo enclosure Sunday to mourn the sudden death of the celebrity who burst into the limelight as a cuddly, fluffy cub hand-fed by his keeper.

The beloved four-year-old died Saturday afternoon in front of hundreds of visitors, taking keepers, animal experts and fans by surprise. The life expectancy of polar bear in the wild is between 15 and 20 years, but animals in captivity normally live even longer because they are not exposed to hunger, thirst or infections.

“I can’t comprehend what happened there. He was happy before, there were no signs of anything — it’s so shocking,” said fan Eveline Litowski, who said she had come to the zoo to find out more about Knut’s early death.

Litowski was among those who crowded around Knut’s empty compound Sunday, laying down red roses and white stuffed polar bears, lighting candles or putting up pictures of Knut with personal messages for him. Many children had drawn pictures of Knut or written farewell poems for their beloved bear.

Knut was rejected by his mother at birth, along with his twin brother, who only survived a couple of days. He attracted attention when his main caregiver, Thomas Doerflein, camped out at the zoo to give the button-eyed cub his bottle every two hours, and went on to appear on magazine covers, in a film and on mountains of merchandise.

Dozens of women known as die-hard Knut fans — some of whom reportedly even trued to hide in the zoo’s spacious park to spent a whole night with him — had assembled in front of the bear’s empty enclosure Sunday afternoon. Many sobbed and shared their memories.

“I’ve been crying nonstop since I heard about his death,” said Ingrid Rommel, a 65-year-old widow from Berlin, who said had been visiting Knut weekly since his birth on December 6, 2006. She credited him with helping her get over the death of her husband.

Heidemarie Vogel, a 58-year-old woman from Potsdam near Berlin, remembered that Knut had sometimes raised his paw when she called over to him.

“It was as if he was waving to me — so nice,” Vogel said tearfully. “My only consolation is, that now he is finally united with his keeper in heaven.”

Doerflein, the zookeeper who raised him, died in 2008 of a heart attack, earning front page headlines in a German newspaper as “Knut’s daddy.”

Soon after Knut and Doerflein’s first public appearance in early 2007, fan clubs sprung up across the globe, including in Japan, the United States and Germany. They followed the bear’s every move, including his weight battle — he had a weakness for croissants — or plans to move to a different zoo.

“Knutmania” led to a 2007 Vanity Fair cover with actor Leonardo DiCaprio shot by photographer Annie Leibovitz, a film and plush likenesses. Though the zoo has never released exact numbers, Knut merchandise including postcards, key chains, candy and stuffed Knuts have brought in hundreds of thousands of euros (dollars).

Even after packing on hundreds of pounds (kilograms) and trading in his soft fuzz for yellowish fur, fans remained loyal. News of Knut’s death on Saturday afternoon around 3 p.m. spread instantly and internationally via Twitter, Facebook and text messaging.

“We received condolences from all over the world: Australia, New Zealand, Honolulu,” bear keeper Heiner Kloes told German news agency DAPD.

He said Knut’s body on Sunday morning was pulled out of the pool in which he died, after it had been emptied of the most of the water. Experts will conduct a post-mortem Monday to identify the cause of death.

Some fans already had their own theories. Nadine Hipauf said she worried somebody may have poisoned Knut — whether on purpose or not.

“My biggest fear is that somebody may have thrown something in for him to eat,” Hipauf said.

Others claimed that Knut had died of stress, saying he was bullied by the three female bears he shared the enclosure with — Tosca, Nancy and Katjuscha.

“They should have given him a compound of his own,” retiree Brigit Krause said. “The ladies were constantly harassing him.”

Berlin zoo: Brain problems led to death of Germany’s popular 4-year-old polar bear Knut

Associated Press

Last update: March 22, 2011 – 9:33 AM

BERLIN – Brain problems apparently caused the shockingly early death of Knut, Germany’s four-year-old celebrity polar bear, the Berlin Zoo said Tuesday.

Initial findings from a necropsy performed Monday by an institute in the German capital showed “significant changes to the brain, which can be viewed as a reason for the polar bear’s sudden death,” the zoo said in a statement.

The zoo didn’t elaborate on the changes to the animal’s brain, and officials could not immediately be reached for further comment.

Pathologists found no changes to any other organs, the zoo said, adding that it will take several days to produce a final result. Further planned tests include bacteriological and histological, or tissue, examinations.

