When Our Animals Pass On – Some Words of Hope and Consolation

When Our Animals Pass On – Some Words of Hope and Consolation

Some people just aren’t ‘animal people.’ They can’t help it, really. They just haven’t ever connected with a dog, cat, or some other creature in that deeply beautiful and inexplicable way that changes everything about how a person sees the world.

And then there are the rest of us.

Too many times over the last couple months I’ve watched friends wish a forever goodnight to a beloved dog or cat, and every time I hear of an animal passing, I go back to the days of losing the ones who were most precious to me.

There was Sassafras – the Puli I grew up with  – a Hungarian sheepdog who looked like a Rastafarian. She endured hours of ‘dress up’ as I styled her in my old baby clothes.

Crash – our 107 lb. Yellow Lab – who was afraid of linoleum, occasionally howled when he heard sirens, and adored flowers so much that if I came home with a bouquet, I had to let him smell it right away or he’d tackle me trying.

Crash. He loved flowers and wearing bandanas.

And Shiloh – our Golden Retriever – a big, red, fluffy guy who befriended all the neighbors and was so diligent about “checking” on our infant daughter I had to close the door to her room or he’d wake her up by pushing his nose through the slats of her crib.

It’s this last dog I think of with regret.

Regret. Commingled with our cravings for peace and comfort, it’s often the unspoken part of loss.

Sometimes it’s big. Sometimes it’s not. But one way or another, it can creep in.

We got Shiloh – a 9-week old puppy – on December 22, 2003 when our oldest son was not quite one year. I house-trained him in the dead of winter by strapping my son into his high chair, giving him a handful of Cheerios, and running Shiloh outdoors. He learned inside from out, but was never trained in obedience. My husband and I fully admit – our timing in getting this dog was not among the best of our decisions.

Shiloh on the day we brought him home.

Our daughter arrived two years later, and I was perpetually preoccupied with the work of mothering young children. Shiloh just didn’t receive the one-on-one time and love he so richly deserved. We lost him to an irreversible heart ailment at 8 years old; it was far too soon.

Shiloh as a young pup.

I went to the vet on Valentine’s Day in 2012 to be with him at the end, and the doctor gave us a few minutes alone to say goodbye.

I looked into his eyes and was overcome, so I sat on the tile floor, and with my arms wrapped around his huge red neck, I poured out my pain-filled heart.

There was so much to say. So much I still wanted to do. And couldn’t redo. And all I was left with was precious little time.

I told him I loved him.

I thanked him for his constant devotion to me and our family…for the joy he had brought to our lives.

And then…

I followed my soul’s prompts…and I asked him for forgiveness.

I said I was sorry. I listed many things I did that I regretted, and all the things I didn’t do that I regretted even more.

And this dog knew.

Why am I sure?

I saw it in his eyes.

There is one thing domesticated animals do better than their people: they love unconditionally.

And he did.

Just then, he leaned into me – physically and in spirit. He rested his head on my shoulder and licked my tears.

If every life moment is a glimpse of the divine, what was I seeing just then?

These critical life lessons:

Do not look back and wish for something else. We must live and love right where we are. To do otherwise is futile.

Forgiveness is a matter of turning the heart in the right direction: owning up to wrongs and then relinquishing them. Often, the hardest person to forgive is ourselves.

If facets of God can be seen here on earth – present in the unconditional love and forgiveness of an animal who trusts us and accepts us as we are – then in the same way, we can rest in the knowledge that if we approach Him with contrite hearts, admit our mistakes and ask for mercy, it will be granted to us.

And what of the animals? Where do our friends go?

I appreciate the words of Pope Francis:

“Eternal life will be a shared experience of awe, in which each creature, resplendently transfigured, will take its rightful place and have something to give those poor men and women who will have been liberated once and for all.” – Laudato Si

It warms my soul to consider this…to savor the fact that the God of my experience and understanding so loves the whole world, and God wants me to experience perpetual joy and love to such a degree, that He will use any means necessary to show me this Truth….

Even a dog – here on earth, and someday, forever with me in heaven.

Shiloh dressed for Halloween. He had a funny birthmark on the middle of his tongue. And a beautiful, beautiful heart.

Seeds for an Appropriate Time

On a bright spring morning, a walk does my spirit good. And as I circle my block, I come across her garden.

