AUTHOR OF BLESSING THE BRIDGE -
WHAT ANIMALS HAVE TO TEACH US ABOUT DEATH DYING AND BEYOND
By Sharon Callahan
Rita Reynolds lives in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains of Virginia, where she tends to, and is lovingly taught by her family of 12 elderly dogs, 13 cats, 3 donkeys, 2 goats, one cow, 3 ducks, and 11 chickens. For the past 22 years her primary work has focused on caring for elder animals, and hospice care/ conscious dying work with animals. Rita is author of Blessing The Bridge, What Animals Have To Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond.
S: Do you believe that animals have souls?
R: Oh yes. Absolutely. Iím sure it is a group consciousness. But I think thereís a planetary consciousness. I think thereís a group and an individual consciousness. I know that, Iíve seen. Iíve actually visually seen an animal come back 13 months after she died. She showed up in the living room Her name was Waggy and she had died of cancer. She was an incredible teacher. She taught me so much in a year. She was 10 or 11. She was a black lab mix. She had cancer of the mouth. She taught me that Cancer is a teacher, too. I was so busy trying to cure her, desperate to cure her, and she led me step by step through it. And even to the day when it was time for her to go, she came and told me. She told me before I even got out of bed. I knew it.
S: A telepathic message?
R: Yes. So I followed that and I just went on. Even though she ate breakfast and walked to the car and sat up in the car all the way to the doctor. But then 13 months later, she appeared to me in the living room one morning. She was stunning. She was so beautiful.
Another one was a cat named Patches. It was an interesting experience because we had to let Patches go. She had a problem with her heart. She was very old and she had more air on the outside of lungs than on the inside. And her heart was leaking and she was very soon going to come into tremendous pain. So my son Michael and I took her over to the vet. She went very quickly with the injection. And at that point, just at that point, the doctor left the room, the vet technician left the room and Michael was called away to the phone. So there I was all alone with this dead cat and I was still holding her head in my hands. I had my eyes closed, and all of a sudden I had a vision of her sitting up and looking around. She was very confused. She didnít know where she was, and she was looking back and forth. Not frightened but just confused. So, I sent her a message and I said, ďItís okay, Patches. Youíre on the other side. Youíve left your body and youíre not in pain anymore. You can look for the light. Look for the light and go to the light.Ē And all of a sudden, it was like everything was light and she was looking around and she kept turning her head back and forth. The confusion turned to wonderment and she was just in ecstasy with this light. And the very second that I knew she was going to be okay, the door opened and the doctor came in and vet tech came in. It just all synchronized perfectly.
So, there was that little soul sitting up and thinking, ďWow, what happened?Ē Even though she was very, very sick she was still knocked very quick from her body. And thatís something else I want people to know. They need to stay and talk to their animals after they die.
S: Itís so important. In my work with dying animals itís one of these things that I focus on a lot with people because itís so hard for people to stay. But they just must. Itís so important.
R: But what happens is that as soon as the shot takes effect, the doctor listens for the heartbeat to make sure itís gone. And then, they pat you on the shoulder or shake your hand and say, ďIím so sorry,Ē and youíre out the door because somebody else needs the room. So, if that being, that soul is out there and is confused, itís just not going to help. So thatís why I think they ought to have a room, a separate room, a hospice room.
S: I do too. Itís so important. I feel that people are so frightened of death, generally speaking, that they miss the gift that they might get if they were able to spend a period of time with the animal afterward.
R: I have had wonderful experience doing the Powa practice with animals and people. I did it with my mother when she was dying, it was an unbelievable experience. After that I used it with animals with tremendous success.
(Editorís note. ďPowaĒ is a Buddhist practice in which one learns through meditation to project their consciousness up and out throught the crown chakra at the top of the head and into the light. This practice can be done for others to aid them in leaving their body at the moment of death.)
My mother was really ready to go. But she had come to the point of being really comatose and she had multiple strokes. Her heart was failing. My sister and I were with her in the hospice unit. We kept doing shifts. At that point, it was 4:00 in the morning and we were sitting on either side of her bed and we were exhausted, totally exhausted, chanting the Heart Sutra.
