It's OK, We'll Do It Together; Helping a Pet Cross Over
One of the hardest things we do as human companions to animals is to say goodbye when it's time for their journey to continue without us. I'm often asked to help facilitate communication during the death and dying process and I am sharing one of my own "goodbyes" in the hopes that it can help others muster the courage, selflessness and peace that are necessary at times such as these.
Even when they leave their physical forms, our loved ones are always with us. When we release our expectations of how that happens, what it looks and sounds like and what it "should" be, we can continue to witness their love and companionship. I believe that pets come into our lives to be more than just our furry snuggle buddies. They walk with us in this lifetime to share our joys, lessen our sorrows, and to act as our greatest champions and teachers. Our adventures and experiences with them fill our souls with unconditional love and unbridled happiness. Like shooting stars that dazzle the night sky with their bright light, the time with our pets often feels much too short. When we are in the dark shadows after a pet's death, we can trust that their light does shine on. The love we share with them never dies.
I didn't go looking for Ginger. Our paths crossed by coincidence ("coincidence" being the convenient phrase for situations into which we are divinely guided) one Spring afternoon. At the time, our city's mall rented out a small store to the local animal shelter so that they could increase their adoption rates by reaching more people in the community. I walked past the shelter's storefront on my way to a department store and a little reddish brown puppy caught my eye. I didn't stop and I finished whatever shopping I had planned to do. But something was tugging at my heartstrings and I couldn't push the thought aside. I stopped into the shelter's store, I thought, to just let myself play with the puppy to "get it out of my system". Puppy Ginger was thwarting the advances of the other puppy in the playpen. He would come at her, time and time again, rallying to the cause of Play and she would promptly serve him a nice helping of puppy "smack down". It was adorable. As I was watching, one of the shelter volunteers explained that Ginger had been found in a dumpster. She had been thrown away by a human. I picked her up and she immediately went from vibrant, silly puppy to sleeping in my arms. Once I picked her up, I immediately sensed that I couldn't put her back down. I couldn't chance her being exposed to more cruelty or disregard. The only thing that gave me pause was wondering if I would make a good parent. After all, I had plenty of solid experience avoiding commitment and only looking out for myself. Coincidence interceded once more and I noticed that one of my dearest friends was walking by the store with her husband and daughter. They saw me inside and came in to say hello. They very patiently helped to convince me that not only would I be able to take care of Ginger but that I would be great at it. Their confidence calmed the rough seas of doubt within me and I asked the sleeping puppy in my arms if she wanted to come home with me. At the sound of my voice, she woke up and kissed me on the nose.
After the necessary paperwork was completed, I carried my new bundle of joy out to the car. Since I didn't have any provisions for my new friend, we went to the local pet store. Luckily, Ginger had received two sets of vaccinations and I knew enough about the risk of diseases in puppies not to let her walk around the store (inside or outside). As I carried her around in my arms, we bought food, treats, bowls, a collar and a bed. When we got home, we attempted our first potty break. We walked...and we walked...and we walked...she wouldn't potty. I assumed that meant she didn't need to go and so I carried her up the three flights of steps to our apartment along with all the goodies from our shopping trip.
I put her down once we got in the door and I turned to put all the shopping bags on the dining room table. When I turned back around to face Ginger, she squatted, peed, looked up at me and barked as if to say, "This is the way this is going to go, lady - I potty where I want to potty!" She was full of sass and silliness. It was love at first bark.
As a puppy, she was strong-willed and obstinate. We were kicked out of our first puppy kindergarten class because the instructor felt that Ginger was too distracting to the other students. At our second puppy kindergarten (different trainer, different facility), I was told Ginger played too rough and was too aggressive. Since professionals seemed to be of little help, I studied dog behavior on my own. We must have tried every type of collar, leash, harness and training method that existed. I could have walked a team of mules easier. Ginger's specialty was pulling me face-first into shrubbery...preferably when other people were walking by. Despite the training challenges, Ginger was the sweetest, most loving dog who adored everyone and everything and, as the saying goes, wouldn't even hurt a flea. Truly, whenever she saw a bug she wanted to befriend it!