I can almost see her standing there in the shadow of her home, wearing spring pastels and kelly green tennis shoes, pointing out weeds and asking her husband to pull them. Her white hair shines like a crown in the sun. Her eyes dance and her arms wave a happy hello as I walk up her front path.

But she’s been gone to heaven for some time now. And her husband, too – last June. I still miss them – just as much as I did the day I learned that Mr. Schab had at last followed his wife Home. 

So I stand looking at Mrs. Schab’s garden. Her flowers are beginning to bloom.

First, I see a single red tulip.

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Then the blue vinca minor (periwinkle).

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Then the viburnum.

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And her bright pink azaleas.

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Colorful, vibrant life springs from the brown, hard earth.

I seldom see their family visiting the house anymore. I suppose it’s been mostly cleaned out.

But you can’t remove everything that’s been planted, deep in fertile soil. You can’t strip it all – even from ground that appears, on the surface, to be nothing but weeds.

The garden renews my hope in the Promise. That with God’s help, our tiny seeds of peace and love – in our families, communities, nation, the world – will surely blossom into something beautiful, when the appropriate time comes.

As the earth brings forth its plants,

and a garden makes its growth spring up,

So will the Lord God make justice and praise

spring up before all nations. 

-Isaiah 61:62

 

My Own Glimpse of Heaven

Do you know you are seen?

Do you believe, in your heart-of-hearts, that God is watching over you?

Do you believe God hears your cries of weariness, your frustration, and your desperation of silent dreams unfulfilled? The whispers of your soul?

I didn’t. Not really. I mean, I was trying….to believe. But I’d been through enough of life to know that true faith is a leap off a ledge. And God only knew what would happen if I actually took that step, instead of inching along the crumbling path of so-called certainty.

My mother-in-law was just trying to make happy plans when she said, “Then there will be Gretchen’s confirmation. We’ll have to celebrate that.”

It was sometime in the fall of 2006 and she was looking ahead to Easter. I was going through RCIA – the Rite of Christian Initiation of Adults – the process by which adults enter the Catholic Church.

“No,” I said, perhaps too forcefully, and looked at my husband.

“No,” he affirmed, “We’re not going to have a party for that.”

Because I didn’t want one. I wasn’t ready. The journey to get to this point in my life had already been so difficult that I sort of wanted the day to be just about…. me. And God.

As I’ve explained to many, many women in my Bible study groups over the years, I truly believe that discord and division among Christians must break the Lord’s heart. And my feelings on this subject stem from having been raised in a variety of churches, combined with the fact that my parents divorced when I was eleven, and subsequently pursued divergent paths in Christian denominations. Because we had also moved around frequently, we had never had a ‘church home’ to help guide me, and as my parents’ marriage deteriorated, my ability to understand God’s unfailing love, did as well.

As a child, the only message I retained from many homilies I heard was the “hellfire and brimstone” picture of life without Christ. My fear of God was deep and real. And it wasn’t  the “fear” mentioned in Scripture, which is respectful – the kind one should have for a loving father whom you don’t want to disappoint. No – this was abject fear. How could I love this God?

For years, I couldn’t sit through any church service, of any denomination, without crying. In a way I couldn’t explain, my soul seemed drawn to be there, but hearing the Word brought tears my eyes and terror to my heart. My family was torn apart and it seemed that God was at the center of it all. I just couldn’t make sense of how I felt, of how my story was being written. So much healing was needed.

So when I began RCIA, I truly embarked upon it as a period of discernment. Bless the heart of Deacon Moore, who led our program, because a tiny part of him probably wanted to get rid of me by the end. Every time we met, I asked more questions than a six-year old boy watching his father work on a car.

As I’ve written in other blog pieces, RCIA was one of the greatest experiences of my life. By Holy Week, we had reached the end, and I was to be confirmed at the Easter Vigil on Saturday night.

Holy Week was full of exciting opportunities to prepare our hearts for the sacrament we would soon receive. Sunday – The last time our RCIA group would leave Mass together before the Eucharist to discuss the day’s Scripture readings. Monday – Mass at the Basilica in Baltimore, when the parish’s Chrism oil for the year would be blessed and brought back to our church. Thursday – The Maundy Thursday service – where priests would wash the feet of RCIA candidates, as Jesus did for his disciples at the Last Supper. Friday – The Good Friday Service – where the deacon would carry a full-size cross to the front of the church for us to touch….and remember Jesus’ ultimate sacrifice of pure, selfless love.

I missed every single event.