I did a meditation and called in the light. I actually called in the Christ LightÖon my right side. And all of a sudden there was this incredible light, an overwhelming, beautiful light on my right side. I was trying to visualize my mother leaving her body trying to see her moving into the light. All of a sudden I got this image of a highway. It was like I was standing at one end of the highway and it was going away from me. There were three lanes, and on both outside lanes the cars were coming towards me, streams of cars coming in. But the center lane was empty and all of a sudden this car went flying, absolutely flying away from me. My mother loved to drive more than anything else. And when she couldnít drive anymore because of her stroke she was heartbroken. And she always complained bitterly that her life was over because she couldnít drive. So the image was very appropriate. That car was moving faster than the speed of light. It was gone. And then there were these incredible waves of color coming from the bed where my mother was lying. Huge swirling waves of beautiful colors every color you could imagine moving into the light, just pouring, pouring into the light. And then it was gone. Her body stopped an hour later. It was just so incredibly beautiful.
S: I often do a little, kind of instant version of Powa if Iím driving and I see an animal thatís been killed on the road because so often, as you were describing about the cat, theyíve been popped out of their little bodies so quickly that you can tell theyíre spirit is confused, still there. I just visualize their souls turning upward and moving swiftly towards the light. And sometimes, Iíve driven past the animal, looked in my rear view mirror to see a flash of light moving upward.
R: I first read about the Powa practice in the Tibetan Book of Living and Dying. And in that, he says he could not give the entire practice because itís very powerful.
S: I think for the average person all they need to know is just what you described. Keeping things simple is good, too. At the time of an animalís death or a personís death, sometimes we forget that itís the simple things that can be the most useful.
R: I agree. I think the simpler the better because it makes it easier to do because we have our emotions all tangled up in there so it is good to have something simple to focus on.
S: Can you say something about how you began to focus on and work with dying animals?
R: It actually started when my motherís dog Domino who developed lukemia and died. was a very big dog and he developed leukemia and died. We took Dominoís body over to the vet to be cremated, and on the way back I all of a sudden went off into this other realm. I was very clearly told that the work that I would be doing for the rest of my life would involve helping animals through death and dying. And I clearly remember returning my answer and saying, ďForget it. No. Sorry. Give me anything else. Iím not doing it.Ē
But it just kind of evolved. Nothing more was said. That was it. Itís just obviously this is what I am to do, because from that point on itís just very gently and slowly evolved into my consciousness and into my work and here I am.
S: Rita, would you say something to people about the question of euthanasia and how one can make that decision appropriately?
R: Unfortunately it has to go experience by experience.
S: Yes, thatís what I believe also.
R: I wish there was a clear-cut guide to follow. I think the best guide is to ask the animal. They always will tell you. They always have told me, and Iíve had other people say the same thing: they always let you know. But it, of course, involves listen and watching.
S: And separating out your own fear of the process.
R: Right. And the other thing is that in making these decisions, we will sometimes make mistakes. At times waiting too long and other times jumping the gun a little too soon. But I think that itís very important to know that the animals always forgive us. They donít get on the other side and say, ďBoy, you really messed up.Ē They forgive us and they love us. They love us, and itís okay.
S: Particularly if whatever weíve done we did out of love with our best intention of the moment.
R: Thatís right. Thatís right. I seem to get really hard cases to call. And I had one with a little diabetic cat named Luke. His kidneys suddenly crashed on him and he wasnít very old. He made it very clear to me that he wanted to die on his own. And he didnít want me to fuss over him. He didnít want to be given fluids. He didnít want any kind of help at all. But he lingered. It got to the point where he was bleeding internally and he could hardly stand up. And he was terribly thin, terribly dry, dehydrated and had begun to bleed internally. I said to him, ďThis is it. I donít care. This is going to be painful for you.Ē I took him to the vet. I had him outside on the table, outside of the carrier. I closed the carrier door and the doctor had examined him and he said, ďYes, itís very possible that he could have internal bleeding. And heís incredibly dehydrated.Ē I said, Iím not quite sure yet. Iím not quite sure its time.Ē Luke reached over. He was still in my arms. He reached over and grabbed hold of the door of the carrier and started shaking it, like, ďLet me in there. Iím going home. This is stupid.Ē So we both agreed the doctor and I agreed that if he could do that, he wasnít ready.