Ginger’s health was an adventure. She was diagnosed with double pneumonia two days after I adopted her. Six months later, she was hospitalized for ulcerative colitis. After that, she ate part of a vacuum cleaner cord and that certainly did her intestines no favors! From then on, there were foods that she could eat with no problem and foods that would send her into gastrointestinal misery. I read everything I could find on dog nutrition and health and learned what her specific trigger foods were. The list of foods to avoid was so extensive that I had the list posted on the refrigerator so I wouldn't forget. Bread, potatoes and sugar resulted in an almost immediate ear infection. Chicken made her ridiculously itchy. Cheese and beef gave her diarrhea. There were very few pet foods that didn't have one or more of her "bad" foods, but we managed as best we could. Friends and family probably thought I was the meanest dog mom ever because she rarely got to have treats or "fun" food, but they didn't see the results of the "fun" foods - days of bloody diarrhea, listlessness and goopy ear infections. A few minutes of tasty goodness weren't worth days of illness. Ginger also had frequent urinary incontinence. She had allergic reactions to her vaccinations. Once, a solitary fire ant bit her and she broke out into full body hives. Although none of these were terrible or particularly frightening illnesses, she was definitely a special needs kind of dog. As a result of her special needs, my interest in dog health expanded beyond conventional medicine into holistic health and energy healing. As I read more on acupuncture, Eastern medicine, canine massage and other healing modalities, I felt a strong pull toward Reiki. My love for energy healing resulted in my certification as a Reiki Master and started a whole new chapter in my life where I am blessed to be able to help others heal. Ginger helped me find my true purpose! I believe that is one of the greatest gifts she gave me. In the summer of her 7th year, her stomach issues got worse and worse over a period of a few weeks. After bloodwork panels and an ultrasound, she was diagnosed with Protein Losing Enteropathy. An internet search turned up forums filled with condolences for similar situations. The average prognosis was only two years. One medical journal referred to PLE as "the beginning of the end". Ginger's weight plummeted. She slept more and played less. A year later, her kidneys stopped working like they should. We had a few months when IV and subcutaneous fluids seemed to return her to her happy self, but each new visit to the vet started to feel like a Hail Mary pass. Almost exactly one year later, Ginger started acting funny about going outside. Our normal route was through the kitchen to the back door and down the driveway. For weeks, she wouldn't walk outside without me. To coax her along, I would say, "It's OK, we'll do it together". That phrase would be enough to motivate her, but once outside, she would walk out of her way to avoid what used to be her favorite spot on the driveway where she would sunbathe. For a dog who felt weak, it was odd that she would not take the straightforward route that she always used to take. Toward the end of that month, she had a rough couple of weeks when her appetite was depressed and every few days, she wouldn’t be able to keep food down. We started back on the medications we used before for these issues, but there was no improvement. One weekend, I tried all the usual tricks to get her to eat - baby food, pureed meat, pumpkin, all her favorites. The only thing she would eat was waffles with syrup. She slept most of Friday and Saturday. Sunday, she had some seizures in her sleep. Her sister McKenzie was so startled that she started pawing at her to revive her. My sleep was very fitful but I remember seeing a tiny blue light appear on my wall when the room was totally dark. The light appeared several times that weekend and at one point the wall appeared to morph into the light. I had the feeling that I was being trained to notice a different sort of reality. She slept through the entire day Monday, barely mustering enough energy to go outside for a potty break. I usually slept in the same room as Ginger and could always sense where she was in the room without opening my eyes. Monday night, I couldn't sense her anywhere. I opened my eyes and she was sleeping soundly right next to me, but I couldn't pick up on her energy. Tuesday morning, I awoke after hearing these words very clearly and loudly in my mind: "Brace Yourself. It's Today. It's Happening." I made an appointment with our amazing vet. I knew I would be asked about her symptoms but I couldn’t bear to explain them, so before we left the house, I typed up a full page explanation of the past two weeks. Lab tests confirmed that Ginger had essentially stopped making red blood cells. Although I wasn’t, I knew Ginger was ready for her next big adventure and so we arranged a time for our vet to come to the house later that day for the procedure. The vet techs she loved so dearly gave her hugs, kisses and so much love - all through tears. I looked at the clock - we had six more hours together. That was all. I felt my knees buckle and my breath catch.
