Moira and I became family the first week of July in 1999. She was about four months old and had been returned to the shelter twice already. Both families had said she was too much to handle.
This is true.
It was never my intention to "handle" her or make her mine. She set me straight on the first day and let me know that she wasn't my cat. She belonged to herself. I could be her person, though.
She died in 2016, less than one month shy of her 17th birthday. She made sure that she died her way by hiding out under our bed. Moira didn't want to be close to anyone. She didn't want to be held or soothed. She died as fiercely as she lived.
Because she wasn't mine, I knew cremation wasn't the right thing for her. She didn't want to be kept. So we put her in the freezer we used for dog food.
I know. That sounds crazy. I needed time to figure out how to honor her body and give her bones a resting place. She stayed in the freezer for three years.
It's not that I forgot about her. It's not that I didn't want to have a ceremony for her. I felt stuck, and the more time that passed, the more I felt unprepared.
Today I dug a hole. I walked through our forest, looking for a place that was nearly hidden. She wouldn't want a marker or anything conspicuous. I chose a spot beneath a laurel bush, where she often liked to nap outside. A plant that symbolized victory seemed like a suitable partner for her.
Max came to help.
I cried as I dug. Of course I did. Not heaving sobs - just modest rivers of salt on my cheeks.
Then I made my way to the freezer, and once I reached the bottom of the stairs my tear ducts launched into overdrive. I had to wipe them away so I could see clearly. I rounded the corner, and with the freezer in my sight I gasped. The air felt like it was cutting my trachea on the way to my lungs. Knives. Blades. Sharp pain.
It's been three years, I thought, and still this brutalizes me.
Moira's body had a shelf to itself in the freezer. My husband, The Man, had wrapped her in two garbage bags. I hadn't seen her since she crawled under the bed the morning she died. I couldn't bring myself to see her body.
I carefully lifted her body from the freezer, unsure of how I would "handle" her. I felt her tail in my right hand, curved like the handle of an extremely large teacup. My nostrils flared as I pursed my lips and slowly closed my eyes. I was touching her body. Through two layers of plastic, I was touching her body.
What is the best way to carry the frozen body of a cat? I have no idea. I still don't know. I balanced her across my two forearms with my palms to the sky, carrying her like a tray. Like I was going to serve tea with my teacup handle of a cat tail.
I was surprised by how numbing this was. Her body was cold. Frozen, you know. Was it the temperature that numbed me?
I took her body to the front of the house and laid her on a tree round we use as a chair. She was completely flat on her right side and being rigid, her body clanged a bit as I set her down on the wood. I winced. Was I being too rough?
After feeling how long she was, I picked up my shovel and dug into the earth to extend her grave. She would need more space. Sssssshk. Sssssshk. The dirt whispered as I parted it, and the roots of surrounding life groaned and snapped as I lowered the handle of the shovel. More dirt onto the pile. Then clay. That seemed deep enough and long enough.
It was time. Time to unwrap her.
Removing the first bag required that I "handle" her. I had to touch her body, even if it was through the plastic, and I wondered how she would feel about that handling concept. I could feel her feet and her angular, elegant face. The second bag was easier to untie, and I pulled it back from around her head first.
Oh, Moira. Moira, Moira, Moira.
I saw anguish. I saw in her face what I heard as I sat on the bed just after 6:00 a.m. I kept the light off because I knew she wanted her space and privacy, and I couldn't bear to leave her alone. I had to be with her, even if that meant just being in the room. Her death sounded like it was painful.
I've written about this before, and in case you haven't seen anything else about her death, an unassisted death was the most appropriate choice for Moira. We didn't want her to suffer or experience pain, and yet we also knew that the stress of receiving assistance with death would be it's own kind of unbearable torment for her. She was also a terrible patient, and the chances that our veterinarian could safely administer the medications for euthanasia were, uh, not good. We all agreed on that.
