Of Dogs, Dreams, Death, and Dying
I'm pretty confident that the longevity of our beloved family German Shepherd was due to a lifetime of homeopathic health care. Early on, she had shown signs of being a little skittish but, thankfully, we found that an occasional dose of homeopathic Gelsemium always worked to set her straight no matter what the problem seemed to be. This, in addition to the fact that we never drugged her and only vaccinated her for rabies, as per legal statute, allowed Fang to live to the ripe old age of twelve, well beyond the average ten-year lifespan of the typical Shepherd.
Our three boys had chosen the name, which was conducive to an undeserved reputation around the neighborhood. In actuality, although Fang would routinely chase the cat around the house, I recall only one time in all those years when she tried to nip a friend of one of our boys. Otherwise, she was really a chicken at heart.
Now, German Shepherds are notoriously loyal to a single person whom they will obey above all others. In spite of the hours of training time that I'd spent with Fang as a puppy, and maybe because of it, she ultimately chose my wife, Mary, to be her one and only master. They became the best of friends over the years and, understandably, her ultimate death was particularly hard on Mary.
Over the last year of her life we began to see clear signs of Fang's failing health. Her hair turned gray, her gimpy hip got worse, her bark became hoarse, and her activity slowed down. A couple times she lost her urine indoors. We weren't sure when but we knew that the time would be coming soon when we might have to decide to "put her down." We'd had a number of discussions on the matter and the last thing we wanted was for her to die in a veterinary hospital at the hands of the "allopaths" implementing heroic measures on her behalf at the last minute.
One summer morning I awoke from a dream. In the dream, I called a German Shepherd into the house and lied down next to it to pet it. I noticed that the dog's abdomen seemed swollen and I commented about it to the people with me in the room. I became teary and remarked that I would have to do some research. I intended to contact the vet about the possibility of administering euthanasia at home.
That very morning I opened the local newspaper to find an article about a new veterinarian in town who was willing to make house calls! The synchronistic power and significance of the moment was undeniable. I recounted the dream to my wife and told her about the article. Clearly, something was afoot and it served to heighten our sense of awareness regarding Fang, her health, and her impending death. That evening, I called the vet. After explaining our situation, she reassured me that she would be able to come to our assistance in Fang's moment of need.
We discussed the approaching reality with our children in order to keep them in the loop so as not to be shocked when the inevitable occurred. Several times over the ensuing months Fang had bouts of complete loss of appetite during which her abdomen would swell. This would last no longer than a day or two at a time and then she would mysteriously recover. My dream seemed to be coming true.
One morning in November I awoke from another dream. I was in a backyard attempting to round up Fang to get her to come inside but she seemed to be busy barking at something off in the distance. Mary decided that she was going to tie her leash to a wire run that ran across the yard. As I turned I saw my old childhood pet German Shepherd, Norma, way at the other end of the yard and I suddenly realized that this was what Fang had been barking at. In fact, it seemed as if they were communicating with each other. After discussing this dream with Mary, we were struck by the impression that Fang was preparing to make her inevitable journey from this physical life to an afterlife on the other side-a journey that Norma had made years earlier.
Shepherds are prone to a condition called degenerative myelopathy, and Fang quickly began to show signs of neurologic impairment. She was wobbly on her feet and occasionally bumped into a wall, especially when her instincts kicked in compelling her to suddenly chase after that cat that she could never catch even when she was younger. One day, just as we were saying goodbye to my oldest son who was leaving after winter break to drive back to college, Fang collapsed on the threshold of the front door of the house. We stood around her stunned not knowing what was happening. She lied on her side unable to move, as if temporarily paralyzed. Amazingly, about two minutes later, she regained her mobility and sat up and, within a few more minutes, was able to walk around again. Undoubtedly, the myelopathy was progressing. Realizing that he might not see her again, my son made sure to give her a sincere but sad goodbye.
January arrived and we were faced with a difficult decision. We were planning to attend Mary's mother's eightieth birthday celebration and it required that we be away from home for several days. We believed that if we left Fang behind, the stress of being away from us might hasten her demise, and we couldn't bear the thought of her passing alone at home or in a kennel. The decision was made; I would stay behind with our youngest son while Mary went ahead with his older brother to the party. In spite of our presence, Fang became noticeably depressed upon her master's departure. She lied in the same spot for more than twenty-four hours, refusing to eat, drink, or even go out to relieve herself. Thankfully, she slowly pulled out of her funk the following day.
