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Rita Reynolds

Blessing the Bridge:
What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond
by Rita M. Reynolds

Creating a Sanctuary

In the midst of a routine day I gathered my dog, Oliver, into my arms, and held his soft, small body close to mine "There is a strong possibility," I explained, "that the cancer growing inside you will eventually cause us to be separated from each other." As the word "separated" left my mouth, his face rose to mine. Although blind, his eyes danced, shining with life. I sensed that he was seeing on another level, within and through me. "You will change worlds and I will have to remain behind, but I will always love you." Oliver turned his head downward as my words and tears cascaded over him. A knowing flowed between Oliver and me that in truth we could never be separated, and that everything was perfect, even the cancer.

Blessing the Bridge by Rita Reynolds

But I had not always felt so. When I had heard the diagnosis three months earlier, I had immediately made Oliver’s cancer an enemy. That cancer was the monster that would tear my dear friend of eight years away from me. Later, in a reflectivemoment I realized that by declaring war on the cancer, I was making all of Oliver’s cells—the whole basic structure of his body—my enemy as well. From that moment, rather than cursing his cells, I began loving and blessing them, even the cancerous ones, hoping this approach would cure him.

But what if he died anyway? I asked myself in doubtful moments. Would I have accomplished anything at all, or wasted energy, time, and emotion? Was I entrapping myself in false hope, blind faith, and utter stupidity? I wondered if I was setting myself up for a hard and terrible disappointment.

Oliver’s tumor was in his bladder. The medical prognosis was that the cancer would not respond to surgery, chemotherapy, or radiation. After introspection and prayer, I decided to begin my own integrative therapy for Oliver. My intuition, always my best guide, directed me to use sound and music therapy, color and light, supportive nutrition, and the prayer support of friends and family. At the same time, I also realized that it might just be Oliver’s time to go.

As we proceeded with these alternative healing methods, I began to realize that everything I was doing for Oliver was appropriate for possibly curing his physical condition, while at the same time helping him through his dying if that would be the outcome. I was no longer attempting a "cure-or-nothing approach," which would imply success versus failure or winning versus losing. I had ended my battle against the cancer.

No longer was this therapy focused on my little dog alone. Now, Oliver and I were moving in tandem through a mutual and inter-supportive healing on infinite levels. As with so many of the animals who had been in my care, I was once again learning when and how to let Oliver go, making sure I did so with unconditional love, grace, and peace.

We walked through our healing, step by step. Nothing long range. I felt compelled to give up all my goals, including healing him. My job was simply to offer Oliver my full participation and accept each moment as perfect, no matter what was going on. It was easier for Oliver, he had no expectations. But I also knew Oliver and I were not alone. There was a boundless, pure spirit that led us with love. Oliver shone with that love.

But when finally faced with the certainty of Oliver’s impending death, I once again struggled with my emotional attachment and inevitable sense of failure. I questioned everything. Was the pain I saw cross his face only momentary? Would it pass, and then we would still have more time together? Or was it his way of asking for compassionate release? I could not decide, so I turned within and prayed for help. The guidance came and I knew Oliver was ready to leave.

The day before Oliver died, he laid his head on my foot as I wrote down my thoughts about him. He communicated to me, Don’t begin missing me yet. Share this moment with me, everything is as it is meant to be. And if you let me, I will guide you for all the moments to come."

"I will," I responded, out loud, knowing he was pleased. And so Oliver’s life on Earth ended well.

My friend and teacher joined me in this lifetime as a honey-colored terrier named Oliver. Through his living and dying, he taught me there is no such thing as life versus death, or success versus failure. Love given and received, moment by moment, is all that really matters.


Since childhood I have been offered countless opportunities to understand the essence of death, and despite the pain and suffering that seem to accompany it, to realize its luminescence. I have learned over the past four and a half decades that the animals come to teach me, among other things, a new understanding of the dying process from which so many of us uncomfortably turn away.