The rest of her body was as stunning as I remembered. Her fur was soft and long. I missed feeling it on my face and spitting it out of my mouth. I rested my hand on her side, being careful not to touch her belly (that wasn't allowed). I marveled at the fullness of her tail. All this time my lips were quivering and I knew something bigger was coming.
I bent in half, with my hands pressing back against my thighs and my spine rounding into a sine wave of grief - first arched up and then dropped down. Repeat. Repeat. Repeat. Drool flowed from my open mouth, and I went from being surprised by that to sucking in enough air for the next choking sob.
This was not easy.
Time had not made her death any easier. Looking at her body right in front of me - touching her fur, seeing her face, admiring her frostbitten pads - brought everything back. Probably because I didn't have the courage to be with her body three years ago.
I thanked her. I thanked her body. I committed to returning her body to the earth and not keep her, because she was not mine.
Max returned. He approached her body cautiously and sniffed her face and paws. It looked as though he wanted his eyes to be as wide as possible so he could take in everything. I looked toward the house and saw Wean sitting at the threshold of the open front door. I am certain he nodded at me; then he stood and turned to find a soft place to nap.
A round of deep breaths helped me gently place Moira's body into her grave. I didn't shroud her because she wouldn't have stood for that.
That first shovel-full of dirt. Whoa. I moved the shovel back and forth over her body, hoping to lightly cover her. She was never, ever dirty. Ever. It was surreal to see dirt in her fur. Her beautiful, striking tortie marbles of tan and black and warm, rich brown. The last time I would see her.
I drove the shovel blade perpendicular into the ground and used the handle to support the weight of my upper body. My spine once again wanted to roll through what felt like an endless sine wave. I lurched and arched and hunched and drooled and wept.
I wanted it to stop. I wanted to stop. I wanted to be finished, and I know I will never be. Moira's death and her absence will be with me always. More importantly, so will her life. So will the relationship I have with her.
The rest of the dirt sssssshked on her body to fill her grave. I added stones to the top as a practical measure to discourage any interested animals, and I promised that once decomposition was well underway, I'd remove those stones to keep her space as unmarked and inconspicuous as Moira would like it to be.
Rhys was too big for me to hold. I wanted to scoop him up in my arms, which I had never been able to do, and hold him close to me.
He weighed 175 lbs. when he died. Way too big for me to scoop.
I sat beside him instead, talking to him. I told him how much I loved him and would always love him. I recounted stories of our adventures together. I thanked him for what he had the patience and tenacity to teach me. Even on this day as he lay dying.
He's still teaching me.
When Rhys was alive, I would talk with him about the things I wanted to do. I confided in him the things I was too anxious to tell others. When he died, I wondered if I would lose that.
There were so many things I was afraid to lose. In the day we kept his body at home, I wondered what else would disappear with his body when his doctor came to take his extraordinarily heavy vessel away.
By the time his doctor arrived, his eyeballs had already began to shrink and his body drained _most_ of the urine it held. I had lovingly washed him for the very last time. I held the velvety ears that were no longer keeping my secret anxieties. They didn't feel anything like Rhys.
I'm not able to reach out and touch Rhys anymore. I can't hear him vomit up grass or groom himself with his slow, slurping tongue. How could he be such a slow groomer when his tongue was lightning fast on my cheek? I don't feel his ears or his heart beating.
I see him sometimes. He comes to visit. Mostly, though, we talk. He is with me everywhere.
The moment he groaned into his last exhalation at 4:24 pm wasn't the end of our relationship. It was the beginning of a kind of closeness that isn't possible in life.
Maybe I'm putting a lot on "just a dog" and I might be crazy. The death of Rhys' body was the birth of something bigger. Sitting with his shell and making paper hearts to adorn his body for the trip to the crematorium was the earliest stage of transition for me.
I didn't realize how much faith and hope and trust I had in him. I didn't realize how much my conversations with him helped me. I didn't realize how much I relied on his acceptance of me and how much his insistence that I was fine just the way I was shifted my life.