One evening, only a short week after Mary's return, we were sitting together in the living room after dinner when we heard a loud thump. My son ran into the kitchen to find Fang slumped against the wall. It seemed like another one of those paralytic episodes, only this time it was different. Her breathing was very heavy and labored. She kept trying to raise herself up only to thump back down to the floor. We placed a pillow under her head. As we sat on the kitchen floor circled around her we began to think that maybe this was it. We alternatingly fought back the tears and hugged each other as we cried on each other's shoulders. We prepared ourselves for what we assumed could be a long night ahead.
I fiddled with the iPod for a while trying to find some appropriately quiet and soothing music, which was played at very low volume. I boiled some water to make some tea. We gathered chairs and cushions to make ourselves more comfortable as we sat vigil, wondering if Fang would make another miraculous recovery like she had done several times before. It soon became apparent that she was not pulling out of this episode.
I flashed on something that I'd received several years ago. My youngest son had known about my interest in Egyptian mythology. From a large generic candle he had carved a striking likeness of the head of Anubis, the pointy-eared canine Egyptian guardian of the underworld, which he had given to me as a gift. Anubis assists souls in their passage from one side to the other, from this life to the next, and back again. Not wanting to use it frivolously, I'd been saving the candle for an appropriate occasion. Now was the time; I lit it and placed it nearby.
The heaviness of Fang's breathing intensified, she ceased to raise her head up, and closed her eyes. While I've always been the intellectual adventurer of the family, Mary has been the spiritual pioneer. I looked at her as if to say, "If you've got something to say you'd better hurry up." She hesitated for a moment, jumped up and ran upstairs to gather some supplies. In the minute or two that she was gone Fang looked like she was beginning to fade. I called up to Mary with a sense of urgency, "You better hurry!"
She returned with some sage, sweetgrass, an abalone shell, a feather fan, and a lighter. She smudged with sage around Fang's prostrated body, fanning it with the feathers with the intention of removing any dense energies that may be holding her to this physical existence. Next she burned sweetgrass in order to attract positive energies and to facilitate Fang's impending transition. All the while she composed prayers, which she verbalized through the tears streaming down her cheeks. We sat around Fang on the floor holding hands trying our best to soothe her.
Then came a most remarkable moment. In a flash of understanding, Mary knew what to do. Realizing that Fang might be holding on for our sake and that she needed to know that it was okay for her to let go, she said, "Fang, we give you permission to leave," and in that very moment the breath went out of her body. We sat in stunned silence, and from the empty stillness we began to cry together. A few moments later Mary stood up and explained that in some native traditions it was the practice to open a door to provide an opportunity for the departing spirit to leave. As she opened the back door to our home the winter wind whipped into the kitchen. After a few more moments it was done. We sat around Fang for a good while longer and then covered her body with a blanket. I blew out the candle beside her.
The following morning we wrapped Fang in blankets, put her body in the car, and brought it to the veterinary hospital to be cremated. We cried again as we said our goodbyes. About a week later, the hospital called to tell us that we could come pick up Fang's cremated remains.
A couple weeks after Fang's death Mary sat down at the breakfast table to tell me of her dream. In it, although Mary knew that she had passed, Fang nevertheless was there with her in the house. She still looked old and frail. Mary spent some time cuddling with her and then let her out into the backyard. Up on a hill in the distance Mary saw a large group of young dogs. As they began to approach Fang, Mary became alarmed and called her back into the house. After recounting the dream I suggested to her that by the sound of it perhaps she hadn't fully let go just yet. Mary agreed and resolved to pray for Fang's safe and successful passage to that happy hunting ground where she could be free to play with the other dogs.
A full two months passed before Mary had another dream. This time Fang was sitting behind the steering wheel of our car, as if she was standing guard while our son slept in the back seat. Looking young and rejuvenated, she bounced playfully up and down in the seat. She was clearly enjoying herself and this time she was in the "driver's seat."
Fang's ashes sat on our fireplace mantle for several months, waiting for summer break from college to arrive so that all of our family members could be together. We prayed and spread the ashes around the backyard where she had spent all those years playing with our young boys, and even sprinkled some into the creek that adjoins our property line. We reminisced and told stories of the times we'd had together, both good and bad.
