Being with animals when they die

Last week I signed up for a webinar on "shared death experiences" sponsored by the Institute of Noetic Sciences and presented by William J. Peters, a licensed psychotherapist and founder of the Shared Crossing Project. Having had these kinds of experiences myself -- involving both people and animals -- I loved William's sharing of current research and the work and resources of the Shared Crossings programs and website. The webinar invoked a brief review of my experiences and how my relationship to death has been shaped by them. The Shared Crossings website  includes a space where anybody can share their own experiences, and I think I will probably do that. I also decided to share a couple of these that I wrote about a few years ago. The website that originally published the story is officially dead -- since it involved a couple of rabbits I knew, I decided to put it here with my last posts on shared experiences of all kinds with animals.


Two Dead Rabbit Tales

Heathcliffe was nine years old when she died -- pretty old for a rabbit. She came to get me that day.

I was reading on our screened porch, its view of the mountainous southeast corner of Rocky Mountain National Park just visible above the pages. Her steps, uncharacteristically loud, got my nose out of the book. Something was up. She looked at me.

"I'm ready to die."

I heard no words, of course, just the thought. It came from that place inside where people and animals talk to one another without spoken words. The clarity of it shocked my system. What should I do? How should it be?

I picked her up gently and carried her to our bed, set her down on a soft towel, lay down beside her with my face next to her body, close enough to hear her heartbeat, to feel her soft red-brown hair rise and fall across my cheek in time with her breathing. We would just be there together, I decided, as long as it took.

It did not take long. The spaces between breaths and heartbeats stretched out...until......they.........stopped. All tension left her body and she smelled funny, kind of like ozone on a hazy Denver day.

That same summer another rabbit died. I didn't know him as well. A neighbor came by and said she'd seen an injured rabbit on the side of the road, a few miles from my house. I grabbed my purse and took off for the scene of the accident -- I was used to these sudden rescue missions, being Chief of the volunteer fire department at the time.

I spotted the rabbit easily because it was so much bigger than the image I'd carried from home. It was a snowshoe hare. Those huge back legs no longer worked, though the front ones seemed to be okay.

I got him onto a stiff piece of cardboard, then put that into a bigger box with soft towels on the front passenger seat. Tank, my old '68 Impala station wagon, became a rabbit ambulance. We headed for town and a kindly vet who would tend to any injured animal -- wild or domestic -- brought to his office.

After a time without a sound from the box, I heard some scratching at the sides. I assumed the rabbit was scared as well as hurting. I was afraid he might hurt himself more trying to get out of the box.

In my mind I addressed him. I told him that I knew he was scared but that it was time to be a fearless warrior, to trust me to help. The scratching stopped. I breathed out a long breath, relieved. I felt something: some presence, like a breeze only as long as a snowshoe hare moving across my face from the passenger's seat then out my open window.

I parked at the vet's but never went in. The rabbit's body was lifeless.

I thought that the death of each rabbit marked the transition of our lives together into memory alone. That was not the case.

Heath in Hay-500Heathcliffe in the hay -- not sure of the date, but probably at least two years before she died. [Photo: Cathie Bird]

I awoke one morning to the feeling of some warm, living being pressed against my leg. In that zone of night-dawn I moved carefully from memory so as not to roll over onto Heathcliffe. As I began to move, the...whatever it was...moved away. I must have been dreaming it. I open my eyes to see a red-brown rabbit grooming itself in the doorway. I realize I'm seeing Heathcliffe's spirit form. It fades.

That fall we hosted a workshop at our place. During one of our meditation sharings, several people who did not know we'd had Heathcliffe remarked that they had seen a reddish-brown rabbit hopping through the room. Later in the seminar, the facilitator instructed everyone to go find some spot outside and meditate with nature for a time before coming back in to share our experiences.

I was drawn to climb the forested moraine that we could see from the screened porch. I intended to wander until the spot felt just right. A long search-and-sensing experiment got me to such a space and, thank God, a great sitting rock in the middle of it.

