Pets and Grief: A Family Affair

4adb4dc5c7ef3e522c5bd8a9c1961431Getting ready to meet the woman I was admitting to the hospice program, I was cautioned that her animals were very bonded to her.  To gain access to her I must first gain the trust and then permission of her dog and cat, who were also in the twilight of their years.

The dog was lying by the entrance to her room, and I was quickly greeted by a wagging tail and contented grunt as I scratched his ears while murmuring what a wonderful dog he was to love and protect his mistress.  I then proceeded into the room.

The very large cat sat on the lid of the bedside commode, positioned next to the bed in which the frail woman lay.  I sat down in front of the cat and put out my hand, also acknowledging what a wonderful companion she has been.  She eyed me up and down and once satisfied I was no threat, reach out her paw to gently touch my hand.  It felt like I was being anointed.  I nodded to the cat and assessed her beloved owner.  At the end, I again nodded to the cat and this time thanked her for being such an attentive pet and I was allowed to give her a neck rub.  But only for a minute and then I was motioned away her her standing up and pointing towards the door.  The dog then walked me from the door to the waiting family.

In addition to talking about what to expect in the ensuing final days to weeks, we also talked about the animals and their need for closure and to grieve.  Since I was only the admitting nurse I did not see them again.   A month later,  while waiting in the hospital hallway for another family member who was in surgery, the daughter noticed me  quickly ran up and pulled me aside.

She excitedly told me how grateful she was we had talked about the need of the animals. Her mother had died peacefully a week prior and while the family gathered and cried together, the cat jumped on the bed.  She said, “I was about to push her off, but I remembered what you said.  Instead I watched.”  She described how the cat slowly walked over the the face of her deceased mistress and gazed into it for some moments.  She gently patted her faced twice and jumped down.  It was good bye. Recognizing the need of her beloved pets, the  the family then picked up the dog and placed him on the bed.  He also examined his mistress, licked her hand, and jumped off.  The dog and cat huddled together while the family did the same.

Per my recommendation, they kept an article of her clothing, her nightgown, on which the animals slept  for several days. It was on that nightgown that the cat died peacefully 3 days later.  I was told the aging dog was still curling  up on it.  The family reached out to each other, 2-footeds and 4- footeds alike,  both grateful and comforted in sharing their loss.

Grief is a family affair.


Holding On, Giving Up or Letting Go : Finding Closure on the Road to Good Bye

We need you and can’t lose you now. You have to fight this so we can have more time. Don’t give up!


It may feel like person is choosing to die when they no longer want to fight. That can leave us with a sense of abandonment if we believe the person really has a choice. But in truth, there comes a time where we must all come to the natural end of life.   That knowing and acceptance often comes to the person long before the family.

Let’s face it. It will never be a good time for anyone we love to die. The desire to hold onto every minute, with the hope for more minutes and hours and days, is normal. The pain of loss is the price of love and we want to put off that pain as long as possible, but at what cost?

Ann was dying in the hospital. Her husband and two children knew she would never return home, and they remained by her side. After 3 days, I was surprised to see Ann was still clinging to life, but I understood when I overheard the whispered pleading of her young adult children.

They were grasping the hands of their barely conscious mother and kept repeating,

“You’re going to get better mom. We’ll get you out of here and when you are stronger, we’ll take that trip to Hawaii.”

 What Ann heard is that her children were not ready to let her go.  

So she stayed, just barely holding death at bay, despite her body working to shut down.

 I shared this interaction with the husband and he then took the children to another room to speak to them. They returned 10 minutes later, red-eyed but resolved.

They again sat by their mother and grasped her hands and this time tearfully whispered,

“We love you. We’re going to miss you.

But we’re going to be ok.”

Ann relaxed and died 10 minutes later.

Sometimes people need permission to leave. They may need to know that who they leave behind will be cared for, whether it’s a spouse with Alzheimer’s, their 20 cats, or even that their daughter who has yet to find a good man. Finding out and addressing their concerns is helpful in the letting go process.

There are times when the dying person knows how hard this is for the family, who is holding on, and may wait to die until they step out of the room or fall asleep at the bedside.

There are times when the family is ready and ‘releases’ their loved one by declaring:

“It’s ok to go now, Grandma”.  That’s ok.  Only need to say it once, though.  Now Grandma also needs to let go, as does her body.

