In 2007, I was struggling to live without a dog. I had lost my beloved Lily, a Great Pyrenees mix, in July of 2006 (pictured here with me).
One day, I was taking a walk on some woodland trails near where I lived. I was sad. It was hard to take walks alone. I sat down on a rock in the woods to just feel the grief from this gaping hole. As I allowed feeling to transcend the incessant, chatter of the so-called rational mind, my deeper feelings took over. I spoke aloud: “I cannot live without a dog!” Suddenly, at that very moment, out of nowhere, the body of a dog pressed into mine and a wet dog nose and hot breath was in my face. No, it wasn’t a spirit dog. But a real-life, labby-looking, short-haired brown dog. He greeted me joyously and wagged his tail vociferously. I gave him a pat and, satisfied, he ran back to a trail a bit through the woods. I saw him in the distance rejoin a woman running with another canine friend.
It seemed like a message: I must get a dog.
So, finally, I gave in and found a Great Pyrenees breeder in Towson, Maryland (owned by Pat–now deceased–may she and her great dogs rest in peace). I met Sym when he was just 1 day old–a tiny, sausage shaped white puppy
Two weeks later, I went to visit the litter again. Whilst sitting on the floor with a bunch of 4-pound
(Luckily, I never ended up showing Sym–not because he lacked the beauty–he ultimately grew into a large, handsome guy. It was, after all, for the best, because he HATED being groomed!)
As this puppy collapsed into my lap and fell asleep, exhausted from the intense expenditure of energy that trip across the floor had cost him, the deal was done. He was mine and I was his.
I visited him again 2 weeks after that. A friend who came along suggested I name him “Tea & Sympathy”–carrying on the tradition of his mother’s name, “Tea & Crumpets.” We shortened that to Sym. The name stuck. It was unusual, but suited him in every way.
Sym came home with me at 8 weeks old. I had visited him every 2 weeks until that day.
Sym then grew up to be an amazing dog in body, soul and spirit. A great joy. A great light.
There are those 4-footed companions who come into our lives and seem greater, more conscious and wise than their years and/or physical form. Whose presence and power surpasses what we think of as ordinary consciousness. Whether they are human beings or animals, they simply appear to be more evolved, awake and aware than the greater lot of us. There is no reason to believe that dogs and cats, horses and rabbits, or any animal, is any different in their journey as a soul and spirit in physical form than we human beings. Indeed, I believe animals may be even greater than we–more wise and real, more pure and bright. They have fewer distractions, less going on in a neurotically wired neocortex.
But in my experience as a mother of many 4-footeds, there have been just a couple who have been more.
This is a just a short story of Sym’s long life of 11 years–filled with his love of being outside, in Nature–on hikes, walks, camping trips. Of his astonishing somersaults in the grass (even at age 11, a few days before his passing, he still did them). Of his funny sense of humor and how he would plop his butt on people’s lap on the sofa with his back legs on the ground and smile broadly. Of his many, many friends, both 2- and 4-footed, Beagles, Pugs, Bernese Mountain Dogs, and mutts. He was loved by so many–he had a social life in his own right.
Sym ran gleefully after deer (not fast enough to catch them, thank god) and wished he could be covered in goat poop when he met two working Pyrs in our neighborhood. He rolled in the Virginia red clay and animal poop with abandon. He loved rivers–and would stand immersed in them up to his sides (this is why one of his nicknames was The Great White Lochness Muffin Hunter). He had a protective tenderness with my many cats–his family–and had some fun and a laugh when he occasionally chased them so they would run. Twice, he found baby deer in the woods. I would find him with his paw on their sides and licking their heads like a good father. And he could always find the deer carcass in the woods or off road and drive me nuts because he not only wanted to eat, but to roll in their maggoty mess. So many stories, so many memories filled with fun.
Yes, wise as he was, Sym was also a dog enjoying all the delights of a canine body.
But here I am to tell the story of his end. Because I have found that my animals give me powerful lessons about death and the indestructability of life.
On April 30, 2018, Sym had a major bleed from his nostril and nearly died. He had just turned 11 years old on March 6. He had until then, despite a couple of bouts of tick disease, and, three years later, having had a benign tumor removed from his mouth, been a very healthy, surprisingly hale and hearty guy. Up to that moment, people couldn’t believe he was in his elder years (Pyrs’ life span is usually between 10 and 12).
A week later, after tests and a CT scan, the dreaded diagnosis was given of a mass, likely an aggressive form of cancer, growing in his head above his right eye. There was only a modest hope that herbs and dietary changes might slow down its progression. After the diagnosis, he had 2 good weeks being his usual “Muffiny” self–enjoying walks along the river, a visit to the Downtown Mall in Charlottesville where he and his sidekick Puggle, Loki each got their own hamburger (!), and strolling and lying in the grass here at Bliss Point Farm. Many friends, clients and students came for visits and classes and he welcomed everyone with his usual warmth and sweetness.