When he died, I stopped thinking of that support being available to me only when we were physically together. I embraced the idea that he was with me. I held him in my heart loosely enough that he had room to move as he needed. I trusted that he would stay, and he has. He stays because I have the best of him, and it's now my job to put him out into the world.
Rhys' death was about so much more than his body's ending, and this date and time are deeply significant to me. I'm so glad I honored the moment with something I can see every day.
I was staying in a cottage adjacent to a mid-century, sprawling rambler that hosted some of the wildest parties (in the area) of the late 50s and early 60s. There was a pool just outside the glass door, and beyond that acres of land with loosely manicured gardens and an enclave for chickens. It was chic, rustically modern, and grounded.
An experienced, no nonsense German shepherd dog lay on the warm stone next to the pool. He wanted to be where he could see me. I talked to him through the open glass door. He didn't care for small talk and would shift uncomfortably before getting up to relocate, still where he could see me. Instead I took to talking with him about heavy things. Things that neither of us could have carried on our own. Those conversations pressed on his spirit enough that he could momentarily close his eyes in that peaceful squint that dogs do so well.
I was in this place to help care for my grandmother, who was in the last weeks of her life and entering hospice. This cottage was my place to crash after a long day of preparing for death and soaking up life. This vase caught my attention.
From across the room it was a beautiful piece that could have been a family heirloom or a find at HomeGoods. I didn't know. It was when I crossed the room and stood near the glass door (so I could talk to my GSD friend) that this crack called for my attention.
One day, this vase lay on the floor, broken. I could count four large pieces that had come apart and were now back together, with a few smaller pieces filling the gaps. The vase was still beautiful. It probably didn't hold water as well as it once did. It could surely hold dry things. It could surely remain an object of beauty.
I thought of the Japanese art of kintsugi. When pottery is broken, like this vase, kintsugi is a method that mends the pottery with a lacquer. The lacquer is often colored with gold powder, and sometimes the powder is silver. The result is a piece that is once again whole, now with the cracks as decorations rather than flaws.
Kintsugi is more than a technique - it's a philosophy. In this way of thinking, the life cycle of a breakable object involves . . . well, breaking. And when that break happens, kintsugi regards the break and the repair as part of the object's history. The cracks become prominent. Instead of something to hide or disguise, the repair becomes the defining feature of the piece.
We are all breakable.
This vase wasn't fortunate enough to receive the full kintsugi treatment. I was curious about the history of this piece. I wondered if it was an especially meaningful vase. I wondered what kinds of family members it had passed through, or if it really was mass produced and bought at HomeGoods. I studied the cracks while giving thought to how my own life had come apart and been bonded together - many, many times.
I saw this vase as a symbol of heartache and pain. It was every breakup, every death, every diagnosis, every day of providing hospice care. It was every rescue and foster. It was the days when funds were low and needs were high. It was the fatigue and the feeling of desperation, knowing that I needed to be able to do just this one more thing and feeling like I couldn't do any more. I felt every one of those cracks. I feel them because I see them up close. I lived through the breaks.
I also picked up all of those pieces and brought them back together. I glued. I lacquered. I did what was necessary to keep them whole. From across the room, my vase looks lovely. It looks unmarred. Maybe even perfect.
What does your vase look like?
I have my husband to thank for this photograph.
This is me walking with Sophie from the trailer to her retirement home. This was eight years ago today.
When I met Sophie, I had been looking for a horse for months. I felt like I was meant to be with a horse, and that was all I was going on. I would show up at auctions in the area, hang out around the pens outside, and ask, "Is anyone here supposed to go home with me?"
I don't remember how I met Sophie's person. Our paths crossed for the first time one week before she planned to take Sophie to auction, and she mentioned that there was a man who was interested in giving her a home so he could ride her. Something about that didn't feel right to me, so before I had even met her I volunteered to giver her a home. A retirement home where she could decide if she wanted to offer riding or not.
So I bought a trailer and showed up to meet Sophie and welcome her to our family, not knowing what to expect. I saw defeat. She looked like she had given up on life. By the looks of her very small run and stall, I can't say that I was surprised. How she had been living wasn't the kind of life that any horse deserves.