About five days later, he was in such terrible shape. And I finally said, ďLook, I know you want to do this on your own and Iím sure have very, very good reason for it. Iím sorry, I have to help you with this.Ē He actually fought a little bit at the end. I brought the body home. I was thinking about Luke worried that I had done the wrong thing. I suddenly heard in my head, ďMeow, Meow.Ē It was Luke. He was so happy. He was letting me know it was fine, that it was just fine. I know he really wanted to do die on his own and I didnít let him. But he had to let me know it was okay.
S: Well, itís our love for them thatís the most important in any way, isnít it, and our willingness to do our best to give them what they want?
R: Thatís right.
S: I know that you do the hands-on work, just working with people and coaching them through the process it just changes minute by minute. And it can be inappropriate to intervene one minute and ten minutes later it might be appropriate. Itís just that being with it, being willing to be absolutely present with it. Being able to say, too ďIím human and Iím not perfect, but Iím doing the best I can and Iím doing it out of love.Ē
My little Gremmie died in September and she died here. Boy, I came real close to messing up on that one because I got confused by the doctor. I knew she was dying. The message was clear that it wasnít going to be long, and I had made her all comfy and I was sitting with her. And then I called him just to let him know what was happening. He said, ďWell, if you bring her in, weíll put her on IVs, put her in hospital, put her on IVs, see if we can get her jump started again, give her fluids.Ē And then I looked at her and then I said, ďNo, sheís dying. I donít want her to die there by herself or go through that.Ē But then after I hung up, I said, ďWell, am I making her die when she might not need to?Ē
My sister went through a similar situation with her cat inÖI guess it was November, and she made the decision to rush her cat and all of that. And the cat died anyway. I mean she ended up putting her to sleep two days later.
S: Yes. I hear that kind of thing so often.
R: Of course, the doctors are geared for survival. And they donít quite get that sometimes itís okay to just let them go.
S: Yes. Part of our whole distorted thinking in the West is that death is some kind of mistake or itís an illnessÖ
R: Yes. Itís a mistake and itís something to be corrected. It needs to be avoided and itís a failure. \
S: Rita, what do you feel is the biggest lesson that the animals have to give us around the whole issue of death and dying?
R: Letting go. Flow. That there really is no here and there; thereís only here. Not holding on so tightly.
S: Not being afraid.
R: Not being afraid and all the things that go along with that.
S: They can stay so completely in the moment, canít they? With whateverís happening, theyíre right there.
R: Yes. I think sometimes when they get close to us and our families they are our families they can get caught up in our fear and itís hard. I had one dog that just refused to die. She was so old and so frail. And it was time for her to die, and I was sitting with her. Her heart would not let her go. It did stop and then started up again. It was a nightmareÖI had sat all night with this dog. And I thought, ďAny minute,Ē she showed all the signs of dying any second. And she just wouldnít die. And I kept saying, ďItís okay, you can die. You can go.Ē And finally her heart stopped. And then, it wasnít but a minute later started up again. It only lasted about 60 seconds, but I thought, ďWhat is this?Ē [laughter]
S: I find very, very often with dogs that they do take on human neurosis and all of the attendant fears and so forth. It doesnít happen as often with a cat because cats really so retain that wild nature no matter what.
R: Right, and that sense of independence whereas dogs take care of us. And with this dog, Sadie, I knew that she went through so many crises. She had been nanny to the kids since they were little. And she had decided, I guess, that we couldnít do it without her. And of course, right away, after she died she sent me two more dogs. We were absolutely broke.
S: Well, she probably thought it would take two more to cover her responsibilities.
R: And we still have both dogs. One of them is 16 and one is now 14. But it was about a month later, there were two more. I think they do [absorb our fear] and thatís why I think they need our help. I think wild animals do fineÖ.
S: I just feel that of all the gifts that animals have for us, the gifts of their death is the most important because weíre so fearful of it and because their lives are so much shorter than ours. If we can stick in there with them, we can learn so much. I mean, Iíve already felt that thereís nothing more important we could do with our time than attend to a person or animal thatís dying. You canít learn anymore anywhere else. Itís all right there.