During stressful times I get migraine headaches, and that week I had one of the worst migraines of my entire life. I spent every day in bed, silently crying about what I knew I was missing. On Saturday afternoon, my husband came into our darkened room. He said, “Try to tell me what it is.”

“I feel like I’m turning my back on my upbringing and my family. And I’m still not ready to tell them,” (It would be awhile before I did.)

“You don’t have to do this.”

“I know. But I want to. I really want to.”

That’s when he gave me a beautiful cross necklace – St. Brigid’s cross – and I was so surprised. It never occurred to me he might give me a gift for this occasion.

I got myself dressed, put on my new necklace, and popped one more of the useless precription pills I’d been taking all week. The sitter came. And my husband (who was also my sponsor for the sacrament) and I left for the church.

Brigid's Cross

In the narthex to the large sanctuary, the deacon approached me. “I’m glad to see you here,” he said gently. “I was worried about you.” I told him I just hadn’t been well, and I smiled through the incessant pounding in my head. Our group processed in and took our seats.

At a special point in the ceremony, I was asked to stand and profess my faith. I stared with glassy eyes at the altar as the priest spoke these words to me and the others.

Priest: Do you believe in God, the Father almighty, creator of heaven and earth?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord, who was born of the Virgin Mary, was crucified, died, and was buried,
rose from the dead, and is now seated at the right hand of the Father?

Candidate: I do.

Priest: Do you believe in the Holy Spirit, the holy catholic Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body, and life everlasting?

Candidate: I do.

In the millisecond after I said the last “I do” the splitting pain in my head vanished.

Vanished.

I felt as good as I’d ever felt on an absolutely perfect day. No worries. No concerns. Nothing but an absence of pain and a clear, refreshed mind.

A few moments later, I moved to the front of the church and stood, with my husband behind me, his hand on my shoulder, as our pastor, Father Kingsbury, stretched out his hand and prayed for me and the others:

All-powerful God, Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, by water and the Holy Spirit
you freed your sons and daughters from sin
and gave them new life.

Send your Holy Spirit upon them to be their helper and guide.

Give them the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of right judgment and courage,
the spirit of knowledge and reverence.
Fill them with the spirit of wonder and awe in your presence.

We ask this through Christ our Lord.

In my hand was an index card with my confirmation name: Gretchen Elaine. Some people take a saint’s name. I hadn’t settled on one and figured my own was sufficient.

I handed the card to Father Kingsbury when he stopped directly in front of me, with Deacon Moore on his left, and another of my teachers, Father Harrison, on his right.

“Gretchen Elaine,”I heard Father Kingsbury say as I closed my eyes and he anointed my forehead with the Chrism oil, “Be sealed with the gift of the Holy Spirit.” 

I opened my eyes.

It is very difficult to explain what I saw – but it just may be my first glimpse of heaven.

Brilliant, white, and golden light surrounded the three men. The space seemed positively filled with it. And I was filled with, and surrounded, and bathed, in this radiant light. All my fear was gone. Head to toe, I was flush in a spirit of wonder and awe, and I knew I was smiling broadly into the glowing faces before me. I was warm and comfortable all over. It was pure bliss.

I didn’t want to leave that spot before the altar, but it was time to return to our seats.

As we settled in, I said to my husband, “Did you see that light?”

“What light?”

“Up on the altar. All around them.”

He looked in the direction where my eyes were searching – the spot where the second miracle of my night had occurred.

“The lights are on,” he said quizzically.

And then I knew – the light had been for me. And the healing had been for me. Me alone. Because He sees me. He knows my story. He knows every last bit of it, and no matter what has happened or just might happen yet, He is in control. And He loves me. 

In time, I would tell my parents about my faith journey, and their responses would be more grace-filled than I ever could have dreamed. Both of them are fellow travelers on the road to eternal life with the Lord, and we have wonderful discussions about how He works in our lives. Christian unity is at the heart of my relationships with them.

If you seek Him with your whole heart, you will find Him. He sees you. And He loves you. Regardless of whether you know Him, feel Him….whether you doubt His existence or not. He’s real. He is listening to the whispers of your soul.

“The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light;

Upon those who dwelt in the land of gloom

a light has shone.” 

-Isaiah 9:1

Liturgical Text for the Easter Vigil Service was copied from this document, provided by the Diocese of Owensboro.

Claudia’s Day

image“Mom – Why is God’s plan so hard to understand?”