Knut died Saturday afternoon in front of visitors at the zoo, turning around several times and then falling into the water in his enclosure. Polar bears usually live 15 to 20 years in the wild and even longer in captivity.

Knut, who was born in December 2006 at the Berlin zoo, rose to celebrity status as an irresistibly cute, fluffy cub.

Knut was rejected by his mother at birth — along with his twin brother, who only survived a couple of days. He attracted attention when his main caregiver, Thomas Doerflein, camped out at the zoo to give the button-eyed cub his bottle every two hours.

The bear went on to appear on magazine covers, in a film and on mountains of merchandise.

Doerflein, the zookeeper who raised him, died in 2008 of a heart attack.

Knut and his caregiver

Jasper had a difficult start to his life, but he never held a grudge. He had a personality of peacefulness that I have never seen in another wild animal. He enjoyed and accepted every person and animal that came into his life. But his best friend of all was Otis, who passed a few years ago. Jasper was so calm and easy going and even participated calmly in his medical treatment to curb his recent onset of seizures.
Jasper taught me so many life lessons while he was alive, but his death may have taught me the most important….All living things are connected in this world…and never underestimate this.
Jasper was the third resident to reside at TWS and was one of my closest animal friends. His seizures had subsided and he was stable when I left for my recent trip to Africa. This trip was extremely special and enlightening. I learned so much from the beautiful animals living out their lives in the wild as well as the extreme poverty but also joyful resilience of the people in Africa.
For years I have heard and used the term Rainbow Bridge when animals pass. But in the recent years, we have often seen a full rainbow within a few days prior or after an animal passing at TWS. We’ve always looked at is as nothing more than an interesting coincidence until my trip to Africa.
Upon my day of arrival in Lewa Conservancy, the brightest and most vibrant full rainbow appeared. I had never seen anything so strong and beautiful. See above for the actual photo. But with that came a heavy aching. My mind went right to the Rainbow Bridge. A frantic email home revealed everything was good and the animals were fine. My new friends in Africa comforted me and said; maybe the rainbow in Africa means something different than at home. “No worries – it’s all good,” I heard repeatedly on my trip.
The week continued full of animal tracking and visiting local schools. Each day, I felt blessed to be having such an experience. The sense of peace, appreciation and healing were overwhelming. Late into the trip, our group proceeded to Pombe Point. A high point that over looked all of Lewa. It was breath taking. Within a few minutes of arriving, an amazing full rainbow appeared, not only one, but then another above it. A complete double rainbow. I had seen a full rainbow the first day, but never a double rainbow. Tears filled my eyes – of happiness and sadness. I couldn’t explain really why, but the Rainbow Bridge came back into my thoughts. It would be several days before I could be in communication with TWS again. But when I finally did contact home, I emailed Trista saying I’ve seen not only the full rainbow, but a double. I said I know something had happened and she confirmed that Jasper had passed at 4:30 pm on the day I saw the double rainbow.
My heart broke not only from his leaving but not being there with him. I know he was in the best and most caring hands as he left us and I find peace in that. I am still in shock of his passing but also in the great connection that I felt all the way from Africa. I no longer believe the Rainbow Bridge is just a phrase. I’m not sure I know exactly what it is or what happened, but I do know that I am now so thankful and aware of the connection between the earth, animals and people. It is a magical thing.
Jasper, thank you for your message and rest in peace with Otis at the Rainbow Bridge.

Another perspective is shared here by longtime TWS volunteer Susan Timmerman:

As irony had it, I was up there that day but only because of some crazy, last minute rescheduling. Originally I was supposed to be up covering the sanctuary overnight the previous weekend. I was frustrated and irritated when my plans got changed. But we never know what the universe has in store for us, so now, looking back, I can see that I need to just chill out and go with the flow – there was a reason.

What first seemed like one mild seizure turned into one right after another within a couple hours time. Trista and I drove Jasper to Lake Elmo to see Doc Baillie. He had two more in transit. Both of us were thinking the same thing but not verbalizing it – there’s no way his brain or body can recuperate from this. Doc confirmed that after examining him and we then knew we had to let him go. I feel so honored to have been with him when he passed. He was one of my first, and one of my favorite, photography subjects. His gentleness was clearly visible on his face. He never quite got over losing his cage mate, Otis, a couple years back. I now find comfort in believing they are together once more and somewhere in the great beyond, cuddled up in a warm sunbeam, sharing their love for each other and talking about ‘the good old days’!