R: Theyíre very good at that. Theyíre also just very good being present. I have a cow that I love and adore and she is such an incredible teacher. Her name is Christina. She found me. She adopted me and made it very clear that this is where she was to be. So on two and a half acres of land with three donkeys already on it is this cow. But sheís just the most incredible presence. And people who think that cows are dumb you know, they say, ďOh, cows are dumb. All they do is stand around and chew their cud.Ē Sheís so centered. Incredibly centered. And she does this meditation every day with a trash can. Iíll send you a picture of this. But she now has three plastic trash cans. And what sheíll do is sheíll go and sheíll just either butt her nose or her forehead against it and tip it, tip it on its edge so itís just rocking gently on its edge. And she will sit there with her head like that for a good, maybe, 10 minutes with her eyes closed.
S: Well, that certainly is a meditation, isnít it?
R: It is. Itís just amazing. And itís so peaceful looking.
S: I just have always thought that the cows really hold the Divine Mother energy. I mean, theyíre these incredible maternal presences and they are so grounded and so there. I just adore them.
R: Oh they are. Theyíre just wonderful. When she decides to play, itís actually a little bit scary. Sheís probably 1500 pounds and sheís a Hereford. And sheís so big that I have to kind of remind her that Iím not anything to push around.
S: I bet she can be pretty agile if she wants to too.
R: Itís amazing how she can run. She can run like the wind. She gets her tail straight out and runs. Sheís extremely intelligent, extremely wise. She is four and a half. She came here when she was six months old. Hopefully, she will be able to live out her life here. I hope so. They can live into their 20s. I figure by the time sheís 25 Iíll be 75. So the two of us will be treading around the room.
S: Senior citizens together.
R: Weíre going to grow old together. Iíve already told her that.
S: Rita, in a more general sense, what do you feel is the biggest thing or the most important thing that the average person who loves animals can do to raise consciousness about them? People want to know: What can they do?
R: Probably by the way they behave and speak of animals. Sadly, as much as we like to go around knocking people over the head, knocking sense into them, it doesnít work. People have to find out for themselves. I found that out. You can talk and talk and talk, but until the light clicks on for some for themselvesÖand that usually happens by example.
S: I agree. I think a lot of people just feel impotent to do anything because the problems seem so enormous. They feel so dis-empowered that they just donít.
R: Mother Theresa has a wonderful saying. She said, ďThere are no great things. There are only small things done with great love.Ē
S: Thatís the bottom line isnít it? Thatís beautiful.
R: I think thatís true. I think of that often when Iím trying to clean the house and thereís a ladybug. We have three thousand ladybugs in the house! They come in on the fall and hibernate. Today itís in the 60s, itís incredible. And they come out of hibernation. So I have to watch very carefully and I pick them up on little pieces of paper and move them to a plant. And, you know, itís time consuming and all that. And then I feel terrible if I accidentally step on one. I think that everything we do, whether anybody sees it or not, everything matters, every thought, every word. I mean you donít have to stand up in front of a crowd of a thousand people and say, ďThis is what you should do if you find a ladybug on the floor.Ē If we stop and move that ladybug with honor, if we treat that ladybug with honor or the wasp or especially the animals that are so-called trash animals, that honor reverberates.
S: And I think what you said, too, people need to be reminded that everything they do does matter.
R: Yes, It matters either way, positive or negative.
S: If you treat one little ladybug kindly or one cat or one dog that that kindness actually goes into the collective and then all animals then benefit from that.
R: Absolutely. And I think it goes beyond this planet to. I donít think thereís any limit.
Albert Schweitzer said something. Now, he was referring to humanity, but you know how he loved animals. He said: ďThe only way out of todayís misery is to become worthy of each otherís trust.Ē So, if we each just concentrate on being worthy of everybodyís trust. That is a difference. Intention is everything. I think that our thoughts are very powerful our visualizations, our words. There are a lot of people who canít afford or donít have the time or the energy to take care of animals. Theyíre not in a situation to do that. ButÖeven if they did a quiet prayer every day. Itís all important. I think to say, ďWell, thereís nothing I can do. I canít do anything.Ē Then you just run around in circles and that sends that confusion out there too.
S: Thatís right. And it really is in a way just a matter of paying attention to whatís right under our nose and treating that in a sacred way.
R: Yes, yes. Weíre given so many opportunities. I had an East Indian friend once who told me, he said, ďIf you slam a door it screams.Ē I thought, ďBoy, that cuts right to the point.Ē As a child I was a door-slammer. Now if I ever have the urge and frustration to slam a door, I stop.
S: Itís amazing what gifts certain people have for us. They can say a certain simple thing and itís just with us forever. We are really emissaries of Grace for one another.