I sat down, tuned in...and not a damned thing happened, so I decided just to catch my breath and enjoy the solitude. As often unfolds, having ditched all expectations, I began to sense a presence. It seemed kind of rabbity. I wondered what or who might be there.

"The rabbit warrior," my thoughts informed me. I associated immediately to the snowshoe hare. My meditation went on then for awhile, evolving as one of the deepest connections I have had with nature, its animal beings, its supervisory intelligences.

When it was time to leave, I stood up from the rock bench and sunk just a little bit into the Earth. Curious, I looked at my feet to see that my sacred space was a three-foot wide, six-inch deep circle of rabbit poop.

How I love the Cosmic sense of humor, where the edges -- between food, excrement, life, death, hello, goodbye and back again -- are so wonderfully atom-thin.

The Bug at Karma Dzong

I still regard my encounter with a bug at Karma Dzong -- a meditation practice center in Boulder, Colorado -- with wonder and awe. Up to a certain point, what the bug did might be interpreted as simple coincidence, having nothing to do with my presence, thoughts, intentions or projections toward it. What unfolded beyond that point, however, compelled me to question some basic assumptions about what's possible in humanity's relationship to nature and any individual being within that field.

Boulder_shambala_center_18-01-026The Shambhala Center at 14th and Spruce in Boulder, Colorado, known to me at the time of my bug encounter as "Karma Dzong". [Photo:]

Here's my account of this experience:

In the fall of 1989, I entered the master's degree program in contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa University, and had begun to practice meditation at Karma Dzong as a way of connecting with the Buddhist community in Boulder and seeing if Buddhism was a path to which I wanted to commit more deeply. This bug event took place during an evening sitting meditation. On that particular evening -- after two or three others had left -- I was the only one in the hall.

As I sat, eyes open, with lightly-held gaze cast toward the row of mats six feet or so in front of me, I noticed a bug moving directly and steadily toward me. When it reached the edge of the mat in front of me, it stopped. My practice for many years had been to greet -- in speech or in silence -- any creature whose path I crossed, and so I sent a silent "hello" to this insect. This individual continued to sit motionless in front of me, and I found myself wanting to engage with it further.

At the time I didn't know what kind of bug it was. Pulling up image fragments still available so many years distant from the original experience, I'm guessing now that it was member of the soldier beetle family. Among gardeners, these species are considered friends to be welcomed: they do no harm to plants, they feed on aphids and other garden pests, and serve as pollinators as they move around through flowers. I did not know any of this natural history back then, so it's interesting that the first thoughts to emerge in my exchange with this little being was that of feeling out of place.

We continued to sit in each other's presence. In my own mind, thoughts continued to arise. What might it be like to be so small a being in this huge hall, kind of at the mercy of human feet or bottoms that walked or sat here? Not that any Buddhist would intentionally harm a sentient being such as this, but I could easily imagine accidental squishings of one so small.

From this thought, facing the still motionless insect, another thought arose and I sent it silently to the bug: "If you'll crawl up on my pack [which I'd placed on the empty mat to my right] and wait, I'll take you outside."

Podabrus brevicollis on dFleaBane_4May11 (2)-1000Another species of soldier beetle that I found here in Tennessee: Podabrus brevicollis. This looks a lot like the bug I saw in Karma Dzong, but I'm still researching the range of P. brevicollis. [Photo: Cathie Bird, May 4, 2011]

I had no expectation that the bug would respond. To my astonishment -- and this is the place in my experience that threw so much into question -- the bug immediately turned and walked to its left. When it was in front of my pack, it turned back to the right, crossed the gap between the mats, and crawled onto the pack, settling quickly on the narrow ledge made by the zipper of the smaller outer compartment. And there s/he sat for 15-20 minutes, until I was done.

