Reflections on loss, grief, and death
Author: Kathleen Leppek
I’ve come to learn through my exploration of life, that there is a duality of life and death and the experiences in between. I’ve learned to look at both sides of an experience so that I can embrace the journey and find value in both the time together and the value of a recognized grief and loss. I learned to harmonize these dualities with a willingness to accept the end of something and be open to the universe to fill the void or gap with new things. Here is a taste of my experiences.
I’ve turned into a binge watcher of veterinary programs on TV. During the fall and winter season on Saturday nights, I watch Dr. Jeff, Rocky Mountain Vet. He and his staff specialize in low cost emergency vet services. He is an advocate of spaying and neutering and shares his services in low-income areas and countries that lack enough veterinary medicine. When this show’s season was completed, I went on to sit all Saturday night watching episodes of Dr. Pol. He works out of rural central Michigan with his staff that specializes in domesticated animals like cats, dogs, birds, goats, pigs, horses and cows. I watch the programs in support of all the generous and meaningful work they do. All living things need support and nurturing. It’s amazing to see all the predicaments that happen just through the act of being alive on this Earth. We all need support to keep our physical bodies healthy.
Usually these shows have happy endings and everyone is alive to live another day. One night I was watching when a horse died of bloat and a dog was put down because a cancerous tumor, that unknown up to that point, had ruptured. It was difficult to see the shock and grief of the people involved and reminded me of my grief in different death experiences and also, I had the strong wish to help others in their moments of sadness.
My first pet was a small calico cat named Kitty. She must have really liked me. She would curl up inside my coat that was tucked into my pants as I climbed our favorite old apple tree to sit and gaze out at the landscape. We would swing wildly back and forth on a tire swing that hung on a huge branch on that same apple tree as she purred like a Harley! She would run to me across an open field when called to jump up in my arms. That felt so wonderful, as a young child, for something to give me attention and affection. She was given away to a farmer when we moved over 200 miles away. My mean brother told me the dogcatcher was taking Kitty to the pound. I was left numb and puzzled not understanding life at seven years old.
Then came the death of my first dog Raymond, after 13 years of total togetherness. Raymond specialized in exfoliating my face everyday with his licks that said, “I’m so happy to see you. Where have you been all day?” The last year of Raymond’s life I knew the time was coming when we would say good-bye. He was losing his hearing, elasticity, his immunity, and his liver along with a couple of teeth. One day he ran away to hide under our neighbor’s bushes to die. I did retrieve him to take him to the vet. I left a pool of tears on his cheek as he died on the table in the vet office. That next morning he came to me in a dream to say thank you and in the dream he went up in the sky in a ball of light, blowing the roof off the vet’s office. I still cried almost everyday for two weeks. The feelings of anguish and despair flowed with the tears and showed on my scrunched up face. It was like years of pent up sorrow was being released.
I realize non-pet owners don’t understand this. I’ve been delivered the standard comments of disbelief on attachment to an animal. The tears were about the bonding, caring, and mutual respect of another living being as well as a tribute to all that I learned from this wonderful living being. People are mammals. Mammals have a strong sense of family. It feels like a family member is being ripped away without understanding of the death process and a loss of a personality I’d never see again. My tears were an expression of the pain of losing a loved one, and also I wished to honor Raymond for all he had done for me along with honoring his effort in life with gratitude. I didn’t know how to do that.
I am a believer of the statement, “It is better to have loved and lost than to not have loved at all.” I’ll never have another Raymond, but I can have another loving relationship with an animal. I prayed for my next pet, a pet that would bond with me. We would learn together and this dog would not be a barker. (Raymond’s only quality I was not fond of.)
Sophie came to us. She was a mature, grown up, experienced being right from the start as a little puppy. This time I would be ready when it was time to say goodbye. I said prayers for her each day for a month before she died. This was difficult as I felt a deep void of loneliness and the feeling of being cheated of enjoying a couple more years with her. I realized part of death is accepting that my selfish needs for my comfort were small compared with the marching of time. Her soul may have been calling her on to do other things. She was diagnosed with a rare cancer when she was 12 and lived several months looking more tired, but relatively healthy. Then the last month she was alive, her health changed quickly. Along with feeling tremendous grief, I stood bravely that last month because I wanted to send her on her way with gratitude for the loving service she gave to me as well as so many others. I also wished the best for her rebirth praying for all the right circumstances to come together to give her a good life. My husband and I did ceremonies at several of her favorite spots as I spread her ashes. I found acceptance and a new balance in her passing. Honoring her life along with honoring my grief helped me heal.
After death, she came to me steady, calm and gentle with her loving gaze. She did her favorite thing. She showed me her happy dance running free and fast, jumping up and turning 360 degrees in mid-air with joy written all over her body. She loved to run and be free. She loved to jump and bounce. I even called her Tigger when she was a young puppy. (Winnie-the-Pooh’s friend.) She loved showing me her full body wag as if to say, “I’m sooo happy.” This is a wag that shimmies her whole body not just the tail. She showered me with all the love and gratitude she could convey!
She was my first experience using Egyptian, Tibetan, and Christian death rituals to send a being to the other side. Since then I’ve enriched my experience with a friend and relative. I know they heard my prayers since they also came to me with gratitude and the gift of love in my dreams.
