Rev. Nancy's Blog

Caring and Letting Go

The gray and blue scrub jay’s feathers fluffed around it, holding in body heat even on the warm summer afternoon. It huddled inside itself. Something was wrong.

“How are you, scrub jay?” I asked.

“I’m dying,” he answered. That was all. No elaborate explanation, no details or trepidation, just the simple statement.

“May your transition from body to spirit be easy and joyful. My heart is with you.”

My shift partner at Sulphur Creek Nature Center and I walked back to the hospital building to report that the scrub jay was not well, even though he had been healthy only days earlier. Then I returned to stand by the aviary. I sent the scrub jay thoughts of love and peace. He died that night. I was grateful to have been able to say goodbye, and to serve as witness for some of his final hours.

A few weeks later, I stood over the stainless steel counter in the kitchen, preparing meals for our resident coyotes. A volunteer in the adjoining room changed bedding material, water and food for animals in the lending library. She paused and said, “Bailey doesn’t look well. I think he’s dying.” Bailey was a favorite of children and volunteers, with his stubby tail and snuggly personality. She cradled the brown and white hamster in her hand and carried him into the hospital room.

The naturalist agreed Bailey was at the end of his life. “Let’s make him comfortable in here, where it’s quiet,” she suggested. They gently placed the hamster on a fluff of soft bedding in a nesting box.

I cupped my hands around the nesting box and offered the healing energy of animal Reiki to ease this gentle hamster’s transition from body to spirit. My voice broke as I sang him a blessing song.

“Thank you,” the naturalist whispered. Tears glistened in her eyes.

We serve together – volunteers and staff – all in service to these animals. Their life cycles are shorter than ours. Logically, we expect to experience the end of life of many animals, as animal caretakers at Sulphur Creek and as “pet parents” at home. Logic, though, has little if anything to do with how we feel. Hearts opened and expanded by love also are vulnerable to grief. Sometimes there’s the sadness of learning after the fact that an animal we’ve cared for has died. Sometimes, as with the scrub jay and the hamster, we’re able to say goodbye at the time. We give each other quiet support when the difficult decision is made to euthanize an animal after we’ve tried our best to save it.

The little skunk with the sweet face captured all our hearts. She had survived injury and illness. We worried about her slow recovery, her low appetite, her inability to stand. Taking turns by her hospital kennel, we hoped and prayed, offered animal Reiki, chanted Buddhist prayers, and said Hail Marys for her, as our faith traditions inclined us. At last it became clear that the little skunk would not recover and was masking her pain. Hospital staff made the difficult decision to end her life.

Even though it was “for the best,” these decisions are never easy. Making the hardest decision can be the greatest gift of love. I am grateful this gentle creature blessed my life by being in it for even a short time.

The little skunk and the others will live on in my heart and memory. My fellow volunteers and I will continue to open our hearts to the joy of serving these animals, even knowing our hearts will feel the pain of grief again, and again, and again.

It’s worth it.