My exit from the hall was not that quick. I retrieved my shoes, walked to head of the stairs, stopped to put my shoes on, walked down the stairs, then exited through a side door to 14th Street, making sure the door locked behind me. Through all of this bumping and swinging, the bug clung to its spot on my pack.

I walked a few yards north on 14th Street to some plantings along the outer wall of Karma Dzong. Carefully de-shouldering my pack, I held it near a leafy bush. Without hesitation, the bug crawled to the edge of my pack and onto a leaf. I watched for bit as the bug went on about its business, then got on my bike and rode home, greatly energized by this wonder-filled encounter.

In my study of contemplative psychotherapy at Naropa, I learned about exchange, defined as direct experience of another person. Such exchanges have happened many times in connection with people, both in my practice and out in the world. I think it's likely that some parts of my experience with the bug in Karma Dzong involved exchange between human and insect.

It has not always been the case that the way I want to share about such things is more rooted in the experience itself. Post-Naropa, and meditations at Karma Dzong, I'm more inclined to let thoughts emerge, form, then dissolve, though they can, and often do, come back up in future reflections.

I happened across a wonderful piece in the New York Times this morning that led me to reflect further on this. In her article, Hard Knock Life: What Are the Turtles Telling Me?, Nashville author Mary Laura Philpott writes of her desire to make sense of her encounters with an Eastern box turtle:

It’s just that assigning meaning to events is so satisfying. I want themes, threads, a plot that proceeds toward resolution. I want people to learn their lessons and change their ways and for the moral of every story to make us better as a species. But look at the news — full of arbitrary injustices and disasters, human beings treating each other with cruelty. The part of my brain that wants the world to conform to a story that makes sense crashes against the rock of reality again and again. My soul sometimes feels as battered as Frank’s head must after banging on my door.

After sharing some of the wonderful speculations that came to her mind, Philpott concludes,

"This is the story of turtles who came and left for reasons of their own. They’re turtles. It’s not their job to teach me anything."

For me, the question of whether and how we can know another being directly -- beyond empathy, beyond manifestations of our own desires, histories and preferences -- is still worthy of full and openhearted exploration. It may not be a bug's job to teach me anything, but I do think all sentient beings are wired to relate to each other, and it's in the relating that we'll come to discover what's possible.

Exchanges with other species

Sooner or later I turn a psychoanalytic eye toward just about everything, if only for a moment. I've been doing this since high school, though I didn't know that's what I was doing until much later. On my about page, I list exploration of human relationships with other species and our shared environments as a major area of of interest in the larger psychoanalytic field.

I have intended to write a lot more about this here, but it just hasn't happened. Yet. A recent experience, however, gave me a little shove that might put some fire under my intention.

A few weeks ago, one of the crescent butterfly species came to my window sill and stayed there for 2-3 hours. He -- I'm pretty sure it was a male -- allowed me to get a number of photos, to get right up in his face (literally) for a closer look, trying to figure out if he was a pearl or northern crescent, or silvery checkerspot. I consulted my butterfly book and searched lots of images online at BugGuide and elsewhere. After all that, I still was not clear about his identity, i.e., how he is named according to human scientists. 

SCS_5Jul18 (5)500My butterfly friend on the window sill, 6/5/18. [Photo: Cathie Bird]

So, I asked him which one he was. I showed him pictures in my butterfly guide of each of these species. I told him that people science was concerned about such things as names, but that, deep down, I knew he was just who he was right there in the moment on my window sill. During this encounter he moved closer to me, millimeter by millimeter, and changed positions of his wings when I would change my position in relation to him.

At one point I went out to the kitchen to reload my iced tea glass. He was still on the sill when I got back. When I was ready to leave the room for the day, I told him I'd leave the window up and that he could sit there as long as he wanted to. Just before I left the room, I turned back to say goodbye. He was already gone.