Upon reflection I understand my Grandpa’s passing when I was a first grader. I loved being in the funeral home. There were roses everywhere filling my senses with the sight of beauty and the aroma of heaven. It seemed like for me angels were everywhere and my Grandpa was not alone. My Mom had to remind me a couple of times not to skip down the hallway. Maybe that was a part of me that knew death and rebirth are a part of life.
My Grandpa came to me in a dream. I crossed a small wooden arched bridge to the other side where he was standing. He gave me crystals including a big pink quartz that he and my Grandma got on a trip to Denver. I always admired it at their house. It went to my Dad when my Grandma died and came to me when my Dad died. It sits in my meditation room and comes along on meditations out in nature. The crystals in my dream symbolized the gift of wisdom that I would acquire this lifetime and my Grandpa was helping to show me the way.
When my Dad died I was 50 and struck with grief, but also joy. This close of a person dying left me feeling a deep agony and just like with Raymond and Sophie, my tears were a stream of sorrow. My eyes felt hallowed from the emptiness of the loss. This person was my favorite of favorites from my youngest memories. I had tremendous respect and admiration for him. After the formal funeral, my mother, siblings, spouses, nieces, and nephews gathered at my parent’s home. The electricity went off because of a heavy wet snowstorm and downed power lines. A spontaneous wake erupted with food, a roaring fire, and candlelight. We sang as my nephews strummed guitars, played the accordion and even a trombone. We laughed and sang the night away and sent my Dad off smiling, doing a jig, and seeing the family together and happy.
I dreamt of a family meeting. It was up a spiral staircase overlooking
Lake Michigan and in a ski lodge…some of my Dad’s favorite things. He laughed heartedly and smiled, amazed to be telling us, “It’s all true. We never die. We live forever.”
On the subject of death and rebirth, I would like to share a few things to specifically help in transition of a loved one and to help you with grief. Here are the basics that are shared in Christianity, Buddism, and Ancient Egyptian culture.
From the Tibetan Book of the Dead:
- There are 14 days after death of a person in which you can help them with their transition and they can hear you speak.
- It is very important to pray for them and speak out loud to them using appreciation and positive statements.
- The living can affect the deceased’s consciousness starting while they are alive and 14 days after death. During this time read prayers and affirmations.
- It is important that there is no speaking of ill will. Final conclusions are damning. Staying with positive statements help the deceased confront their light and their demons. They will move quicker through limbo, purgatory, and on.
These concepts were also taught in Christianity at one time, which is what was behind the Christian wake that lasted 3 to 7 days. This is also why animals will sit with their dead family members for a few hours after death. It stabilizes the form. We can talk to them like they’re still alive. Hearing your voice and positive statements keeps them calm and out of judgment about their life. Facing death can be shocking and in the shock people can loose their connection with spirit. Our voice is used to keep the experience positive.
Scientific research on elephants and death has reveled the strength of social bonds and respect for dead family members and friends. Elephants tune into the death of family members and friends and travel many miles to give homage to their dead fellow elephant. They mull over bones with their trunks especially the skull and jawbones where in life they greet each other. Often the herd burry their dead with leaves, twigs, and mud. They have filled bullet holes of the dead with mud. It has been observed that temporal glands stream at the death of a loved one, which is a sign of heightened emotions in elephants.
Ancient Egyptian funerary rituals included the belief that each day is our own rebirth. We get better each day. The sun represents us moving through life (daytime) to death (night) to life again (sunrise). This is an example of reincarnation. Our prayers are not hopeless, powerless, asking for forgiveness, or pleading. Instead we use evocation and ask for something with power. We ask from our heart with our truth the best we can. Then we can go to death with a heart as light as a feather vs. a heavy heart, which is considered a missed opportunity. A heavy heart is from our own guilt and our own judgment.
So, here is the part you get to do, which I have done with a dear family member, friend, and pet. It is done to help the person pass to the highest plane in heaven as possible. In general, we have all heard ‘go to the light’ ~yes~ but also go through the blue door and look for the blue light. It will be the color of a crisp blue sky!
Come up with a list of things you can read each day and often to your loved one. Then read it through 14 days after passing. List terms of endearments, what you are thankful for, your love for this being, your happiest moments together, wishes that a person has for their future, and appreciation of their life effort.
Your prayers can be as gushy and loving as you want! You’ll be reading it a lot so maybe keep it simple too. The first time I did this, I cried each time till I got used to the process. It is important to feel your grief and express it healthfully so that you can heal and be freed from the heaviness. It is likely that past grieving energy that hasn’t been expressed will also come up. The unexpected benefit of the process is that it helped me with my grief and helped me stand in acceptance of what was happening. Your acceptance of the process will be your strength for it is having the courage to walk with each other in shared difficulty that develops divine compassion.
I’ve found respecting the life around me has filled me with a willingness to explore the togetherness of a bond created with joy and an acceptance to harmonize the value of loss with the gratitude of shared experiences. Together that bond forms a beautiful chapter in life. The joy and tragedy hold an equal positive value. I have learned to feel the grief of loss with honor and gratitude and also embrace that loss with the celebration of experiences together and move forward to the enrichment of new relationships and experiences.
I have a special place in my heart for all living things like the air we breath, the stars in the sky, plants, animals, water, everything…Even the stuff I don’t like so much, because I know, we are all evolving and moving to build awareness furthering the goals of evolution that support freedom and betterment. I wish the best to you and your loved ones.