Animals are masters in their own manner of the flow of birth, growth, death, and beyond. They continue to impress upon me the importance of preparing—not out of fear, but out of wonderment—for one of the most important events in every life: death. The animals have taught me ways to approach death and dying that can enrich and enlighten.

I haven't always thought that to be true. I've done my share of cursing and fighting death, of begging my creature friends not to die, of wrestling with "Why this one, why now...?" My preference would be for everyone to live forever, provided they are in good spirits and excellent health. Few people will hear me state that the death of a friend, human or animal, is easy or immediately enlightening when I am in the thick of it. Honestly speaking, I dread losing my companions. Loss hurts, it is exhausting, and while I do always grow spiritually, emotionally, and mentally with each passing, I never look forward to another’s death with joy and anticipation.

"May you live to at least 40," I tell each of the animals who come into my care. "May my children inherit you," I whisper into the long, soft brown ears of my three donkeys who have a long life span and may out live me. I'm not ashamed of this attitude. I would be more ashamed if I denied my vulnerability. It is my vulnerability that keeps me open to the suffering and pain of others, which in turn, stirs within me the compassion and loving kindness that always are the best healers.

Over time I continue to learn how to be fully open and willing to take on the suffering of others in order to return support, love, and compassion to them. I often spend years in a powerful, loving relationship with a creature and allow myself to become hopelessly attached. But I am willing to learn through the shattering times as well as the exquisite times. I've stood by my animal friends while they've experienced all manner of passing, from peaceful to painful, from too quick to agonizingly slow. But for all my complaints, I hold them, love them, and try to pay attention as they die.

Frequently, my journey to a more expansive understanding of dying has been rough, the learning difficult, the sense of loss enormous. My own resistance and past conditioning have been stubborn. But still my beloved teachers come: finned and furred, shelled and scaled, two- and fourlegged, and no doubt some back for second and third attempts to enlighten me. It’s worth their effort, the animals assure me, and it's definitely worth mine. Repeatedly, the animals have shown me death from different angles and perspectives. They've led me to face my own fears of mortality and move past them by demonstrating their own immortality. The animals’ teachings guide me through my life’s work of helping those who are dying, and to comfort those who must say goodbye and remain behind.


It is impossible to open one's doors, literally and figuratively, to creatures and avoid the trauma of their illnesses, dying, and death. My passion for helping injured, abandoned, and abused animals began early, probably the moment I was able to crawl after bugs. Bugs were my first friends and there always seemed to be plenty of them in need of rescuing. To this day I help spiders and hornets out of the house and check water buckets in the donkey and goat barn to invariably find one or more unfortunate creature struggling for his life. From bumblebees to tiny beetles I lift them to safety, sending them along the fence rail, never doubting that their existence is as precious as any other being on this planet.

Ever since I was a child, when given a choice of footwear, I wore moccasins. It was instinctual for me, as was lying in the grass for hours, watching the miniature world of insects and bugs, or climbing a tree as high as I dared and conversing with birds and squirrels. Moccasins, still my favorite shoe, close the distance between myself and Earth. With moccasins I can step lightly, silently, and reverently. They allow me to make every step a gentle, respectful one. Boots, even sneakers, clump and crash across the ground, crushing in wide swaths plants and animals who make their homes and paths there.

Even when I stumbled perilously through adolescence and early adulthood I kept my great love for Earth and all her nonhuman beings. I found I related more easily to animals, trees, wind, and stones than to others of my own species. Always, they have all been part of the "group" I call my family.

Dogs and cats in increasing numbers came later when in 1978, married with two young sons of my own, we moved from New England to the small farm in the foothills of the Virginia Blue Ridge Mountains where we still live today. We already had two dogs and two cats when we arrived at the farm, only to find an unwanted beagle on the doorstep of our new home. From there it didn't take long for that invisible sign to "appear" at the end of the farm drive that apparently said, Vacancy. Wounded, starving, orphaned or abandoned? Apply within. All applicants accepted. Eventually, I formally named our farm turned sanctuary "Howling Success."