The following day, I happened to see a link, posted on Facebook by a colleague, Renee Lertzman, to an interview of James Nestor, who (along with others) established the Cetacean Echolocation Translation Initiative (CETI), an independent research project seeking to study and comprehend the meaning of sperm whale clicks. Here's the quote from the interview that grabbed my attention:

By interacting with these animals face to face, which is what we’re going to be doing, you can really spur them to interact in a way that no hydrophone or person on a boat is going to be able to do. We have video showing that something magical happens when you approach them in peace face-to-face. They want to sit there and interact with you. It’s those interactions that we think are going to provide the best data.

Having had many interspecies encounters like that with the butterfly, this notion was not new to me. I have long believed that learning to communicate more directly with other species is not only possible but very necessary. Especially now, when Earth's living systems are so clearly in trouble, the human species needs to engage in vigorous exploration of our ambivalent relationship to the Earth, to revive the deep connections to nature that our heads may have lost but our hearts remember.

I have written quite a few posts about these connections, but they are scattered across several different blogs. I did that on purpose.

Back in February, to celebrate 10 years of data collection for Nature's Notebook, I wrote Seeing Forests, Seeing Trees, which I posted at my HollerPhenology blog. In that post I began to articulate the dynamics and world views that led me to corral my narratives in separate spaces rather than letting them all run free on one blog:

I grew up in the grip of scientific materialism. My undergraduate training as a naturalist in the late sixties/early seventies was rooted there as well, though I can look back and see shifts toward thinking about the world in terms of whole, integrated systems rather than a collection of independent, disconnected parts. This shift even led me to change career goals and pursue a graduate degree in contemplative psychotherapy, as well as certification as a psychoanalytic psychotherapist.

For many years I felt a kind of tension growing -- between seeing forests and seeing trees -- often feeling that I was, at heart, more of a forest person. The feeling of energetic oppositions came alive especially when I remembered the tree person of my childhood exploring the life and landscapes of the Flint Hills and the Rocky Mountains.

I see myself now with at least a toe-hold in an integral world view, appreciating multiple points of view, and enjoying the heck out of migrations between wild, non-local exploration of mind and spirit, and the feet-on-the-ground-dodging-poison-ivy collection of phenology observations.

 I really did enjoy writing that post, but hitting the publish button to send it into a space previously reserved more for observations of individuals -- rather than feelings about the forest, the relationships in which we all lived -- magnified the tension to a level that the psychoanalyst in me had to get curious about.

My experience with the butterfly and the synchronous encounter with the CETI project appear to have dissolved some resistance to writing more on these ideas. And I'm noting that it is In Hawk Space that I have decided to gather such a series.

Lots more to come, I hope.


Related video link:


R.I.P. Marion Woodman

Marion Woodman was one of several Jungian analysts whose work was extremely important to me as I moved through some difficult transitions in my 30s and 40s, thus, I was sad to learn that on July 9, 2018, she transitioned out of Earth space.

I consider Woodman to be among my psychoanalytic elders, part of my psychoanalytic lineage. R.I.P. and thank you, Marion.

From a statement by the Board of the Marion Woodman Foundation:

During this last week, as Marion passed from one world to another, she was accompanied by the love, prayers, poems, tears and laughter of this worldwide community – all of whom have been so touched, so moved, so changed by her energy and vision and love.

There is an energy that is working its way through this community — a feminine energy with a strong masculine partner – and this energy is determined to carry forward Marion’s work — to change the world. And for the love and encouragement Marion gave each of us we all send our deepest, most loving gratitude.

Other links:

Obituary in the Toronto Star

Obituary in The New York Times

Until August 12, 2018, you can download a conversation between Marion Woodman and Robert Bly on their book, The Maiden King, at no charge.


