Personal Development and Spirituality Topics

with Karen Scheel

Pet Loss Teachings

Humans have always enjoyed a close and rewarding relationship with members of the animal kingdom, but few of us truly understand the critically important role they may be playing in our lives when it comes to dealing with the loss of a pet. Animals are constantly subjected to our belief system. We mistakenly tend to believe their minds are inferior because most of us don’t know how to communicate with them. We claim ownership and give very little thought or consideration as to what they may or may not want. Many times we try and save our pet’s life because we are not able to let go when “letting go” may be one of the many teachings they are bringing to us. Rather than allowing and trusting in an animal’s innate wisdom to know what is best for them, we impose various tests, medications, and surgeries so that we may keep them alive. Our interference is usually serving our own personal needs and may not be truly serving our companion animal. When their health completely fails we usually resort to euthanasia because we want to end their pain and suffering, when in all actuality we are probably trying to avoid getting up close and personal with death. We do not interfere with the life of a human being, so why is the life of an animal any different?

The following is my tributary to the world that Shema represents. She was my first companion animal of 12 plus years, and served to help me move even more beyond my human conditioning so that I could ultimately serve in helping her to die with honor. It is my hope that this article may inspire others to begin exploring another approach when working with the wisdom of the animal kingdom. So my story begins…

Pet Cat ShemaShortly after moving into my new home here at Frog Hollow I decided it was time to adopt a kitten. The S.P.C.A. in my particular county was closed so I went to another facility in a nearby county to see what was available. While looking for that special one, a very vocal kitten had reached her paw through the bars of the cage and tried to tag me as I walked by. This kitten’s insistence caught my attention and brought me directly in front of her cage where I saw two that looked identical. However, I wasn’t in the market for two and had to choose one. As soon as the cage door opened, this kitten immediately leapt out into my arms. She was a wild little thing. While working with her, I noted that her sister had not moved from her seated position in the center of the cage. This intrigued me and I decided to check her out. Unlike her wild sister, this one was the polar opposite. She was very quiet in my arms. The level of trust was also much greater. Turning her upside down and holding her high above my head in the air did not seem to faze her at all. This trusting gentle spirit was the one for me.

After spending a few days with her, the name “Shema” came to mind. I had initially believed this was a Japanese word meaning “garden,” but years later,  I discovered it actually meant “island”, which most definitely seemed to apply. Shema and I bonded instantly. Playing fetch, going for walks, supervising my baths and sleeping in my arms under the covers were just a few of her favorite things. She also enjoyed car rides in her early years and would curl up in my lap and stay there until we reached our final destination. Although, there was one ride to the beach that may have had her thinking twice –  she ended up coming face to face with a cat’s worst nightmare, and was hanging onto me for dear life as I carted her towards the roaring waves crashing up onto the jetties in search of a dry place for us to sit.

Pet Cat AsherApproximately 6 months later, I decided to get a mate for Shema because she would cry when left alone. I had mistakenly believed she wanted and needed a companion. I didn’t realize that outside of the litter cats are pretty much solo creatures. My local S.P.C.A. had a beautiful 6-7 month old male with long black fur and a milk spill on his chest that instantly captured my heart. He was purring as soon as he was in my arms. There was no doubt in my mind we were meant to be. I was all set to bring this little love home; however, this particular S.P.C.A. would not allow renters to adopt. I tried everything I could think of to convince them that this rule made absolutely no sense when death was the alternative, but there was no getting around their policy. I absolutely refused to leave him there for the night without making sure a note was left in the book informing every employee that he was adopted. First thing the next morning, I returned with my homeowner and we sat waiting for the doors to open. Unlike Shema, the name “Asher” immediately came through during the adoption process.