I established one rule early on. Whatever creature in need appears here, stays for life; no one is turned away. And by some magical accounting, no more animals have arrived than could be well cared for at one time. Yet, hardly has one died than another suddenly arrives on the front lawn. Or an animal becomes known to me through someone in such a way that there is no doubt the animal should be with meat the sanctuary.

Along with dogs and cats come the more unusual ones. There have been a variety of goats, including Marigold, rescued from death because she only produced buck (male) kids. There were six stray domestic ducks who wandered into the backyard one evening; the black-and-white spotted rooster, Cezanne, who fled from a neighbor's yard (he was destined for soup) to hide among our hens. Cezanne died of old age ten years later. A partial list at best, that also includes Betsy and Bob, the two orphaned newborn field mice I found in a hundred pound sack of grain; a one-eyed hen named Robyn; three shaggy donkeys, and an ancient box turtle named Henry who lived in our rose garden.

Our sons, Michael and Tim, loved each new addition to our family and helped tend to the creatures with only mild complaint. They learned invaluable lessons in caring for other living beings through life and through death. My husband, Doug, however, not quite the animal enthusiast I have always been, tolerated the on-rolling influx of needy animals with useless protests that got lost in the uproar of barks and brays, quacks and baas. Still, he has, without exception, been a strong and caring supporter, and none of my work with the animals would have been as successful without the close and caring nature of Doug, Michael, and Tim. But to be fair, originally the chickens were Doug’s idea. The first afternoon in our new home, the previous owner, Lennie, asked if we wanted to keep the twenty-two hens and one large rooster he had raised there. New to Virginia and to farming I said, "No," at the precise moment, Doug, raised on a farm, said, "Yes." The chickens stayed and I've taken care of them since, never regretting a moment with them.

Despite such initial hesitancy on my part at times, (rare though it has been) each animal has quickly taken its place on the farm, seemingly of his or her own accord. As if with a mind of its own, this small sanctuary has from the beginning evolved almost by some preordained plan with purpose, direction, and certainly adventure. The animals who come here always enrich my life with a new perspective on caregiving. I have learned when to press on in the support of the process of life and health, and eventually, inevitably, when to let go and support the dying process.


Over the past fifteen years of working with animals I have learned how to allow a dying creature’s passage to unfold as naturally as possible without the interference of confusion, fear, or regret on my part. Fifteen years ago, however, I was far less prepared when Domino died. But it was the day Domino died that I began my own journey—in a most unexpected way—into conscious dying work with animals and their families.

Domino wasmy mother's dog and his death from leukemia had been both shocking and painful for everyone. While my mother appeared to cope, I sensed in her a grief too deeply tied to a lifetime of loneliness and abuse to be fully resolved. And there was my mother’s fear of her own mortality and the vast uncertain mystery that stretches beyond the last breath. I, too, had great difficulty facing the situation. I had too little spiritually to offer my mother in order that we might both understand and successfully work through Domino's dying. I believe this hurt me more than Domino’s actual death.

That afternoon when Domino died, we placed his body in the back of our car and drove over Afton Mountain to the veterinary hospital for cremation. Nothing much was said until I suggested we stop at a restaurant at the top of the mountain on the return trip. The view across the Shenandoah Valley to the west and Albemarle County to the east always seemed to lift our spirits. Over lunch my mother reminisced about her beloved companion and I, barely nibbling my sandwich, tried to listen politely. My mind, however, seemed to be pulled elsewhere, as if into a void, beyond my control.

