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.

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:


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)

Daniel Stern, Who Studied Babies’ World, Dies at 78 -

Sad news...I read Dr. Stern's Interpersonal World of the Infant very early in my graduate work and psychoanalytic training, and continue to appreciate his work...

Dr. Daniel Stern, a psychiatrist who increased the understanding of early human development by scrutinizing the most minute interactions between mothers and babies, died on Nov. 12 in Geneva. He was 78.

The cause was heart failure, said his wife, Dr. Nadia Bruschweiler Stern.

Dr. Stern was noted for his often poetic language in describing how children respond to their world — how they feel, think and see. He wrote one of his half-dozen books in the form of a diary by a baby. In another book, he told how mothers differ psychologically from women who do not have children. He coined the term “motherese” to describe a form of communication in which mothers are able to read even the slightest of babies’ emotional signals.


Elisabeth Young-Bruehl: A Perfect Storm of Prejudices

[Cross-posted from Raising Cain.]

Recently I discovered a great blog -- Who's Afraid of Social Democracy -- by psychoanalyst Elisabeth Young-Bruehl. Today she posted an article on the subject of prejudice, and I thought I'd say a few words, toss in some quotes and post a link to it here at Raising Cain.

On her blog, Young-Bruehl writes about current affairs and reflects on contemporary political issues and questions. Prior to her psychoanalytic training, Young-Bruehl was a doctoral student of the political philosopher, Hannah Arendt, and eventually wrote her biography. Young-Bruehl has also written many papers and books on gender issues, as well as a book very relevant to her blog post today, The Anatomy of Prejudices.

Since I formalized my anti-racist journey by becoming an activist in organizational anti-racism transformation, I've spent much time integrating what I'd previously discovered about human relating and relationships from my psychoanalytic training and practice. The intersection of the individual psyche and the collective mind of society has become an edge of tremendous interest and discovery for me personally and professionally.

That edge is not an either-or space: we need to know a lot about how people come to be who they are AND how the collective mind and societal systems come to be as they are if we want to get beyond racism. The individual and society co-create each other psychologically just as, in a parallel process, a baby and her mother co-create each other. If we would like to change ourselves and the systems in which we live, I believe we'll have to become aware of these complex dynamics.

I have a sense that Young-Bruehl's last two blog posts have opened doors and moved my thinking about all of this forward.

Speaking about a changing view of the nature of prejudice after World War II, Young-Bruehl says:

That decade of psychoanalytic work was extremely important because it opened up for exploration the whole domain of unconscious motivation. But, to my mind, it was also very flawed and replete with misleading generalizations. For example, in Adorno’s and Allport’s books, there is no prejudice against women because all prejudice is against minority groups and women are not a minority group. (By the same crazy logic, there would be no prejudice against blacks in South Africa because the blacks are not a minority group there…) During the Civil Rights movement of the late 1950s, the ethnocentrism synthesis began to unravel under pressure from people whose victim experience it misconstrued or overlooked. People of color pointed out that racism is not just like anti-Semitism. Look, they said, did the white people who invented tests to show the inferior intelligence of people of color also try to show the inferior intelligence of the Jews who supposedly masterminded the international Jewish banking conspiracy?

She follows the evolution of this notion further into the feminist "gender-race-class" discussions of the 1970's, but notes:

Meanwhile, prejudices continued to flourish in ever-changing appearances. Nonetheless, many hoped to be able to interpret America as a nation marching in the direction of being “post-racial,” and many hoped a “post-feminist” era was dawning because women have made considerable social progress. These hopes, it seems to me, reflect the still-prevalent confusion about prejudices and how they operate. Even if the acts and appearances that are typical of a prejudice do abate or ameliorate, the needs or unconscious purposes served by the prejudices remain –and can rise up again or reassert or take new directions as circumstances change. There’s not much lynching going on now, but huge numbers of black men are hung up in jail, and that is not very “post-racial.”

With that, I'll leave you to your own investigation of Young-Bruehl's ideas. I get uneasy sometimes excerpting from pieces that seem so coherent as Young-Bruehl's impress me, so I hope you'll read her entire article.

She references her previous post as well, and you can access that one here.

Speaker and Listener: a tale of mutual brain work

Cross-posted from my Speaking blog:

Many years ago when I first read Alan Schore's Affect Regulation and the Origin of the Self, one of the ideas that blew some new doors open for me was the idea that the brains of infant and mother work together in a mutual project of creating a self. This idea has profound implications for all kinds of relationships and can inform our work toward personal and planetary healing and transformation.

Here's an excerpt from the abstract of a study that looked at nuerological detailed of mutual brain work:
Verbal communication is a joint activity; however, speech production and comprehension have primarily been analyzed as independent processes within the boundaries of individual brains. Here, we applied fMRI to record brain activity from both speakers and listeners during natural verbal communication.


The paper in filed at PNAS as open access. You can download the full text pdf here.

Further note on Schore's work: I found this first volume in Schore's now voluminous work almost overwhelming, primarily because of extensive references to studies at that time. He since has written several updated books that are much less packed and much less expensive. The page for the book linked above has links to several other of his books as well.

Some of his papers are also available online. If you are intrigued but not familiar with his work, you may want to start here and check out some of the Google search results.