Her person told me that Sophie wasn't easy with a trailer. She told me all of the things I should expect to have a hard time with, a few things that might be easy. Like she was giving me a temperamental electronic device that had to be plugged in and handled just so to work, not like she was offloading a living creature.
I stood outside of Sophie's stall and introduced myself. I wanted her to approach at her own pace rather than rush her into meeting me and then trying to load her in the trailer. That didn't seem like the best first date. I stood there talking to her and thinking that what I was doing was absolutely crazy. I told her about her new place and how she'd have a few buddies and could be turned out full time during the summer.
She ran toward the gate so quickly I thought she was going to break it down. I clicked on the lead rope and walked her out to the trailer.
She loaded herself. Then she stomped and whinnied the entire 23-minute drive to her new place.
Her person was right - she wasn't easy. I didn't expect her to be easy for my convenience. I wanted her to be herself.
She wasn't a hard keeper. Several of her teeth were missing and she needed her grain to be in a warm mash so she could eat it.
She wasn't uncooperative. She wanted to work with a partner, not a master.
She stood for grooming beautifully and patiently when I followed her rhythm. She didn't need to be cross tied.
Sophie had boundaries and was willing to enforce them. She had preferences she wanted me to know about and respect. There were things she didn't like to do, and once I learned about those I didn't ask (unless they were related to her health or safety).
Sophie was, and still is, the strongest and most compelling female leader I've met. She modeled what it was to be a beacon of light that others couldn't help but follow, not because she was the brightest light but because she shined her light on the places others wanted to be. Sophie had vision. She was cunning, honest, firm, gentle, feisty, demanding, unrelenting, playful . . . she could be all of those things without losing any credibility because she was so grounded in herself.
We were together for just over two years, and I learned from her every day. It felt like we had been together for a lifetime. The day after The Boy was discharged from the NICU, I took him to meet Sophie. I hadn't seen her for more than a month because I had been on bed rest and was then in the hospital. She whooshed warm breath from her nostrils over his head like she was anointing him with secrets that only horses know. I loved on her while The Boy was snuggly wrapped against my chest - I wanted that moment to last forever.
This is the part where you might want to have a tissue handy.
Sophie laid down in her paddock that night, just outside her stall, and died. I sat with her body the next day, weeping next to her while once again bound to my human bundle. I'll write more about how that felt another time. Today is for remembering how we came to be a family.
Soph, I don't know how you did it or why. I thank you for choosing me. I miss you every day.
What is it worth to be able to see yourself in your relationship?
We talk about honoring the life of your animal and we talk about creating art that represents you both. If you haven't thought about it, give a moment or two to consider what you give and who you are.
How do you show up? How does your animal see you? How do you think she would describe you if you asked? What strengths do you bring to share?
What have you learned? How have you grown and changed? What are your values?
We tend to focus on our animals because we are givers (and because they are incredible). We admire their exceptional qualities and marvel at their wisdom and generosity. I see this in my own relationships with animals and I see it every week in the tender humans who ask for help in telling their stories.
We get the most out of these relationships when we can reflect on our contributions, and it is often the case that seeing the relationship is more powerful than describing it with words. It's not about how you look - it's about how the two of your come together and remain distinct. It's about what you can look back and see years later that you may have missed at the time. It's about being able to see how wonderful it really was or how far you have come.
This is me and Conan in 2012, sharing a sunny meadow after an early afternoon hike (thanks to my husband for being ready with the camera). I'll tell you what I see.
I see that I adore him. I am in awe of him. Even with a funny heart, arthritis in his spine, hips, and knees, and nerve damage in his neck he found joy in the movement he could manage.
I remember thinking in this moment that Conan was so, SO . . . good. Like fairy tale marvelous, except for the part about being super reactive and downright scary with other dogs and often humans.