It had become very clear that it was time. Things were moving faster and faster and the only possible conclusion would be more pain, more bleeding and a more difficult end under emergency conditions. Not what Sym, nor I wanted.
I dreaded this moment. But I have often ushered my 4-footed companions through this process. I know the pathways of death and dying well. As I looked at Sym, having lost his natural strength, and envisioned things worsening until he was in more pain and incapacitated, I felt a release in my own body/mind. I let go of the fight for his life.
I accepted the inevitable. I was sad, but centered as I made the decision.
Luckily, Sue Wolf referred us to Dr. Cheryl Thorpe, a vet who does in-home hospice care and euthanasia in the Charlottesville, VA area. She is absolutely wonderful–amazing–a medicine woman in her own right. She came on Saturday, when we thought Sym still had a good bit of life yet in him, to evaluate things. Then, on Sunday morning, I called her and she was able to come that evening. I was deeply appreciative that she made the time at such short notice on a weekend.
I spent that last day with Sym and made a point of enjoying every precious moment
By evening, the rain of the afternoon had stopped and Sym asked, as usual, to go outside so he could rest on the Earth, his preferred place always. He could still walk, but his feet dragged perceptibly and his toes curled under when he stood.
Dr. Thorpe arrived around 8. As I watched her approach us in the yard where my friends, Hildy and Michi, Sym and I sat underneath his favorite tree, I felt dread and grief rising. Could we just not have another hour? Another day? Two days? The heart and mind wants just a bit more of that precious presence in the body.
But in my heart, I knew the time was right. Sym and I were ready. His energy showed it. He was at peace with the end and knew he was moving on to something good.
Dr. Thorpe has a very unusual, beautiful and compassionate way of administering the drugs for euthanasia. Rather than doing it in quick progression within a 5-minute window, she does each dose slowly, allowing the body and everyone time to accommodate to the changes. In the half hour it took, as Dr. Thorpe midwifed Sym and the rest of us through this transition, suddenly, all the tree frogs, insects, birds and animals of the evening began to sing loudly. There was a cacophany of sound. The rain, which had been going strong all afternoon, held off. It was as if Mother Earth was welcoming and celebrating him.
In the past, when I have been with my animals in this process, I have felt the departure of the energy body from the physical garment as a sudden, powerful and dramatic POP. But this time, it seems at least in part due to Dr. Thorpe’s method, Sym left gently like a sweet wind rising quietly, almost imperceptibly out of physical form. Dr. Thorpe commented midway through the process, that there was no resistance from Sym. He was ready and willing.
And with each step along the way and then for a time after Sym left his body, there was an incredible feeling of peace all around as the door between the worlds opened and he enveloped us with his great and peaceful spirit.
For a half hour after all was done, I stayed with Sym’s body there in the grass, laying my head on his side. Nighttime was beginning to fall. The sun had set. Yet, there was still some light. Suddenly, all my senses were heightened. I knew instantly that Sym was showing me something. I was even more aware of the night sounds and scents, the wind in the trees, the expanse of the sky. I was filled with incredible awe and love for the multitudinous sights, sounds, smells, shadow and light of the Mother Earth. Sym showed me all this, and I felt down to my bones how much he loves this world. How he sees it as incredibly, deeply, profoundly beautiful in every way. He showed me how much he also so loves very human being he met. How he sees them through a powerful, unconditional love. A seeing of their light and soul.
In that moment, as Sym showed me all this, I felt his love for the world as astonishing, breathtaking, dazzling, incredible. It was complete, total–a fully sensual and heart-full experience. Words can hardly describe it.
Sym then shifted the lens to show me how he saw me. I saw how he, too, would watch, sense and feel me. How he, too, would drink me in. He, too, felt the same absolute joy and love in my beingness. He loved my body, my eccentricities, bad moods, good moods–everything about me. As I saw and experienced Sym as perfect in every way, so he saw me. He saw a greater being of light in a human form. I was his, and he was mine. We were fully for one another and in one another.
And so, I then got up off the ground because it was beginning to rain. My dear neighbor and landlord, Reimer, helped me move Sym’s body into the house onto his dog bed. He looked like he was sleeping peacefully. His body as beautiful and powerful as it always was. It was as if he was not gone. Later that night, after Hildy and Michi left, I lay on the floor with my head on his still warm body. I smelled his Sym smell–of wet wool and dogness. I could almost imagine he was still breathing. I did not want to leave the ground where he lay.
I was sad and exhausted. I knew I badly needed to rest. So, I reluctantly went to bed.
I came out of sleep the next morning in a fog. There was that moment of realization that Sym’s aliveness in the body was gone. That he would not be downstairs waiting for me to come and give him his “morning mommy rub.” I felt that familiar sensation of being slightly dissociated as my energy body was dramatically shifting its matrix to accommodate the new physical reality. I went down to the kitchen. There was Sym’s body, lying in his bed, as if asleep. I gave him a rub-down, as I normally do. His body was cooler and had become more dense as the vital fire of life force drained out, returning him to Mother Earth.