It is the penultimate question. Asked on a big day. But my daughter had no way of knowing that. I haven’t told her that today marks one year since my stepsister Claudia entered heaven. That Claudia is on my mind. In my heart. And always will be.

“I don’t know.” I answered honestly. “But God is much smarter than we are, and we have to trust him. He wants the best for us – to keep us with Him forever. And while bad things may happen in our lives, He just wants us to lean closer to Him when they do, because if we do, He promises to protect us always in the end. Because while our bodies hurt, our souls are protected. Forever. When we choose Him.”

I was preaching to myself as much to her.

September 13, 2014, my family lost Claudia to complications following childbirth. Over the course of 3 1/2 weeks as Claudia fought for her life in the ICU, my family and I spent hours on our knees, and I posted prayers for her on Facebook. And when she passed, I was emotionally exhausted for weeks.

What many find strange is that I didn’t know Claudia all that well. My father and my stepmom had been married at that point for 12 years, and had 7 grown children between them when they met. My stepmom is from Chile, and over the last decade or so, most of her 5 children had remained there. So, I only met Claudia in person about 3 times. Nevertheless, we were family, and when family is in crisis, family comes together. 

It’s nearly impossible to describe the power of the Holy Spirit when He  intervenes. And it was completely His work in using me to pray for Claudia. I felt a love for her like I would for my blood sister, whom I’d known for 39 years. I was ready to pray for Claudia day and night. I wanted to know every detail about her health status, the care of her baby, the welfare of all those closest to her. There was a holy fire lit in me that I still can’t explain. I just loved her. And I knew that Jesus had called me to this privilege. And the next thing I knew, I began to write down my prayers on Facebook.

I had never before done something like that. Never before had I put my faith before a public audience. And I was completely unafraid. I felt the boldness and confidence of the Lord in my heart and it brought me joy and peace to appeal to Him daily on behalf of Claudia.

Within a couple weeks, I felt another nudge from the Holy Spirit to begin this blog, and I know without a doubt that if I hadn’t been primed for the experience by writing prayers, I either would have ignored this nudge, or backed down from it out of fear.

So that’s what I want to say today. I want to thank my sister Claudia for opening a new door for me. I have always thought it was the Holy Spirit that prompted me to write this blog, to accept that 31-day writing challenge that started it all. But the other day, I had a passing notion – ‘Hey – What if she was the one who came up with the idea? Maybe whispered it in Jesus’s ear? Hmm? Can these things happen in heaven?’

I don’t know. But this last year of writing and following through on that holy nudge has been her lasting gift to me, and I am really looking forward to meeting her again someday.

For I am convinced that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor present things, nor future things, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.

– Romans 8:38-39

Bump in the Road

image“Mom!” she yells. “Why are you turning around?”

“There’s a sign back there. I want to take a picture of it. For my blog.”

“Why?”

“Because.”

And for once. For once! She doesn’t press. ‘Because’ is enough of an answer. I thank the Lord for this small mercy.

I don’t know how I could explain it to her anyway….The many reasons why I called her grandmother yesterday, just because I needed my own mom for a few moments…

When I dialed Mom in Florida I looked at the clock and assumed I’d need 10 minutes to vent – to really get it all out. Ten turned into 30, and Mom listened patiently – to all the ways the state of the world had gotten me down. She offered only words of encouragement, a tiny bit of advice, and the gentle reminder that, “The devil loves to see us stewing in anger.”

Deep sigh…I know. I KNOW. And don’t our moms often tell us the truth? Whether we really want to hear it or not?

And then later I see a sign. Literally. A SIGN. Telling me again that all the things I vented to my mom about are just BUMPS. Bumps. And I have been forewarned.

This world is not perfect. And it will continually disappoint me because I was not made for it. I was made for more.

I crave the purity and loveliness of the One in Whom there are no imperfections. And so no matter what might fall or spring up in my path today, I must keep my eyes on eternity and on Him whose perfect sacrifice has washed me clean from the ugliness I loathe in myself and others.

“In this world you will have trouble. But take heart! I have overcome the world.”

– John 16:33

Look again at this photo. On the left there’s a father with his child on his shoulders. Dad carries the weary child, and from the new vantage point, the child can see a bit farther. It’s exactly the way my Father in Heaven wants to carry me. And you.

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Lead a Life of Love

A week ago, when I was at Sunday Mass and I heard his name read among the recently deceased, something inside me gave way and I started to cry. And then I couldn’t stop.