Thoughts on DAPL and Siblicide

Yesterday I was in Knoxville all day for the Appalachian Psychoanalytic Society's fall conference with Jeanne Safer who spoke on Siblings -- the family members Freud forgot. Today I'm reading reports of ongoing over-the-top attacks by police against peaceful water protectors at Standing Rock. Mainstream media prefers to focus on Trump, journalists who try to document what's happening in North Dakota get arrested, and others at the camps report that they are under surveillance and that attempts to share reports with the world are being blocked. Many accounts of human and civil rights violations against water protectors who are being arrested -- 83 of them yesterday -- make some wonder why President Obama and the Department of Justice remain silent.

All of this has set me wondering today about parallels with sibling violence and siblicide. What connected me to Standing Rock news today was Dr. Safer's discussion on Saturday of siblings doing harm to other siblings, while, in some cases, parents make excuses for the abusive sibling or otherwise fail to intervene. (Sibling violence and siblicide have been studied in humans and animals.) Several times while writing this post I felt the undertow that taboos -- such as the power and influence of sibling relationships in our lives -- generate to keep us quiet about them.

When I see things happening out in the world that media, leaders and ordinary folks don't want to talk about, I sometimes forget to subject it all to a psychoanalytic lens. Such an omission is likely one way taboos work to shut me up, after all, psychoanalytic exploration has a pretty good track record for exposing what's unseen and unspoken.

I guess this brings up a question of how any subject gets to be taboo, and, understanding that, how to think about dismantling the ones that cause huge amounts of suffering by remaining hidden. These are questions that, when I can remember to think about them, have sustained my interest in social and environmental justice work, and using psychoanalytic thinking out in the world.

I read two books this past year that have significantly expanded my thinking about collective engagement to change oppressive systems, and, in this blog, I hope to write more about what they brought up for me: Toward Psychologies of Liberation (Watkins and Shulman) and Environmental Melancholia (Lertzman).

It's Lertzman's work that I'm especially connecting with today as I consider the situation at Standing Rock with the Dakota Access Pipeline as a siblicide-in-progress. While Lertzman uses psychoanalytic ideas to explore human response to environmental degradation, I suspect that many of her discoveries can inform new ways to think about human responses to oppression of other humans based on race, gender, class and a host of other -isms and -cides.

What's going on at Standing Rock is one of those all-of-the-above deals -- ecocide, siblicide, genocide. We, the people, need to break the taboos and bring to light all processes now operating in the shadows of psyches and systems that sabotage love and justice.


More stuff to read on this:

Protest Response Puts North Dakota on the Wrong Side of History (Grand Forks Herald, 10/22/16)

Human Rights Abuses Escalate at DAPL Prayer Services in North Dakota (Huffington Post, 10/21/16)

"It's time for a grand jury" (Tom Isern, Facebook post, 10/21/16)

Obama's Legacy Rests on Whether He Stops the Dakota Access Pipeline (Indian Country Today, 10/17/16)

Why Psychology Should Be Part of the Fight Against Climate Change (Huffington Post, 1/18/16)

RIP Elizabeth Spillius 1924-2016


From the article: Elizabeth helped to present Klein’s rich and fertile clinical insights into the world in a way that brought out their depth and originality, to the great benefit of those interested in child analysis and the development of the unconscious mind. In 2010 she was made a distinguished fellow of the British Psychoanalytical Society.

See the full article at The Guardian

HB 1840 is nanny-state meddling and legalized assault against Tennessee's LGBTQIA+ communities

The practice of psychotherapy is not for sissies. An agreement to engage in a therapeutic relationship becomes, in many instances, an invitation for one human being to accompany another into the darkest, most terrifying spaces in the cosmos: the depths of the human psyche. It's a private space, the boundary of which is held and protected by the therapist so that the patient can explore those depths as far as they choose to without harm.

That's why I find myself at odds these days with the Tennessee Legislature and with Governor Haslam, who recently signed HB1840 -- the Counseling Discrimination bill -- into law. With his refusal to veto this bill, Gov. Haslam took us outside the boundaries of reasonable rules of practice into nanny-state meddling and legalized assault against the LGBTQIA+ community.