The night before, I had talked to my dear friend, Lizette. She and I went to “shaman school” together. She advised me to put flowers around Sym in the morning. As it turned out, my students who had been at my home a week before for class, had brought many bouquets. We were going to do an Andean-inspired flower-water ceremony at the river. But due to Sym’s bleeding, we had cancelled. Many of the flowers were red and white carnations. They grow wild in Peru and are considered to be symbolic of love, just as roses are for us here in the US. How perfect. It was meant to be!
I decided to do a ceremony for Sym’s body–to honor his beautiful physical garment which had drawn so much love and attention. Which he lived in with love, power and strength for 11 years. I opened Sacred Space, prayed to all the wisdom lineages, guides and teachers to help. I sang the Cherokee Heart Chant and I then
As I sang, Sym showed himself to me looking down with love and detachment at the physical garment he wore so graciously for 11 years. I knew the ceremony is over.
Yet, there was one more step: I needed to take his body to the Charlottesville SPCA to be cremated. Reimer and my neighbor, Mark, moved the body into my van. The disturbance caused the fluids to release and there was a strong, unpleasant odor. It was a reminder that Sym’s spirit was no longer inhabiting his physical form. Loki and I climbed in and drove 15 minutes to our destination. As two young women helped me move Sym onto a stretcher and out of the car, I held his head one last time, kissed him and said goodbye.
Now, he was truly gone. No Sym-body and Sym-face to greet me in the morning. To run and do somersaults in the grass. To breath near me in the living room. To greet me when I return home from long trips.
I cried a little and then drove on.
Life had to continue. I stopped at the grocery store and came home. I put the groceries away. The house felt strange and empty. I cleaned it to release the energy of illness and death. I then was exhausted, worn out, numb. By 4 pm, I lay down on the sofa and watched some tv. Later, I forced myself to eat. It had been a week of intensive palliative care through one small crisis after another as Sym’s body devolved, along with my own intense investment of physical energy, time and the emotional roller coaster of it all. I needed to just momentarily check out, rest and do as best as I could to return to normal.
I then woke up on the second day after his parting. As I rose out of bed and opened the windows to the outside, I felt the keen sense of aliveness that Sym had shown me right after his passing. I was hearing the bird song through the window more than I usually do. But I was sad to come downstairs without him to greet me. It was sad to make only one bowl of dog food instead of two. Yet….again…the smells and sounds of the outside through the open door to the kitchen penetrated my senses. I realized Sym was with me, alive and well. He was saying, “I am here! I am here just as I always have been!”
I then went outside with Loki for our morning “walkabout.” I felt Sym walking with us, a spirit alive and vibrant, as he alwa
Sym is not gone. He has just changed form. His death has also allowed his bright light, his peace and love to penetrate my being even more than in life. We sat for an hour like this, basking in the sunlight and togetherness, as we always did.
It is true that as we human beings live through our days, dealing with the things of the world, caught up in busy-ness, stress, worry and even the pleasures of the physical, we lose touch with this ever-present, interpenetrating consciousness of beingness, presence, light and love. We fall into the illusion of this world and believe it is the only reality, the only thing that is true.
Even before Sym was ready to die–early on, shortly after his tumor was diagnosed–I knew from past experience that I would be able to feel and know these things after he left his body. At moments over the past month, I would tune into his energy and feel it there already–as it was always there. While I dreaded that moment of the loss of his physical garment, dreaded losing his beloved, living presence in my life (oh, the physical is sooo wonderful, so juicy and rich, and filled with many pleasures), I knew this awakeness, consciousness, peace and love would remain. That he would still be with me. I just needed to do my best as Sym’s body began slowly to break down. I needed to stay present, grounded, aware. To allow grief to move through me in waves, but to then release it in the moment so I could get out of my way–get out his way. It was important to give Sym the most gracious and peaceful movement out of physical life as I could. As his “mommy” in this life, he needed me to hold him strongly so he could go without anxiety. So, he, too, could feel the natural movement of light and life beyond this dimension.
So, I did my best, drawing on all my practice, tools and training as a shaman, as a human being. Sometimes it was hard–so hard. Sometimes I momentarily lost it. Then I would breathe, dig down deep in myself and open up to the greater light that is always there. I would then be present, again. Like breathing in and out.
Sym thus stepped up without fear and with the greatest grace, into his release from physical form. No resistance. He left as he lived: with greatness of heart, courage and light.
And he remains with me in spirit form as he was in physical: in presence, power, love and delight. Perfect, as always.
You may call upon him, too, as he loved each of you so much!
Never forget that–no matter what mistakes you have made, no matter your human eccentricities, your anger, crabbiness and stress, you are loved and eternally perfect.
No fear, no loss.
Only beauty, only life.
Love the world. Love yourself.
That is Sym’s lesson. May it be so. Aho.