I see that this adventure was one of the first times in Conan's life that I wasn't calculating my value based on how much I was able to do for him or what his comfort level was. I can see in his face that he didn't give two wags about how much I was or wasn't doing - he just wanted to be together, no matter what. I remember how much I changed our lifestyle when we returned home from this trip because I wanted to hang on to this blissful, settled feeling of being swallowed by love, not calculating it. On this day I had a taste of what it was like to be comfortable feeling in a relationship rather than doing. Doing was what I was good at. Doing, in spectacular fashion, was my strength.
I could go on for days about what I see.
This photograph is so much more than a photograph of me and Conan. This is a portrait of our relationship. It is a milestone in my growth. It is a reflection of Conan's life lessons rolled into one frame: ease, love, more ease, more love. I see something different here every time I look at it because Conan continues to influence me.
That's what I want for you. See your relationship as it is now. Be able to look back and see how it was in that moment. See how the relationship endures, even after death, and look at yourself through all of that.
You deserve that.
This is Ruger.
He is deeply loved by his family. His life-sized portrait hangs in the bedroom, right over the place where he slept on the floor. It's an homage to his spot.
It's a spot that has been empty since Ruger died.
Ruger was a rule follower. A tattle tale for his Dane sister. He reserved his goofiness for those with whom he was supremely comfortable, and then he'd roll on his back and smile with his entire body. He had zoomies, as Danes do. He was gentle and kind, a bit wry with his humor.
Ruger had depth. He had a smoldering intensity and a connection to his person that defied words. And continues to defy words (hence art). You can see a hint of it here in his portrait.
It's tissue time.
Ruger's person is a kindred human to me and one who appreciates photography. She shared dozens of images of Ruger. When we initially talked about the image to inspire his portrait, she wanted to see him lying on his back with his jowls giving up the fight against gravity in that most undignified and totally joyful pose. She wanted to see that version of Ruger.
I could tell by the way she paused as she scrolled through her photographs that the Ruger you see here was the Ruger she needed. I mentioned that she seemed to have a special connection with this moment and it might be one to honor in a painting.
We both cried when she told me that this photograph is from the day before Ruger died. She asked him to go outside with her for a few photographs because she knew his death was coming, and this is what he gave her. The magnificant, stunning gift of his total attention, admiration, belief in her beauty and worth, and trust.
Honestly, I struggle with this portrait sometimes because it feels so intimate. It's like I shouldn't be privy to this moment. I shouldn't be allowed to see this connection because it is deeply personal and private.
As big as Ruger was in life, he is much bigger in death. Expansive, really. He's not there and yet he is. I can't tell you how Ruger's people feel about that statement - that's just me talking.
When I first met Ruger's family after many virtual exchanges, I was in their home for four hours. Four hours! Just hanging out and talking, looking at photographs, stroking cats and scratching a very large Daneish bottom. I could feel him in the house. I could see him in his person.
I didn't meet Ruger in life, and yet I feel like we are old friends. That may be why he was so comfortable giving me his honest opinion about his portrait as I was working on it.
Ruger's person gave me a budget window to work in and I proposed a watercolor sketch. It would be nice and light with a sketch-style watercolor wash and ink rather than a detailed watercolor portrait. It seemed to suit him. I had done all the ink work and was starting on the watercolor wash (which left areas of white on the paper where Ruger wasn't white).
"No. I don't like this. I don't want white spaces," I heard someone say.
I kept working.
"I AM FULL OF COLOR!" he shouted. "Please fill me in."
And so Ruger cleverly negotiated a full watercolor portrait at a sketch watercolor price. I don't think I'll ever forget that experience.
There is so much to love about Ruger. I love how connected to him his family remains. I adore how much they embrace him in the way he is now, even if it isn't a physical way. When they tell stories about him, he is alive again.
It is equally magical and brutal to realize how quickly he can return and and how quickly parts of him fade. This connection is one they will always keep.
I'm Shannon, and I love and am loved by four Great Danes, four cats, and one horse (four Danes, one cat, and one horse are no longer walking this earth). Here I'll share stories of my adventures in grief photography for companion animals, my own grief journey, and thoughts on caregiving.