To all the volunteers at TWS, I say:

Please accept my deepest sympathy for the heartache you must all be feeling. Rescued animals of any sort tend to find a place even deeper in our hearts than is typical, simply through the act of rescuing and taking profound responsibility for their lives and happiness. We feel it’s incumbent upon us to “make up for” their past hardships (although they’d never lay that on us themselves).

Jasper was beautiful inside and out, and I personally thank you all for your efforts to create a blissful world for him through his last days in this earthly life.

I am so sorry for your loss,

I awoke this morning to see a large black bird atop my neighbor’s roof, stark against the new snow that covered the house. Immediately, the lyrics from a song by Sting, “The Lazarus Heart,” came to mind. In it, he speaks of his mother’s impending death, using the following image:

Birds on the roof of my mother’s house
I’ve no stones that chase them away.
Birds on the roof of my mother’s house,
Will sit on my roof someday.

This image is especially poignant to me this morning because, yesterday, I had to look into sweet Pebbles’ eyes (she was my sister Diane’s schnauzer) as she closed them for the final time. For well over a month, she had been having increasingly frequent grand mal seizures and mini strokes due, her vet believes, to a brain tumor.

It only makes sense to release a beloved animal companion from pain, fear and certain death when you witness his or her obvious debilitation. Trouble was, the day her euthanasia was scheduled to take place, I walked into my sister’s house to see 12-year-old Pebbles running, jumping, wagging her tail and happy as a puppy!

My sister was, quite naturally, beside herself with second-guessing. She sobbed, “How can I do this to my baby when she looks like this?!”

The vet had watched Pebbles’ symptoms progress and had told Diane quite honestly that, despite medical intervention, they would only get worse, and probably quite soon. She had already agonized over waking at night to Pebbles’ violent seizing, her heart breaking during the day as her darling girl was falling down, walking in endless circles, or just ’s having to  permanently tilt her head remained to remain upright. Diane knew what the vet had told her was true, and it was on this that she based her most painful of all decisions.

But surely this wasn’t the same dog we were seeing before us today!

If I thought Diane were making the decision to put Pebbles to sleep prematurely, I’d have told her so. What I knew in my gut was happening was “The Arby’s Effect” (see my book’s chapter by that name for a full recounting/explanation of this phenomenon). In short, Pebbles and we were being blessed by her final rallying. Humans and animals alike often have these moments of clarity, coherence, apparently spontaneous healing—only to have it followed by a swift decline and death shortly thereafter. My dad, my mom, my stepdad, my dog Tuppence and my cat Genevieve all exhibited this before they died.

I told Diane we were to be thankful for this blessing of a final memory of Pebbles as she was in her prime rather than during a grand mal. We shouldn’t cling to false hope and keep her alive long enough to fully deteriorate before our eyes. Sure, we’d be certain the decision to let her go had been right, but waiting for that, in this case, would have been totally self-serving. As it was, my sister showed astounding strength, courage and selfless love in letting Pebbles go when she did. (And she claims she’s a wimp!)

Pebbles licked away our tears and did her best to show she was OK with her upcoming transition. When her mama had said her heart-wrenching goodbyes and left the examining room, I stayed behind with this beautiful little girl who’d brought so much laughter and love into both our lives. I’m so very glad I did, too, because I was able to tell my sister, “Pebbles was ready. She wasn’t afraid; she didn’t struggle, flinch, or cry out as she got her shot.” I’d kneeled in front of her and held her head in my hands and looked into her eyes, showering her with love and prayers that our mother (“Gamma Lu,” who art in heaven with all our past pets) would lovingly gather up Pebbles in her arms. Those sweet eyes gently closed and she went on to her next life.

Alone in the room with Pebbles afterward, I sent her on with blessings and thanks (and oh, lordy, such tears) and I asked her to send us signs that she was all right.

My visit from the rooftop bird was my first sign. “The Lazarus Heart” song goes on to say, “Everyday another miracle. Only death will keep us apart.”

And that separation, in the grand scheme of things, will last only a twinkling of an eye. It’s just that in this life, it feels like we’re alternately living in slow motion, prolonging the pain of loss, and fast-forwarding through the wonderful times, making them seem all too fleeting.

I need to work on reversing that process.

Thank you, Pebbles, for opening my eyes to that need. We’ll always love you, sweet dog.


Below is the blog entry I wrote for the grief support site LegacyConnect, which contained the following categories and members: Loss of a parent (313 members); Bereaved spouses (277 members); Loss of a child (271 members); Loss of a sibling (144 members); and Suicide’s survivors (112 members). While I in no way wish to diminish the importance and value of this site, I am led to wonder “Why is pet loss missing from this grief support site?”