This family experience has provided us with much food for thought. Dreams are often our most accessible and direct connection to the other side-the world of spirit. I've been made aware of the phenomenon more than once now that when a spirit successfully crosses over to the other side, it often appears in a dream as it's former healthy young self. Fang's youthful appearance in the last dream allowed us to rest assured that she had completed the journey.
In retrospect, I wondered at the original synchronistic dream coupled with the newspaper article. Why had that happened in light of the fact that we did not ultimately call upon the services of the veterinarian? It occurred to me that the mere knowledge of the vet's willingness to come to our aid had given us the courage to pursue the path that we had taken. We knew that we had medical backup in the case of a difficult turn of events. It is quite possible that without backup we might have panicked and rushed Fang to the hospital precisely at the wrong moment. Thankfully, the vet's availability had provided the peace of mind necessary for us to allow our beloved companion to die with dignity and in the presence of those who loved her.
Now, stories of our loved ones dying at home with dignity are the exception to the norm. It is comparatively easy to accomplish the task with a pet primarily because a pet usually does not have a say in the matter. Nevertheless, there can be differences of opinion when it comes to the care of our ailing pets. Clearly, issues become much more complex and problematic when we are dealing with a dying person whose own opinion should count most in such matters-let alone the opinions of children, spouses, parents, and doctors. Two seemingly unrelated considerations can weigh heavily upon us in such times of crisis and, therefore, a healthier approach to death and dying requires as much medical clarity and spiritual clarity as can be attained.
Many can testify to the chaos and confusion of the medical system that they have encountered during their own health crises. While medical science tends to project the image of all-knowing and while physicians often act confident and authoritative in circumstances of extreme illness, the truth is that such situations are frequently ambiguous and highly uncertain. In addition, we must often contend with medical personnel who, consciously or subconsciously, carry within themselves the prevailing cultural attitude that death must be averted at all costs.
As such, we are often faced with physicians who not only have no real solutions at the end of life but who are also unwilling to admit their lack of remaining medical options. When we are kept in the dark and led to believe that recovery may yet be around the corner, we are deprived of the opportunity to set our spiritual priorities in order. The only sensible alternative is to train physicians to be more forthcoming about the limitations of their profession and to be cognizant and respectful of the diversity of religious, cultural, and spiritual values that they will encounter.
More importantly, medical personnel must be trained to support our end of life decisions without resistance and without judgment. And the system must also be flexible enough to accept the reality that patients have the right to request treatment, refuse treatment, and to change their minds as they see fit. We shouldn't be made to feel like outcasts if we opt out of the medical system and likewise shouldn't be made to feel guilty if we must rely upon the system in our time of need.
In the end, spiritual matters should be our highest priority during the time of transition from this material existence to a non-physical afterlife. End of life should be a time of concentrated spiritual attention. Medical matters often serve as a distraction from what is most important for the very reason that we are so uncomfortable with the reality of death and its implications. Western cultures, unfortunately, are poorly equipped to navigate such critical territory. While our technology may be state-of-the-art, our spiritual wisdom is immature and underdeveloped.
The solution will require a readjustment of perspective that must be nurtured from early on in life through spiritual education and practice. The inevitability of death and the transience of this physical life are fundamental truths often denied by Western culture. There is so much that can be learned from more spiritually mature traditions and civilizations if we would be willing to put our cultural egotism aside. Otherwise, we will continue to strain against the cosmic order, creating an endless cycle of pain and suffering as we pursue the illusion of material gratification and physical permanence.
My family and I will be forever grateful for the time we enjoyed here on this earth with our companion, Fang, and for the many lessons her death and dying taught us. Rest in peace girl.
Image by Marilyn Jane, courtesy of Creative Commons license.
Larry Malerba, DO, DHt has been a practitioner, educator, and leader in the field of holistic medicine for more than twenty years. He is the author of Green Medicine: Challenging the Assumptions of Conventional Health Care. Dr. Malerba is a featured author at Natural News and a regular contributor to Huffington Post. He is board certified in Homeotherapeutics, is Clinical Assistant Professor at New York Medical College, and a visiting lecturer at Albany Medical College. He is past president of the Homeopathic Medical Society of the State of New York. He received his undergraduate degree from Michigan State University, his medical degree from Des Moines University, and his residency training at Albany Medical College. Dr. Malerba has a private practice in Upstate New York.
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