You say feel it’s never ok to say that since it’s not ok that the person you love is dying.

That’s ok, too.  Good byes and closure can come in many forms.

Tell your favorite stories.  It affirms the life you shared while letting the person know how they will be remembered.

Holding on, letting go – a process to be recognized and gently honored for everyone involved.

My Father’s Legacy – The Unraveling

My intention in sharing the personal story of my fathers suicide is to encourage reader to reflect on your own life, communication, ability to give and receive love, and raise awareness of the legacy your life will leave.

I was 17.
A high school senior, I was a girl with a plan.
In truth a plan born more of need than generosity of spirit, but one I hoped would pay out for us all.

But to appreciate this plan, you need to know about my family.
We were a strong, stoic clan
Grief was not talked about or expressed
Fierce independence was valued.
Asking for help or recognition was not acceptable.
Ours was a family that didn’t hug or utter endearments.
Acknowledgment of achievements was housed in a joke or backhanded compliment.
Mind you, I knew this jesting was how our family showed we cared,
but I wanted more.

My father was accomplished in many areas….author, store owner, expert on American Indian history and arts, political activist, humanitarian, editorial writer, illustrator, humorist and speaker. He set a high bar, but my goal was to reach it.
I wanted to be noticed.
I needed to be noticed.
I decided the way was thru accomplishment –
I was determined to be the straight A student
I drew cartoons and wrote stories.
I gave myself a voice by being a strong member of the speech team.
I tried to be the good shadow.
But what I really wanted
Was to be invited into the light.

So my plan was simple.
When I arrived in college in the fall, far away on the east coast,
I would write a letter to my father. I would tell him what a role model he was.
I would tell him I was thankful for his support.
I would share memories of him that made me smile.
And for the first time,
I would tell him I loved him.
On a piece of paper.
I would be thousands of miles away, unable to see, hear or feel his reaction.
It was a risk, but one I needed to take.
I hoped he would tell me he loved me in return.
I held my daring undertaking in secret, close to my heart,
Protecting it like a tender seedling,
Feeding it daily with hope.

My plan was abruptly derailed January 3, 1972
My brother arrived unexpectedly at my school, accompanied by the girls counselor.
They looked somber and said nothing as they called me out of my classroom.
We walked to his truck in silence
Once seated in the front, he reached over and uncharacteristically touched my hand and quietly delivered the fatal blow to my plans in only 3 words:
“Dad committed suicide”

My mind raced. Thoughts turned desperate.
Just because a person committed a crime didn’t mean he would be convicted, so perhaps one can commit suicide and still be alive.
“Is he dead?” I finally asked, then fell silent again when I saw his faint affirming nod.
I fought to understand. My family valued rationale thinking, so there had to be an answer. But this didn’t make sense. I recalled the many hours my father spoke with troubled men on the phone, talking them down from drunken misery, dissuading them from their suicidal ideations and threats.
He told us suicide was selfish and even vengeful.
But my father was selfless, so how could his action make sense?

Once home, I walked numbly into my parent’s bedroom.
Only blood remained where his body had been.
Almost robotically I began to remove the sheets and clean up the blood that had spilled onto the mattress and floor.
A drop of blood fell only my white blouse and I paused to stare.
That was the last physical piece of my father I would ever have.
I was glad to have that stain to keep with me, to touch.

I looked up to see his shirt hanging neatly over the chair and something compelled me to check the pocket. It contained his carefully folded suicide note.
In short sentences he related that the vertigo attacks were getting progressively worse and that he was “sorry for the inconvenience” of his action.
He directed that money be given to the university for the study of that “damnably depressing and debilitating disease.”
No signature.
No final message to us
No “I love you.”
That was it? My stomach churned.
The paper felt cold in my hand.

I stared at the note for a long time, willing the strength to numb myself to the emotions that threatened to uproot the “Bahti family way of coping” .
I mustered strength to fulfill the expectation of being strong, silent.
Refusing to feel the need.
Refusing to feel the pain.
I was a “Bahti”, afterall
I had to carry on my father’s legacy.


And so began my journey,
to understand and transform this unraveling event,
and weave that into the legacy I choose for my own life.