The state of Tennessee requires that I have a license to practice therapy. To maintain that license I have to play by the rules, which include completing a minimum number of continuing education (CE) hours every year. Not that many years ago, rules for professional counselors, marriage and family therapists and pastoral counselors were amended to require that 3 clock hours of professional ethics be included in the total number of hours required in each 2-year license renewal cycle.

Ironic, isn't it. My practice board (the members of which are generally appointed by the Governor) seems to value ethics competency enough to call them out specifically in the rules. Yet the Governor and legislators in Tennessee can make a law that specifically invalidates the codes of ethics for which professionals are held accountable.

Why do we have professional practice boards? Here's what the state of Tennessee says:

The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified.

The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:
The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:
The mission of each board is to safeguard the health, safety and welfare of Tennesseans by requiring those who practice health care professions within this state to be qualified. - See more at:

In other words, professional rules and standards are meant to protect the citizens using professional services. So why did Gov. Haslam sign a bill that changes the rules to protect therapists, instead, thus demonizing a specific subset of citizens?

Of course, supporters still insist that the bill also protects citizens needing counseling services.

Just days before Gov. Haslam signed HB 1840 into law, NPR's Steve Inskeep talked him on Morning Edition's special broadcast from Knoxville. During the interview, Haslam posed a question that I think is crucial to the whole discussion on HB 1840:

HASLAM: So on the therapist bill - I mean, the American Counseling Association says that you should always counsel from a valueless position. In other words, you don't put your own values into the conversation. You're there to help. I personally wonder, like - I think regardless of whether you're a religious person or not, everybody comes into every conversation with a particular worldview and things that you believe are right or wrong. And so I think the question is can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?

When I heard him say this, I actually gave Haslam a spontaneous thumbs-up. What a great question! It goes right to the heart of the whole discussion about HB 1840. How can you counsel from a totally non-value-based position?

If you are a mental health professional, you have likely (I hope!) given huge amounts of time to study, contemplate, and consult with experienced practitioners on this very question. You think about the answer from your first day of professional training until you retire from practice...and maybe even beyond that. Really, can a human being do anything from a totally non-value-based position?

My answer is, we can't.

What we can do, though, is to cultivate awareness of our own values and worldviews. We can discover from the patient what they need to make the therapeutic space safe enough for them to do their psychological work. We can learn how to respectfully explore the subjective experience of people we see, rather than make people into objects. We can stay aware of the thoughts and feelings that arise when we're with someone, and explore these in self-analysis and with peers and supervisors to identify biases and unhealed aspects of ourselves that may create barriers to healing for the patient.

A decision about whether or not we can work together is best made collaboratively by me and the person seeking help. The standards of practice in my profession have always included ways to help people find the best care possible, even if it isn't from me. Respectful referral in a way that does not harm the patient is not a big mystery to those of us who do this work. We don't need interference from politicians to get it done.

One of the best ways we, as helpers, can be professionally accountable to the public is to take full responsibility for our own psychological health and development. That includes personal work that can take us into the dark and terrifying spaces of our own psyches.

Therein lies the gift, I think, that mental health practitioners of all kinds can offer to the world. Doing such work with ourselves and others allows us to see that discovery and full integration of human experience, no matter how dark and terrifying, is possible. Such a process, for one thing, liberates us from the inevitability of projecting our own fears onto others, seeing them as real, then needing to enact hateful, discriminatory legislation to protect us from terrors we have only imagined as out there.


See these related articles:

Counseling bill detrimental to clients' health (Letitia Flores, May 2, 2016 / Knoxville News-Sentinel)

Message from ACA CEO Richard Yep Regarding Tennessee HB1840 (American Counseling Association, April 27, 2016)

TN's HB 1840 Negatively Impacts the Mental Health of LGBTQ Youth (Statement from The Trevor Project)

Bill Would Discriminate Against Vulnerable Patients (Dianne Bradley, April 5, 2016 in The Tennessean)