Animals have been a part of my life for as long as I can remember. I have been both a dog and cat owner; every time one of them died, the pain of grief was intense. I always considered my pets to be a part of our family. I have always viewed my pets as loyal and faithful companions but never really gave much thought about the valuable teachings that they reveal to us, until about four years ago. These teachings have helped me expand my perspective about life and loss during my journey as a parent who has experienced the death of a child. Today, I have four cats in my household, two who belonged to my deceased daughter Jeannine, and two whom I have recently inherited from my son and Jeannine's oldest brother Dan. Each one of them have unique personalities and are, in their own way, Zen masters.
Bootsy was a Christmas gift to my daughter Jeannine from her best friend. He is 18 years old, and was a major comfort to me after Jeannine’s death. He slept with me and made sure he got me up every morning (He still does). Bootsy was also my shadow and a protector, following me everywhere I went. During the last few years of his life, Bootsy has bad issues with maintaining his weight. My wife Cheri and I tried to initially supplement his dry food with canned food, but we now have him on a steroid regimen. At the moment, it appears to be working. It is my responsibility to feed him small amounts of canned food 3-4 times per day. Bootsy took care of me; it was my turn to take care of him. Bootsy has helped me address the feelings of inadequacy that I experienced because of my perception that I was an inadequate caretaker for my daughter during her illness. He also helped me realize that being Jeannine’s caretaker was not my role in our relationship. My primary role was to allow her to make adult decisions not only during her illness but also throughout her adult life, while providing emotional support and presence.
Jeannine and I found Angel huddled under a mobile home 17 years ago. Angel was approximately six months old when we found her. Angel has this great quality of being able to sit in the quiet for hours on end. She also frequently purrs without any stimulation from the humans who share a house with her. She reminds me about the importance of sitting in the quiet and embracing the highs and lows of my current life path. Angel also is testimony to the fact that happiness truly comes from within.
Zoey, who is seven years old, was one of the two cats that we inherited from my son Dan. Zoey is a high-energy cat who attends to every waking moment as if it is the greatest adventure of her life. There is no moment in the day that she does not want to be a part of, regardless of how insignificant it may seem to me or the other humans in her life. She is also one of the most affectionate cats I have ever been around. Zoey has reinforced for me the importance of experiencing as much joy in the present moment as I can, and that the basis of transformation due to life challenges is being able to give and receive love, unconditionally.
My son got Nitske, who is also seven years old, at the same time as Zoey. Nitske got her name because she was found in a paper bag with other kittens on the side of the road in Niskayuna, a town in Upstate New York. I discovered that she would become easily startled, even if I spoke in a normal tone of voice. Speaking softly, I told that she was safe with us and to explore her surroundings freely, without fear. She eventually began to acclimate and became more relaxed. Nitske reminds me that individuals who have experienced trauma from catastrophic events need to be in an environment where they feel safe to disclose and just be who they are. Safety helps us become empowered; empowerment helps us shift our perspective during challenging times. Nitske also teaches me to be aware of others limitations and to work with them constructively.
Every species of animal has their own unique characteristics and teachings that can help us change our perspective following the challenges presented by the death of a child and other life transitions. We just need to be open to the idea that clarity can be attained through the teachings of our four legged friends.
“Some people talk to animals. Not many listen though. That's the problem.”
― A.A. Milne- Winnie the Pooh