Suddenly, there was what I have come to accept as a knowing—my intuition perhaps, or an unseen angelic guide? Both were supportive "friends" familiar to me since childhood and I was not surprised to receive a brief yet complete message. The message seemed to be absolutely appropriate while at the same time distressing. However, the message was clear: The work I was supposed to do for the rest of my life involved helping animals through the dying process and assisting humans in understanding the true nature and luminescence of dying and life beyond. I would provide a hospice for animals and their human families—a novel idea at least. From the message, I surmised that much of my work would be with elder animals. Then the void dissolved without further explanation.

I have always honored my intuition or from wherever or whomever such guidance comes, yet this time I balked. Here it was, probably my great purpose in life, but I questioned how could I possibly help others with their dying, and be there for families with their grief when I cried over dying butterflies? Silently I announced to the mysterious messenger that I would prefer any other kind of work with animals and their human families, but not this. In my mind the matter was closed. We do, after all, have free will. This being the case, I said nothing of the message, or my thoughts regarding it, to anyone else.

My animal care work continued, tending to those who found our sanctuary, sometimes by twos now. With Michael and Tim both in elementary school, I began writing articles about my animal-related experiences, striving continually for public awareness of the sanctity of all life, an issue that has been precious to me since early childhood. However, in my writings, in my day-to-day interaction with "our" animals, I continued to stubbornly ignore, avoid, or otherwise cringe from the less-than-pleasant aspects of illness and death.

A sense of infinite compassion and unconditional love have always been a part of me. My life’s work is to relieve suffering wherever I encounter it. Albert Schweitzer's ethic of Reverence For Life, but especially animals, plants, and trees is and has been my personal philosophy since I was five when my grandmother first began reading his books to me. And there was that rule about not turning anyone away. So quite naturally, and with increasing frequency, I began to find myself assisting both elderly and dying animals, as well as responding to the pain and grief people feel when losing their animal companions.

As the years passed and the opportunities arose, I was amazed at how easily I accepted the work. Step by step, as if in some structured university/universal program, I began to understand the process of death in new terms and constructively began to practice what I had learned.

Still, I had not connected with the idea that the animals were the teachers and I was the student. I did not realize this had been unfolding for many years until a most remarkable presence entered my life. In May 1994 my veterinarian, Dr. Robert Partridge, asked if I could help find a loving home for his parents' thirteen-year-old golden retriever, Penny Partridge. Both in their eighties, Mr. and Mrs. Partridge had a difficult time caring for Penny. Giving her up was extremely painful for them, but their selfless love made them look to her best interests. Throughout the summer I tried to find Penny a good home, but no one wanted such an old dog. They didn't want her "dying on them."

In August, Dr. Partridge asked me again, this time with a definite note of anxiety in his voice. His father wanted Penny euthanized, he said, if no home could be found. Yet Penny was still amazingly spry and healthy for her age and size. Again I offered to continue the search, apologizing for not taking her in myself. Our house was already bursting with thirteen resident dogs.

Late that August I sat on the front porch swing, sipping a fresh cup of coffee and enjoying the early morning sun rising from the mountains and fields around our home. Once again I felt myself drift into that void—a place filled with peace and light, a comfortable and familiar place I trusted completely. And there, streaming through my consciousness came that knowing, this time thrilling in its perfection and appropriateness: Penny was to come here to live out the rest of her life. Somehow I felt this was all part of a magnificent plan; the synchronicity was perfect, the full purpose yet to be revealed. This time not only did I listen carefully, I agreed without hesitation, in fact with expectation and joy.

Penny arrived three weeks later with a contented sense of already belonging. During her stay with us she reminded me of many excellent qualities of life I had temporarily forgotten. She faced change with a sense of adventure, and she taught me the importance of playfulness no matter what one's age or creaky bones. During her time in our home, and later, in her passing, Penny demonstrated how to bring people together in a loving manner. Strength and courage were qualities she displayed daily, as did all the other animals around me, both wild and domesticated. Yet in Penny, they were qualities that seemed to shine. For the first time in her life she learned how to manage stairs. She discovered cats and found them fascinating to watch, to wash, and to chase. And she learned about pecking order, alpha dogs, packs—all new to one who once had been an only dog.

