Being with animals when they die
26 March 2022
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.
Heathcliffe 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.