Shema accepted Asher and within a very short time, they were pretty much inseparable, playing and giving each other baths etc. In addition to things I taught them, they took turns teaching each other new things as well. Aside from his total fascination with every new set of terry cloth potholders that were constantly shredded, Asher also used a couple of very expensive and irreplaceable dresses hanging in my closet as some sort of climbing tree. The ongoing battle with the potholders was one source of frustration, and he was very lucky that he was allowed to live after I discovered his holes in my dresses! But the worst was when he taught himself how to open the screen door so that he could let himself outside, which Shema watched and learned how to do very quickly. However, she was not as skilled as Asher when it came to timing the exit, so it usually took her a couple of tries. Although, she did get the door to swing open much wider than he did. Asher even managed to figure out how to let himself back in, which Shema never quite managed but she never gave up trying. Letting themselves out through the day wasn’t a problem for me but letting themselves out at night was another story because of all of the wildlife living around here. Shema stayed close to home but Asher was a wanderer. There were many times when I wished I could somehow strap a video recorder to his back to see where he went after he took off out of here. It was like he had a day job or something, and scheduling their dinner around sundown was my way of making sure he came home at night. It took Asher disappearing a couple of times, and then catching Shema trying to let herself out one night before I finally put the pieces of the puzzle together. A hook was installed on the door. But I had to remember to latch it every night because if I forgot then it was a given that one black fur ball would escape out into the night with the possibility of the other following if she felt inclined. No doubt, I was living with two furry live wires and this little house was great fun sometimes – NOT!

In addition to the constant testing of my patience level, my real challenge was learning how to give quality time to both. There were many times when these two behaved much like rivaling siblings when it came to my attention. Both became quite skilled at pushing my buttons along with pushing each other’s buttons as well. If Asher became aggravated with me about something or another – like me catching him trying to exit and latching the door just in the nick of time then he would do something to aggravate Shema to get her all pissed off and/or vice versa. When disagreements between the two of them erupted, my role seemed to be one of playing cat psychologist. Sometimes I played this role well and at other times I did not and ended up screaming at one or both of them. The water pistol became a favored tool until one day when Shema had done something that she knew she wasn’t supposed to be doing. Rather than run off when she saw me go for the pistol, she defiantly sat there and closed her eyes as water was sprayed on her head. When the water pistol began to fail, I took the next step and began employing a small glass of water, which seemed to work for both. However, the water usually ended up hitting the floor as one or the other took off from whatever crime scene I happened upon. Fortunately by around age 7-8, they both mellowed out a bit more so the water became a thing of the past.

Shema remained very healthy and active until her twelfth year. Her health suddenly spiraled downward in the fall of 2000 her . None of my animals have ever liked going to a veterinarian. They seemed to have this sixth sense when it came to these visits and have pulled various stunts to avoid the dreaded trips. Due to the nature of my work, I understood how terrified they must have felt to be dragged or carted into an office that reeked of illness and death. Therefore, I was not willing to subject them to much of this and tended to treat them myself. However, after exhausting several approaches and due to Shema’s drastic weight loss, I wasn’t inclined to spend too much time trying to locate the correct treatment. She was taken to her to her vet to get a precise diagnosis. Unfortunately and unlike the past, he could not offer any opinions this time without a process of elimination through a series of invasive testing. Additionally, he indicated that it might be time for me to “put her down.” I was not at all prepared to hear this diagnosis and did not know what to do. I stood stroking Shema while weighing what he had said very carefully in my mind. I didn’t want to make this decision on my own and needed a little alone time with Shema. However, the vet had other patients and stood waiting for my answer. I put a quick mental prayer up there asking for help and began to reiterate his words out loud as a way to ask Shema. She seemed to sense that I was speaking to her and locked her eyes onto mine. By the time I had finished outlining the options, the answer was felt/seen in her eyes. Much to the vet’s surprise, I picked her skinny bones up and brought her home. With some extra care and ministering blindly in the dark, she began to rebound. Although, it would seem that her renewed health was only providing me with some additional time to prepare for what was to come.