It was just before the Eucharist, and we were praying for lots of people, but I was stuck, focused on the fact that my neighbor was gone from this earth, reunited in heaven with his lovely wife who passed on almost two years ago. They were older people – had six children who were now grandparents themselves. This is the way life is supposed to play out. And I didn’t know them well. Yet I was so very, very emotional. Why?

Standing there, staring at the church rafters and reciting the Lord’s Prayer, I asked Him, “Why am I so upset? Why can’t I stop crying? I’m happy for them. Why does this hurt?”

From somewhere inside, His answer came:

You love life. He loves life. They love life.

Um…ok?

I knew from experience that walking in faith means living with ambiguity, and that in time, hopefully, what I’d heard would make more sense to me. So I proceeded to do what seemed right.

I’d seen more cars than usual outside Mr. and Mrs. Schab’s home in the previous three days, and now I knew why. After lunch, I wrote a condolence note, collected myself, and walked over.

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Mrs. Schab’s hydrangeas bloomed the week that Mr. Schab entered heaven.

A white-haired woman in her sixties who bore a strikingly beautiful resemblance to her late mother welcomed me warmly at the door. My tears began to return the moment I said,

“I was just at the 11:00 Mass and I heard the news.”

She said, “Yes. He was my dad. He passed a week ago yesterday.”

Oh, I thought. We were away. That’s why I didn’t know.

She added, “The day before his 99th birthday. So, he got to celebrate it in heaven.”

Any idea I had of consoling her went out the window.

I stammered, barely able to see now, “And I miss your mom.”

She smiled slightly and looked down saying, “Oh, we do too.”

The next thing I knew, she was opening the screen door wide to hug me and kiss me on the cheek.

Then she said, “What is your name?”

Oh boy. I guess grief is like that. You forget to say your name.

I told her. “Gretchen.” And we went from there. The ten minutes or so we spent getting to know one another reminded me of what I had loved so much about her parents.

From the moment she laid eyes on me at the door, she appreciated me. Not for what I wanted to give her (or thought I could give her, and others who were there), but because she saw my mere presence as a positive in her life. And I remembered right away that her sister had once greeted me at the door of this very same house with an identical warmth and generosity of spirit when I came to visit Mr. and Mrs. Schab, who of course, had been the genesis of the love these two women showed me. Or were they?

The first time I ever met Mr. and Mrs. Schab was Halloween. I think my oldest son (now 12), was 4. Instead of just handing out candy, they invited trick-or-treaters and their parents in for refreshments and conversation while offering a spread of treats from the dining room table, located just inside the front door. Maybe it was the glow of the antique lamps shining out from the bay window that made the house so welcoming on approach, or perhaps it was Mrs. Schab’s cheery, “Hellooooo!  Please! Come in! Aren’t you adorable?” that made my son and I feel cherished. But from that memorable evening on, their home was, by far, our favorite on the block.

Later, I wasn’t surprised to learn that the Schabs were the founders of our church’s marriage preparation program, and over many decades had helped to counsel over 1,000 couples. It was easy to imagine them sharing their experiences, faith, joy, and time with men and women embarking on the road they had been journeying together – one which would culminate in 72 years of devotion. They also served on numerous community committees and stayed active outside of their home right up until the very end of their lives. They were humble, gracious, energetic servants.

But my personal memories of Mr. and Mrs. Schab – time talking in their garden, their gratitude for my cookies, how I loved hearing their stories of how our neighborhood changed over six decades – all of these are grounded in a feeling of us being “present together.” When I was with them, even though I didn’t know them well, time seemed to stand still, because in each moment, they were focused only on what was essential – living the moment. Not the next moment. Or the one after that.

After a week’s reflection, I think I understand what the Lord was trying to tell me as tears streamed down my face last Sunday….

When you really fall in love with Life, so much so that you see the divinity of it in every single person you meet, you can truly stop – right now – to appreciate the wonder and beauty of it all, and share deeply and effortlessly of the Love you are living. And the Love comes through you, to make the people with you feel cherished. You can give those around you a glimpse of eternity. 

When we love the Maker of Life, we are given all we need to live this life in all the fullness He intended for us. 

The key to living life in full, is following the Way of Life, and basking in His Love. 

Therefore Jesus said again, “Very truly I tell you, I am the gate for the sheep….

The thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy;

I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.”

– John 10:7, 10