Each time I come across a website designated to offering support and comfort to those who grieve the loss of a loved one, I am most pleased because human beings are at their best when both reaching out to others for help and reaching out to others to offer help. However, I more seldom find grief sites that offer that compassion to those of us who have lost a beloved companion animal. Check your own prejudices here. Did your mind instantly go to the too-typical response, “What’s the big deal? It was only a dog/cat/hamster, etc. You can just go get another one at the pound. It’s nothing compared to losing a human being!” This phenomenon is one I, in my work as an animal chaplain and author of “Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss,” have termed “Loss Snobbery.” It’s almost as if people set up a pain scale and ascribe more “pain points” to their own loss —whatever it may be—than to someone else’s. I lost my mother, stepdad, uncle, dog, two cats, cockatiel and 15-year marriage over a few years’ time. Do I “win” by sheer number of losses? Ridiculous. Grief is grief; it’s not a competition. What’s more, consider those of us who are profoundly bonded to our companion animals. Take, for instance, the senior citizen who is isolated, having no family to visit and watching his or her human friends pass away one by one. Can anyone honestly say that, if a scruffy little dog is the senior’s one and only faithful friend and constant companion, that person will not deeply and intensely mourn that pooch’s death? For that senior, the loss of a pet is likely to be emotionally devastating. One doesn’t have to be socially and/or physically isolated from humans, however, to cherish the unconditional love and affection he or she receives from a pet. No one has the right to imply the grief we feel over the loss of a furry, feathered or even finned family member is inconsequential to us. You don’t have to share the same emotion or circumstance to acknowledge another person’s right to feel whatever it is he or she feels. I don’t have children, for instance, and can therefore never feel the acute loss a parent must feel when a child dies, yet I would never for a second consider telling that parent to “just go adopt a new one.” And for those of us who are animal lovers, it only stands to reason that the death of a companion animal with whom we may spend 24/7 will leave a bigger hole in our life than when a distant relative we haven’t seen in years passes on. Everywhere we look in our homes is another place our heart tells us that pet should still be. And consider how much harder it is to heal that pain when so much of society withholds permission from us to grieve. I urge you to open up your site to include a section for pet loss and consider me its first member. Sincerely, Sid Korpi

This wonderful story just came from my friend Linda. Her husband Bruce is featured in my book’s Afterlife Connections—Humans chapter. The miracles continue for those open to receiving them. Thank you, Linda, for sharing this!

My mom has been around lately. It’s been just over a year since she died. She was very much on my mind tonight. Before her dementia got so bad she went everywhere with me. Dennis, my x-husband went with me tonight. He and I were together a long time and he was close to my mom. When she sold her house she gave him some of her things. One of those things is a chiming wall clock that hasn’t worked in years, but it means a lot to him so it hangs in his living room. Tonight when I went to pick him up we were sharing memories of mom and (of course) the clock chimed. Not just once but several times over about 5 minutes. Hi Mom.

You know it’s true. We animal lovers get a raw deal when it comes to mourning the death of our pets. Case in point, a woman who’d lost a companion animal emailed me this: “I feel so guilty for grieving over the loss of my pets over the years…maybe your book will help me to let go of that guilt, as so many people will say, ‘God, it’s only a dog’!!!!”

I wish it were as easily accomplished as my saying to her, “As a bona fide animal chaplain, I absolve you of your guilt here and now!” Say, I wonder how I’d look in a pet-hair-covered leotard and cape?

Seriously though, her feelings are not uncommon. In researching my book, Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss, I repeatedly heard that people had an easier time getting past the death of a human relative than they did the loss of their pets. This comes as no surprise since our society gives us “permission” to grieve a person’s death. They offer us compassion and patience as we process the feelings of loss.

Surely they would extend that same support to us for our grief over the death of the companions who were by our side 24/7 and who loved us without conditions or complications, right? Nope. Flying in the face of all logic, most people expect us to shrug off that kind of loss; they even perceive us as defective for feeling lingering sorrow or pain. This is absolutely ludicrous! The amount of grief we feel is commensurate with the amount of love we shared with our animal family members. Such feelings are normal and appropriate. However, we mustn’t unconsciously vow to be “stuck” in a negative emotion forever.