All seemed to be going well for a couple of weeks and then one morning I came downstairs shortly after Shema’s meow had awakened me to find her laying on the floor right in front of the entrance to the litter box. It looked as though she had exited when her hindquarters gave out and there she waited unable to walk. After a physical evaluation and attending to her needs, I left her at home and drove over to speak with the vet. He had left early and his assistant stated that I could bring Shema to the office and leave her there to wait for the vet who would be calling to check in later that day, or I could try and take her to another vet who was located many miles away. There was no way she was being left alone at a vet’s office to wait for a call, nor would I make her even more uncomfortable by cramming her into a carrier to take her to another vet. Therefore, I opted to spend the day ministering healing at home; however, I was feeling extremely torn. An aspect of my being believes that it is wrong to interfere with the dying process, and yet, there was also concern for the amount of suffering she might endure. I was not sure I had the strength to move beyond myself in order to assist her process. I spoke with her about my concerns, and asked her to let me know what she wanted – die at home with me or to undergo euthanasia with the vet. I prayed that if she was to die with me that she not go through much pain or suffer too much.

The day went by easily but the evening brought more of a decline. The second vomiting spasm left her and her bedding soaked in bile. She was gently moved and the bedding was immediately changed. She purred and lifted her head as I wiped the bile liquid from her face and neck. At one point she became quite vocal with what I thought was another oncoming spasm. She was looking directly into my eyes and seemed to be yelling something that I couldn’t understand. I asked her to help me understand what it was she was trying to communicate while offering her water and various food choices – all to no avail. Needless to say, I didn’t get what she was screaming/communicating, and we missed that first call to the litter box, but not the second. I managed to find some humor for how we must have appeared to anyone watching as I held her over the litter so that she could dig a hole and then turned her body around so that she could release her bladder in the area she had selected. She wasn’t quite finished when I lifted her up and we dribbled back to Minka’s dog bed, which was a place she liked to lounge. A third spasm came and while in the throws of this spasm, she somehow managed to remain conscious enough to keep her claws retracted when she went to latch onto the bedding and one of her paws landed on my hand instead. This act of presence truly amazed me. By the end of the evening, I was so tuned in that my body became an antenna for what was about to happen within her body.

It was time for sleep; I was concerned about relocating Shema upstairs because she may have dragged herself to the edge of the bed and fallen to the floor in the middle of the night. Not to mention, the stairs were another area of concern. Therefore, we all slept downstairs on the floor. After my bed was made and another one was brought down for Minka, I opened even more to the spirit realms with an additional ceremony. Asher had opted to remain upstairs all day but finally decided to join us. He checked on Shema and then curled up on my bedding between us. As we all lay there, the candle provided enough light for me to watch Shema’s eyes watching the flame and then watching me. My mind was full with that big question, I again asked her to help me to know what to do and prayed for her answer by morning. Sleep tried to lure me into unconsciousness and each time my finger moved away from resting on the top of her paw, she would let out a little mew to keep me present with her. As soon as I heard her voice I would say,  “I’m here” and my eyes would fly open to see her sweet little face looking directly at me with an expression I had come to know and love throughout the years.

Shortly before 5:15 in the morning, I began to feel her fourth spasm build within my body. This was a big one and watching what looked like her suffering wasn’t at all easy for me. I somehow managed to push my thoughts out of the way and remain focused on supporting her process. During this fourth round, she went through a series of physical spasms with vocal ranges and sounds I had never heard before or even knew she could make. While in this process, there was momentary concern that she may have opted to endure more for me, and I quickly urged her to go home. There were a few more physical convulsions that seemed to be stretching her body, along with sounds that seemed to be scaling up before her body became quite still. I put my ear on her chest to listen for her heart. As I did this, she let out a faint sound to let me know that she was still present. I stroked her, apologized for my human ignorance, thanked her for her patience/teachings in my life, and told her that I loved her and would miss her greatly. When I checked her heart again, she was gone. Tears for my loss and tears of happiness for the great gift she had given were shed. There are no words that can adequately express what it felt like to witness her departure from this world – it was magnificently beautiful. The final position in which she left her body was so very regal – she looked much like an Egyptian cat statue with a huge smile on her face with all of her teeth exposed.