Penny had been with us only six months, yet there was a familiarity about her as if she had lived with me forever. I felt as if some ancient sage dwelled in that massive golden frame. Then one evening without warning she simply collapsed. In subsequent days we discovered she had developed inoperable cancer that would become increasingly painful. She was euthanized by the gentle hand of Dr. Partridge.

Penny’s death at the age of fourteen offered me new experiences and insights into the passage from life. For example, Dr. Partridge phoned with the news of finding her cancer, immediately following the exploratory surgery. Together we agreed it would be kindest to Penny to simply not let her wake up from the anesthesia. This meant, however, that I would not be present at her death. And initially, this was difficult for me. I did not want Penny to feel I had abandoned her. Yet, as I sat in prayer, I felt strongly that she understood my physical absence at such an important time. And in some inexplicable way, Penny assured me that on our soul level, we were not apart from one another at all.

In moving through my own grieving process over Penny’s death, I followed the steps I had offered to others so many times in the past few years. I sat in silence and sent loving, supportive messages to Penny. Then I spoke aloud to her, sensing that wherever she was, she would hear and appreciate my words. In meditation I visualized our minds and hearts joining. I allowed myself to continue to cry as needed, sometimes in the middle of the night, often as I set out dinner bowls for the other dogs, hers painfully absent. I washed and put away Penny’s favorite blanket, to be used for the next animal in need. I wrote a lengthy letter to Dr. Partridge, his family, and the hospital staff who had gathered over the months to assist her transition from her previous home to mine, and from mine to the beyond. I detailed all she had reminded me of, new things she had taught me, and the ways I would continue to honor her presence in the universe.

I realized I could, after all, keep an open door and heart to other elder animals in need of love and assistance in their final days on Earth. I could be a gentle "embrace" that eased their journey through dying. Finally, a few days after Penny’s death, I stood in the middle of my living room surrounded by thirteen eager canines and eight pensive felines, and declared these intentions to Penny Partridge, and all of Life everywhere.

Since Penny’s passing I have often felt her spirit close by, almost as if I could see her, but not quite. The guidance I received after Domino's death seemed to be the same "voice" or energy that led Penny and me to each other. The bond Penny and I formed inspires me to continue the work in her memory.

Penny Partridge left me with a new awareness about life and death. And now, each creature, in his or her own way, continues to broaden that awareness. No two experiences are ever the same. Sometimes I am overwhelmed by the waves of beauty inherent in the process of death. At other times, I only get a glimpse of that beauty. Each new encounter with an animal's passing requires that I have enough humility to recognize and accept all that I still don't know. Then and only then am I able to firmly integrate their teaching into my heart and be ready to pass it along to the next one, human or creature who, through her suffering, calls me still deeper into my own evolution.

© Copyright Rita M. Reynolds.  The above piece is excerpted from Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond by Rita M. Reynolds. All material is copyrighted and cannot be reproduced or used without permission from the publisher, NewSage Press. To learn more about this book visit the publisher’s web site at www.newsagepress.com

Rita Reynolds
Rita Reynolds is the founder of Howling Success, an animal sanctuary located in the foothills of the Blue Ridge Mountains near Charlottesville, Virginia. For the past 25 years her sanctuary has been home to hundreds of animals. Reynolds is the author of "Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond." She is also the founder and editor of laJoie, The Journal in Appreciation of All Animals, first published in 1990 and distributed internationally. In addition to her animal family, Reynolds shares her home with her husband and two sons.

 Rita Reynolds is currently establishing a community hospice program for animals and their human families. She also provides individual consulting for those who are facing serious illness or death with a beloved animal companions. Reynolds can be reached at PO Box 145, Batesville, VA 22924. You can also reach her by email at: Lajoieco1@aol.com.




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