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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

Hello Sid,

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 🙂

Shelley Strain

MY RESPONSE:

Hi Shelley,

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.

Blessed be,
Sid

SHELLEY’S TURN:

Sid,

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 Strain


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,

Shelley

ME AGAIN:

Hi Shelley,

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,
Sid

SHELLEY:

Hi Sid,

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.

Shelley

ME AGAIN:

Hi Shelley,

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.

Blessed be,
Sid

SHELLEY’S RESPONSE:

Sid,

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…

Shelley S

MY RESPONSE:

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.
Sid

[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:

Sid,

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.

Hugs,

Shelley

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!

Sid

Shelley and her beloved Rusty

Rusty

I’m personally quite pleased to see this topic gaining more attention and in a major publication like the NY Times. When last I looked, more than 200 people had commented on the article I’ve attached below. Perhaps someday we animal lovers won’t feel we have to go “underground” to do our grieving and our feelings will be more universally validated.

—Sid

Mourning the Death of a Pet

By TARA PARKER-POPE

catsAndy Manis for The New York Times

Years ago, I had an orange tabby cat named Dave who was more person than pet. Sometimes when my husband and I were visiting our neighbors in Houston, we would hear a knock at the door. “It’s probably Dave,” our friends would say, and sure enough, there he was on the step, waiting to be invited in with the rest of us.

When Dave died after being hit by a speeding car, I remember feeling a profound sense of loss and dreaded going to work the next day. “My cat died,” I told my editors, wiping my eyes with a tissue. Even as I explained, I knew I sounded silly to them.

I thought about Dave recently as I was reading an article on PsychCentral.com about the death of a pet. Leigh Pretnar Cousins writes about how she lost so much more than a pet when her 14-year-old silver cat, Luna, died.

I am stunned at how much I miss her and how empty the house feels without her soft round self asleep on the sofa. With her passing goes a chunk of my son Matt’s childhood. He was 10 years old when he selected her out of a box of kittens abandoned at the wildlife center….In Matt’s raising of and caring for Luna, I witnessed an enduring trait in my son: his extraordinary gift for nurturing.

Last year, researchers from the University of Hawaii’s animal science department conducted a study to determine the level of grief and stress that a pet owner experiences when a pet dies. Among 106 pet owners interviewed from a veterinary clinic, 52 percent had lost one or more pets from natural causes, while 37 percent had lost a pet to euthanasia. Although many pet owners experience significant grief when a pet dies, about 30 percent reported grief that lasted six months or longer. Severe grief that resulted in major life disruption was less common but was estimated as high as 12 percent of those studied.

It’s not only animal researchers who are taking note of the grief that occurs when a pet dies. The journal Perspectives in Psychiatric Care noted that the bond between people and their pets can affect both physical and mental health, and that the grief reaction that occurs after a pet’s death is “in many ways comparable to that of the loss of a family member.”

“Unfortunately, the loss of a pet is not recognized consistently by friends, acquaintances or colleagues as a significant or authentic occasion for bereavement,” the journal authors wrote.

When my cat died, the reaction was mixed. One person shrugged and said, “Well, I’m a dog person.” A well-meaning friend fumbled when he asked, “Are you over the cat thing yet?” The best response was from a man I worked with who adored his pet basset hounds. I received a sympathy card in the mail noting that a donation to the local animal shelter had been made in the memory of Dave.

To learn more, read the full PsychCentral post, “When a Beloved Pet Passes Away.” The Humane Society of the United States also offers advice on coping with grief after a pet dies. And please join the discussion below. How did you cope with the grief of losing a pet?

Determining when it’s time to end the life of your dearest nonhuman friend is always excruciatingly painful, so for some people, providing hospice care/pain management to a terminally ill pet is a viable alternative. Obviously, hospice may not be appropriate or even possible in every instance, but for those with the capacity and courage to let nature run its course while mitigating any pain or discomfort being experienced by their pet, it may provide a unique and powerful bonding experience.

Note, I am not advocating hospice in cases wherein the animal’s suffering is being prolonged simply because the human being, due to fear of loss or sheer selfishness, demands that the pet stay around just for them. A fine line separates the two circumstances, and it is important for people to have a strong support system to turn to for validation and support for a difficult but loving decision to supply hospice care for their companion or, alternately, to provide them with  a stern shaking to wake them to the truth of what they’re doing when that decision becomes detrimental to both human and animal.

A case in point for the latter is found in the client of a friend of mine. This lady has spent $80,000+ and extended the suffering of her paralyzed 125-pound German shepherd for more than a year, although he continually urinates blood clots and has to be carried to the car (by people hired to do this task) to go to the vet two to three times per week.

There is absolutely no quality of life there for this poor dog, but she is keeping him alive as long as medical science (and her bank balance) exists to allow it. This is NOT what is intended by hospice care! This is animal cruelty from a woman whose denial is so profound she refuses to acknowledge that her pet deserves a peaceful release. My friend and her staff have repeatedly tried to make this woman aware of the error of her ways, but so far it has been to no avail. I believe that deeper underlying psychological issues are plaguing this woman and she could benefit from professional counseling, but as we all know, we cannot help those who refuse to accept their need for it.

Albeit an extreme case, I think it illustrates an important point about how easily a well-intentioned act can become terribly wrong.

The following ezine article “Grieving the Loss of a Pet – 5 Questions to Ask Yourself When Considering Hospice Care For Your Pet” by Deborah A. was what spurred my discussion of hospice in the first place:

Most pet owners develop a special bond with their pet, and if they learn that their pet has a terminal illness, they may not be ready to think about euthanasia. Providing hospice care until an animal dies, can be an alternative to euthanasia. Hospice means to give pain control and physical and emotional comfort care, rather than to provide a cure. Hospice care also gives the owner more time in grieving the pet loss.

Hospice care is provided by the pet owner and any available family, in the familiar surroundings the pet is used to. The idea is to minimize visits to the veterinarian, thus lessening feelings of anxiety in the pet. Not too many pets enjoy visits to their doctors’ office! By continuing to care for your pet in his/her final days, you will have more time to come to terms with the continual deterioration and say good-bye in your own manner.

Your veterinarian and other office staff will provide the training necessary to have hospice care in the home. Regularly scheduled phone conversations should be arranged so that your pet’s condition can be evaluated and revisions made as needed. When considering if hospice care is the correct choice, it may help to ask the following five questions:

1) do you have the capacity, support, and time needed to care for a pet that may need to be cleaned up, turned, given medicine, unable to stand, or has stopped eating and drinking?

2) is it possible to control your pet’s pain?

3) are you going to feel secure in learning to give your pet a shot?

4) are all family members unanimous in their decision to provide hospice care?

5) did you decide on hospice because of ambivalence about euthanasia, or does your pet show signs of still getting pleasure out of life?

Grieving a pet loss is not an experience anyone wants to go through. However, providing hospice care to a your pet – a valued member of the family – can allow your pet’s death to be a more gentle and loving process.

Deborah A. is an animal lover with a special interest in helping others cope after the loss of a pet. Are you trying to move past the grief of your pet’s death? CLICK HERE or go to: http://www.petlosshelp.info to get more tips and relief in coping with your pet loss.

Article Source: http://EzineArticles.com/?expert=Deborah_A.

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.

Pebbles

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