Grief and Letting Go #1: When Resident Animals Die

Boris the Great Horned Owl, Penelope the Skunk, Puddles the Call Duck, Ozzie the Opossum, Rocky the Burrowing Owl. All permanent Sulphur Creek residents, all ambassadors in our education programs, and all loved and cared for by staff and volunteers. All left their footprints on our hearts before they died.

Their empty enclosures reflect the gap in our hearts. Logically, their life cycles are much shorter than a human’s. We expect to experience the end of life of many of the animals we care for, just as we can expect to go through that process with our animal companions at home. But logic has little – if anything – to do with how we feel. Sometimes the loss is compounded when we arrive for our shifts as caretakers or docents, only to learn that an animal we have come to know and love has died since our last shift. There may be a note on the bulletin board, or a “Temporarily Empty” sign on the enclosure. We didn’t get a chance to say goodbye.

These aren’t “just animals,” but living beings with personalities. Why else would we do this work? Grieving their deaths is normal, and healthy. It shows that we care. Mayan shaman Martin Prechtel teaches that grief and praise go hand in hand – when we grieve, we praise that this being once lived.

As we search for ways through our sadness, the simplest is to just acknowledge it. Cry. Talk with other staff and caretakers. Stand silently by the animal’s enclosure and call up their image in your memory. Apologize for those times you didn’t “get it” or made a mistake with them. Thank them for enriching your life by their presence in it. Write out your feelings.

Hold their memory in your heart, for there they will fly, waddle, or step lightly, forever.

Note: This essay was published in the June 2012 issue of Coyote Call, a newsletter for staff and volunteers at Sulphur Creek Nature Center.

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