R: ÖI get appalled when I come across a person who doesnít have the same attitudes that I do towards things, towards anything. And sometimes I get frustrated and I get angry and I get, ďYou know, why donít you see this?Ē Then I have to stop and say, ďWe all have a purpose. Weíre all here for a reason and weíre all evolving and okay. I think thatís the thing animals want to teach us. Thatís the thing about being present and flowing and that they donít stop to say, ďOh, youíre an awful person.Ē Itís true that if you beat an animal enough, theyíll change their attitude. And then they cringe, they may bite and they may fight back. But it takes an awful lot.
S: Rita, knowing all the hands-on work with the animals and the numbers of them that you have to care for and how long your days are. Some people would think that that was just a very, very difficult life. What would you say to people about the overall gift that you receive in return for what you do from the animals?
R: Thereís no question that they give a lot more to me than I give to them. For instance, right now I can look out the window and see my cow. Sheís just lying in the sun. Sheís also listening to me even though weíre in a room and a distance apart, but I can see her ears listening. She can hear at tremendous distances, mentally more than anything.
You know, I start rushing around, ďIíve got to this and Iíve got to do that and how am I going to get this done and Iíve got to be here tomorrow.Ē And I get around the animals and I just calm right down. And I remember thatís really important and I remember to pay attention to what Iím doing in the moment and just refocus, refocus to right where I am. When I do that Iím amazed at what I have been missing. As for the physical work, itís really good for me. Iím building bone and muscle and breathing lots of fresh air. I canít think of anything else Iíd rather be doing, I really canít. It would be nice once in a while to abdicate responsibility to another person because especially with all the older ones, thereís a lot I have to pay attention to. I have to pay attention all the time: to whoís eating, how are they looking and feeling and whoís coughing and whoís not.
S: Quite a lesson in mindfulness.
R: Very much so.
S: Once when I was very sick for a year and virtually couldnít get out of bed much. And one of the things that I learned that everything I needed came right to my door. As you were saying, I kind of lost my desire or impulse to want to or need to travel because it just seems to me that God brings us everything right where we are. We donít have to go anywhere.
R: I find that my travels are inward. And thereís worlds and worlds and worlds there. Sometimes I get frustrated because I donít have time to do that. I get up in the morning and say, ďOkay, I donít have time for meditation and prayer this morning so my day is going to have to be my meditation and prayer.Ē And thatís good. Thatís good about having all of these responsibilities.
S: And thatís what weíre headed for anyway isnít it? Making our whole life a prayer.
R: And thatís what I do tryÖ. That is one of my constant prayers to be aware of that.
I have these echoes of remembrance of somewhere far away. Remembrances of pure love, the kind of love that the animals bring. Once I was dreaming, but it was more than a dream. I was in the presence of some being and had to come back. I was weeping when I woke up because the love was so intense and I didnít want to leave it. Knowing this, knowing this in my heart and my soul and wanting to encourage it here itís hard to do, itís so hard to do.
S: Itís hard to do, but I feel youíre exactly right that what weíre supposed to be doing is merging Heaven and Earth at least right where we are as best we can.
R: I feel that itís a tremendous gift to be here, to be on earth and to be alive. And that itís really an incredible experience. Some days we just kind of muddle through. We get by. We do what we need to do. We have bills to be paid and appointments to meet. The plumberís got to come, you know. And we kind of forget that this is really an incredible place. Itís a great honor. Not anything to be taken lightly or taken for granted.
S: I think thatís what the animals want us to know too. No matter whatís going on with them whether theyíve been abused or theyíre dying or hungry, theyíre as appreciative as they can possibly be of the moment itself. I had a cat years ago who got to be very, very elderly. And she could really barely get around at all. I had to carry her to the litter box and carry her food to her. But about once a day right to the end, when the sun would come in the window a certain way, sheíd get up for just a minute and do this little dance. She could still do her dance, and she did it up to about two days before she died. It was just like something else was animating her and sheíd just do this little kitty dance and it would last a couple of seconds and it would be over. And I think we can do that. I think we can dance no matter whatís happening.
R: Yes. We can dance and we can sing, although my animals would probably prefer that I not sing. . . .laughter.
And Iíve always felt this presence, this incredible presence. Always felt that we were being taken care of.