Risking loving again is precisely what will heal our hearts, as long as we don’t rush into adopting another pet too soon. We must still work through the worst of our grief beforehand, as denying or burying those feelings can produce disastrous effects in our health and relationships—even those with future pets.

For folks who feel trapped in their grief, try this visualization technique: Imagine your deceased pet’s spirit is working on the Other Side to bring you another pet, one paw picked just for you, to arrive when your heart is ready to receive him or her. This allows you to be open to moving on without fear that you might be betraying his memory. Instead, you’ll be honoring your departed pet by entrusting him to help you choose wisely, to give you a sense of certainty when the right new critter comes along.

Dearest Blog,

Shortly after my nephew Jason’s girlfriend, Kormassa, went into labor on June 13, 2009, sending my sister, Diane, into paroxyms of joy over becoming a grandmother for the first time, I had to call and break the news to my sister that her beloved dog-nephew, Mortimer, would have to be put to sleep the next day. I can be such a buzz killer.

Talk about the cycle of life being illustrated in High Def! There we were, delighted and devastated by turns.

My new grand nephew, C.J. (either Christopher James or Christian James, I don’t know if they’ve decided yet), probably came in the same spiritual doorway that was, just hours later, held open for my baby, my West Highland white terrier.

Not being one to suffer in total solitude when I know I have a fabulous support system, I reached out far and wide to obtain that much-needed succor. I mass-emailed the following message:

Hello Everyone,

We have very sad news. Our darling Westie boy, Mortimer, age 12+, swiftly declined after contracting a severe eye infection that rendered him blind in mere days despite antibiotic treatment. He’d already lost his hearing some months back, and now, because he was suffering great pain and because there was no hope of recovery, we had to put him peacefully to sleep this afternoon (Sunday, June 14, 2009).

As you may know, I’m in the process of publishing a book I’ve written called Good Grief: Finding Peace After Pet Loss. I believe Mortimer timed his departure from this life precisely so he could give a poignant sense of closure to this book. I’m certainly being compelled to practice all I’ve “preached” about coping with such loss, and I can promise that what I’ve learned in researching and writing this book IS helping me and Anthony both stay strong and at peace even as we openly weep over Mortimer’s death.

Please hold our boy and us in your thoughts for a moment, wishing us all gentle passage into the next transformation in our lives.

Thank you in advance,
Sid and Anthony

By the next morning, I had to sit by my computer, alternately answering the literally HUNDREDS of messages of condolence I’d received (and forwarding them to my husband, Anthony, at work so he could benefit from them just as I was) and nearly short circuiting my keyboard with my torrents of sorrowful/grateful tears. I could have used one of those buffet-style sneeze guards about then to spare myself a call to First Tech for repairs.

I got to thinking about the old adage: “Be careful what you wish for; it just might come true.” I’d surely wished to finish my book, on which I’d been working for more than a year and a half, since the autumn of 2007. Accordingly, I proceeded to batter about my wounded heart, wondering, “Did I make Mortimer leave us right now because I’d just finished a book on grieving pet loss? Am I my own dog’s killer?”

Then, reexamining the logic that went into that conclusion, I decided that if I really had that kind of power, my next book was going to be called My Life as a Lottery Winner! and gave up the self-imposed guilt.

Finally, I arrived at what I believe is the most truthful conclusion: My former Westie, Ludwig, who had died the day before Thanksgiving in 2005, had been the initial inspiration for my writing a book about pet loss; and he sent us Mortimer—a stray picked up by the police alongside a road and delivered to the James River Humane Society in Jamestown, N.D.—just months later, in January 2006. Mortimer had signed on for a relatively short but intensely loving stay with us for a reason. His job was to top off my life’s work (to date anyway) by providing a beautiful, heartbreakingly poignant epilogue to my book.

Our companion animals often decide to leave when there is a huge change in their human’s life, be it a divorce, birth of a baby, marriage, move to a new home, etc. Mortimer died so that my book might be published and a new and very, very different chapter in my life might begin.

And so the cycle of life continues…

…as does the ceaseless love underlying everything and everyone at every moment.

Blessed be,

P.S. You may have heard of the writer’s rule is: Write what you know. Apparently, I know pets and death. What a combo.

I am reminded as I am preparing to promote the heck out of my book—even as I actively memorialize Mortimer’s too-soon demise—that, when I was in high school in the late 1970s and they’d administered those goofy professional aptitude tests, I’d laughed my butt off when mine came back saying I was fit to work in advertising and/or as a funeral director!

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