After Shema’s physical death, there was another phase of teaching and learning that seemed to include one of our wild critters. We had a fox family living here at Frog Hollow that my dog Minka had befriended. One of them became “my fox” and s/he came on a regular basis before disappearing for quite some time. The night before Shema’s death, my fox was heard right outside my front door for the first time in many months. The timing seemed very profound and raised the question as whether or not Shema’s body should be placed in the earth or used to feed the fox. Even though I didn’t like the idea of my beautiful Shema being eaten piece by piece, I found myself thinking more about taking care of the other animals. I told myself that her spirit would live on through my fox as a way to reconcile my uncertainty.

Her body was carried to the mouth of fox den. A final send off ceremony was performed before leaving her there. I crawled into my bed to try and get a little sleep, and checked on her body later that afternoon. It was still at the mouth of the fox den untouched. She looked so beautiful with the sun glistening through her coat. I spoke tearful words and stroked her very soft fur. I left her there overnight, checked again in the morning and found her body still perfectly in tact. At this point, the question as to whether or not this was the right thing for her began to dance in my mind again. I decided to give it a little more time and would check again at the end of the day. If her body still remained untouched then this would be a sign that she should be given directly to the earth. At sundown, I walked back to the fox den with a heavy heart. I was certain she would either be gone or her body would be dismembered. I was truly amazed to see her there and still untouched by anything. A grave was dug between two black walnut trees, which was a place where she and I spent many of our days together. Shortly after I finished her burial,  my fox made his/her presence known right outside my door. My initial thought was, “If you be coming for that sacred meal then you be just a little too late.” However, I truly get my fox had stopped by to thank me for my intended gift and to let me know I had listened well. While I was mentally giving thanks to my fox, the thought that s/he may have been the reason that Shema’s body remained intact flashed into my mind. My fox not only bypassed this meal but also must have protected her body because no type of food left out on the ground has ever made it through the night. This very probable possibility had me reeling and sending much love and appreciation to my fox.

In summary, unlike most other domestic animals, Shema was given the opportunity to choose. She was asked what she wanted at the vet’s office, and I was not certain I was doing the right thing when I brought her home. However, I do know that nothing leaves this planet before it is their time, and if her time had come then nothing would change this fact. Granted, this philosophy can be easier to say than to actually apply when it comes to those that we love. But this isn’t about what we want – it’s about what our animals want. When it became clear that death was coming for Shema, and while in the midst of my uncertainty, she was asked again. Fortunately for me, she made this aspect fairly easy for me to figure out. I asked her to help me to know whether she wanted to die at home with me or undergo euthanasia. There is no doubt in my mind that she made her choice. She selected a day when the vet was not available to begin her decline. She also confirmed her choice to die without any medical interference by opting to depart long before the vet’s office reopened the following morning. Additionally, my greatest conflict surrounding this entire situation concerned her suffering and she gave me a tremendous gift. Shema taught me that animals don’t view pain and suffering like humans. The presence and level of awareness she demonstrated with me when she retracted her claws while undergoing what appeared to be great pain truly blew me away. Her presence helped me to get my mind with all of its beliefs out of the way so that I could be more present with her sacred passage and assist her transition. And last but not least, even my uncertainty surrounding her burial was cleared up through my fox. The timing for this wild one showing up and the answer s/he provided was impeccable – any doubts that might have followed had been eliminated.

It would seem that all we have to do is ask our animals what they want, and learn to watch and listen in other ways so that we may read the signs, and then we must trust those signs. Therefore, may I continue to honor Shema’s very great spirit by opening even more to the Animal Kingdom, so that I may better hear and trust what they have come to teach us. Aho! May This Be So!

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  1. I’ve been learning this past few years of letting go and trusting instincts in helping animals heal.
    I cried reading this article. Years of release and sorrow and healing.
    Thank you!

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