Thanks to Norm Holland on the PsyArt listserv for the heads-up on the PNAS paper by Stephens, et al.

Bering in Mind: Oedipus Complex 2.0

Like it or not, parents shape their children's sexual preferences

In a forthcoming report in Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin by University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign psychologist Chris Fraley and New Mexico State University’s Michael Marks—a study that would make Freud smile in his grave and give a long-fingered salute to his many critics—these investigators show that sexual attraction to one’s own biological parents isn’t as deviant or abnormal a thing as you might assume. In fact, evidence of these hidden desires, say Marks and Fraley, raise important questions for traditional psychological accounts of incest avoidance.


Great article at Scientific American by Jesse Bering. Read all of Jesse's post here.

From PubMed page for Fraley and Marks study:

Westermarck, Freud, and the Incest Taboo: Does Familial Resemblance Activate Sexual Attraction?

Fraley RC, Marks MJ.


Evolutionary psychological theories assume that sexual aversions toward kin are triggered by a nonconscious mechanism that estimates the genetic relatedness between self and other. This article presents an alternative perspective that assumes that incest avoidance arises from consciously acknowledged taboos and that when awareness of the relationship between self and other is bypassed, people find individuals who resemble their kin more sexually appealing. Three experiments demonstrate that people find others more sexually attractive if they have just been subliminally exposed to an image of their opposite-sex parent (Experiment 1) or if the face being rated is a composite image based on the self (Experiment 2). This finding is reversed when people are aware of the implied genetic relationship (Experiment 3). These findings have implications for a century-old debate between E. Westermarck and S. Freud, as well as contemporary research on evolution, mate choice, and sexual imprinting.

Some Thoughts on Miki Kashtan's Article: Empathy and Good Judgment

I really appreciated Miki Kashtan's argument yesterday in her post on empathy, emotion and reason:

The concern about empathy reflects a long tradition of valuing rationality, and the Enlightenment’s imperative to overcome instincts, passions, and emotions through exercising reason. This exclusive focus on reason applies across the board: to moral theory, to the law, to professional conduct, and to our assessment of our own choices and decisions.

I want to challenge the idea that we make better decisions without emotions.

Kashtan goes on to talk about the cross-wiring of human mental and emotional systems being explored by neuroscientists such as Antonio Damasio, author of the very readable and thought-feeling provoking book, Descartes' Error.

I happened upon Damasio's work many years ago when I became interested in the emerging field of neuro-psychoanalysis. His work and others inspired a huge shift in the way I felt-thought about who I am and how I experience being human -- alone and in relationship to other people and to nature. I think about the systemic interconnectedness often, but perhaps not often enough. That in itself speaks to the way that threads of Descartes' "I think, therefore I am" are so tightly woven into the rug of assumptions on which we daily stand, and from which we make meaning of our experiences.

That's why I'm especially grateful when other people revitalize discussion of this fundamental relationship of feeling and reason as mediated by the brain, and continue to explore contexts in which such an idea can be played with more consciously. Kashtan has done this by relating this broader discussion to the possible values of empathy as a key emotional capacity to advance social and political transformation.

Kashtan makes reference to the backdraft discussion that occurred when Barack Obama suggested that empathy is a desirable capacity for a Supreme Court judge. The fiery debate that later shot its flame toward Sonia Sotomayor left hot evidence of the national feeling about reason versus empathy in our judicial system. (See her article for some great links about this.)

I, along with fellow grassroots activists for environmental justice, encounter similar resistance to the emotional roots of reason all the time. Recently activists got some suggestions from a federal agency that offered this bullet point on public comment writing:

“Leave the heart out". The agencies are looking for facts and will ignore emotion.

They didn't leave us totally without official avenues for emotional expression, however, suggesting that we take the emotional stuff to our Senators and Representatives. Not a totally bad idea, I suppose, unless your Congressperson happens to be among those who have publicly devalued the "heart" of the matter or demonstrated profound lack of empathy.

Here's the problem I have with such categorical dismissals of empathy, of resistance to matters of heart-mind. If cognitive and emotional systems are in fact cross-wired in the brain, the natural consequences of that structure -- most of which (for most of us) are beyond conscious control -- continue to operate nonetheless. Without awareness of this, humankind can continue to believe that it's possible to carve out territories of reason and feeling that can actually be enforced. This illusion makes it possible to believe in such things as righteous exclusion, marginalization, exploitation, oppression and killing.

When we choose, on the other hand, to cultivate awareness of our inherent heart-mind wiring, we free ourselves up to look inside, to explore how we identify ourselves, and how we relate to fellow beings and to the Earth, our home. Then we can begin to insist that we be allowed to speak both heart and mind -- any time and any place -- to mediate, as Kashtan suggests, the unconscionable suffering of people and nature:

The gift of empathy is that it integrates mind and heart in the very same act as it brings together self and other. When we ignore empathy, we pay an enormous price in the form of depression, apathy, victimization, and anger on an individual level, and crime, neglect, alienation, bullying, even war, on a societal level. When we cultivate empathy, our emotional health improves, and in addition also our sense of hope, and our capacity, both individually and collectively, to act as moral agents in addressing the enormous challenges facing us today.

If we can help each other get that far, maybe we can entertain an even wider-scale, collective integration of spiritual dimensions with those of body(brain)-mind-emotions.