Those of you who have been through this journey know that there is a very specific and identifiable place you need to be in your thinking in order to be strong and soldier through what needs to be done. I somehow navigated to that place and steeled myself for what was to come. Ginger was a very sensitive girl and I didn’t want our last memories to be filled with fear or sadness - we were going to celebrate our life together! Ginger’s final hours were magical and beautiful. On the way home from the vet, we went to a drive-thru to get cheeseburgers and french fries. Ginger was going to get to enjoy all the foods on her restricted list!
I was so very fortunate to have amazing friends and family who supported me throughout the day. A dear friend texted with me throughout the day to offer support and help me tune into what Ginger needed as the day progressed. Other friends sent love and support through facebook messages. I felt everyone’s love, care and concern and did my best to use that support to surround Ginger in a giant bubble of love. Ginger and I laid together and forgot about time, space and the rest of the world. I lit a candle for her and turned on the New Age music station that we sometimes listened to at bedtime. Ginger was very tired and slept most of the day but when she would awaken, we would eat yummy treats and talk about how many amazing and happy moments we shared. There came a time in the afternoon when she no longer wanted to snuggle and although it was unbelievably hard to stop hugging and cuddling her, I knew she was pulling away so that she could gather her energy for her transition. Her brother Darcy kissed her on the head, sighed and laid down on the floor next to her. The whole house was filled with a peaceful calm.
My parents arrived about an hour before the vet. Ginger roused from her sleep to visit with them and even “buried” a bone under the bed, making us all laugh at her silly antics. When the vet arrived, it was time to take our last walk outside together, Ginger again hesitated at the kitchen door like she had been doing for weeks. I had decided at some point during the day that I wanted her to take her last breath in the spot on the driveway where she liked to sit in the sun. I realized later that this was the same spot that she had avoided walking over for the past three weeks. By now, the phrase I said to motivate her was second nature to me, so I uttered it and as it came out of my mouth, I realized that it wasn’t just about walking outside together, but about taking this next step on our journey, “It’s okay - we’ll do it together”.
Ginger was released from her pain with an abundance of love and tenderness. Our vet, her assistant, my parents and I all sat in a circle in the driveway. After the anesthetic was administered, Ginger went to each of us around the circle to give kisses and goodbyes. After going around the circle, she collapsed into my lap. As soon as she left her physical body, I heard her shout “Thank you” and could sense her jumping up into a tree. My other three dogs were in the house and couldn’t see what was going on, but at the instant Ginger passed, Dexter starting barking. I knew he could see her too. As our vet drove away with Ginger’s body, all the dogs started howling. They were saying their goodbyes and giving her a great send-off! Ginger was, and still is, very loved. I am forever changed and improved from the time we spent together.
In the days and weeks after her passing, I received many messages from Ginger in spirit. Song lyrics became a favorite way for her to communicate with me. She also left physical signs. The booties she wore once on her feet when her allergies were quite bad had been put away in the attic. Days after her death, one bootie "appeared" in the downstairs bedroom. No one had been into the attic to retrieve the bootie. To this day, years later, I can still sense her loving, goofy presence when I tune into her energy. We all have the ability to connect with our loved ones across boundaries of time and space, life and death, and to do it we only need to suspend our disbelief and open ourselves up to the magic of a limitless existence. Our loved ones are always with us and the love we share lives on forever.