When our horse, Albert, passed away in May, my sister, Leigh, offered words and images that helped me move into, with, and through my grief. In her health care practice, hospice volunteer work, and honoring ministry for people and pets, there’s a common thread of accompanying people through transitions. In particular, she’s devoted to nurturing the bond between people and animals. She is also an artist. Her photography and artwork reflect these themes, too. The photos of Albert in this post were taken by my sister over the course of his life with in our family.
Gigi Amateau: Thank you so much for being there after Albert died. I’d like to ask you some questions about the nature of human-animal friendships and also about your ministry. When in your life did you first recognize your love for animals?
Leigh Meriweather: As a child, I had an innate love for animals, I think all children do. I actually think all adults do, too. Some are just distracted. I remember loving the salamanders in the forest and being worried about the birds not getting enough food when it snowed. For whatever reason, animals were always my source of comfort and connection to love. The highlight of my day now is what connection in nature I experience…whether it is helping a moth get outside who was in Mattie’s water dish, sitting beside some lizards while we catch some rays or helping a person with healing or connection with their pet.
Gigi: How did you come to know that your life’s work would be in helping people stay connected with their beloved animals even beyond death?
Leigh: I think it began with my own exploration of this and wanting to share it. I have truly come to understand that animals can be a loving and wonderful part of not only your life, but your soul’s development. I knew, within me, it filled (and continues to fill) a need and I could see that there were others who were searching for the same. One of my guides reflected that there is a hole in humanity regarding death. Perhaps with this work, I can help some of that, too.
Gigi There’s something unseen but so essential that animals bring to the human experience. Think about how often horses and dogs and other animals are used in therapy. I’m probably a serious latecomer to this idea, but I really believe that animals are as essential to human life as air and water. Writing it down just now, it seems so obvious. Like saying, “I’ve realized the sky is blue.” But for me, this has been a gradual journey to realize how essential it is for me to connect with animals every day – birds, frogs, butterflies, dogs, cats, horses. What is it that animals bring to the human spirit or mind or body?
Leigh: I think, on a basic level, animals bring us back to our connection to nature, as us part of it. How wonderful is that? And with this comes our connection to so much more. As a culture we have strayed so far from that concept. We, as humans, think of ourselves as higher and separate from nature. Nothing could be further from the truth. We are part of nature. We are always connected, whether we are aware of it or not. So, when we have a moment, it is delightful but almost doesn’t seem real. And when it happens, it touches a deep place of knowing within us. We start to feel it. We start to crave it. We start to understand that this is part of who we truly are. We are here to be friends and stewards…caretakers…to those around whether plants, animals, insects. When we feel this connection, we want more of it. It is gently reminding us. We all really want to remember and know our true connection. It feels good. It feels good to make friends, to be connected to remember and tap into this source of connection not only to nature but an inner source.
Gigi: What I appreciated so much after Albert’s death is that you took my friendship with him seriously, as well as the mushrooming grief that just took over in the days immediately following his passing. You helped me open my mind to the idea that through reflection and meditation and honoring, I could stay related to Albert. I just hadn’t thought of it that way. Funny, because I do believe in life after death and that death brings us to a new road, but I was feeling very much like Albert’s death was the end of our friendship. And, that thought was unbearable. But, maybe it’s just going to become a different friendship? How is that possible, if neither he nor I can physically get to where the other is?
Leigh: It is possible because you can get to a place which is beyond the physical. It will be somewhat different because he is not here in the physical and you cannot interact in that realm. That is the hardest part for us since that is where most of our focus is. But, while it is true that he is not here with you in the physical…are you saying that your relationship with him, while he was here, only existed in the physical? That this was the only way you interacted with him, in the physical realm? No, of course not. The relationship you had with him was actually mostly beyond that already, in the heart-soul connection realm…through talks and chats and love and affection and sharing and laughter and joy and challenges and triumphs and questions and answers and sharing and love and affection…etc. Since we are, luckily, much more than our physical bodies and are only in them for a short while, ‘we’ exist beyond them. It takes some stretching…it takes some courage…but yes, when we reach…and allow…and engage, then the relationship can expand. It gives a great opportunity is to develop the relationship beyond the physical, open up, allow and receive a deeper experience of the love and relationship you two share.
Gigi: From your experience of helping people through such transitions, can you share one or two examples of how to continue to stay connected, and perhaps, even grow in friendship after death?
Leigh: I think one of the most important elements is to keep the beloved in your heart and allow space for them to communicate. Understand that the heart has its own language. Use your heart to convey the energy of the message you want to give. You just do this by feeling the message when you state it to them inwardly with your heart. Then, what is really hard for us humans, is allowing time and space for a reply. Keep in mind that the message will not (usually) be physically audible as we are used to. So, we have to rely deeper on feeling it or sometimes it comes as just knowing it. Some get images or symbols or thoughts. A good litmus test for what we are getting is to notice how we feel about the message or ‘checking in’ with our heart about it. We are often so worried about what others would think or sharing it and being judged. But, guess what? You don’t have to. It can be a beautiful, private message that you just know and are happy for and which settles your soul. The point is to keep them in your heart, send them love and messages and allow space for them to share back. Be open to receiving messages in different ways. Make time for it.
Gigi: Also, after Albert died I was filled with deep regret. Even though I had the privilege of spending twelve years of my life with him and being present with him through many, many times of joy and hardship, in the end I wished I had done more and been better. Is that common for people to feel regret after the loss of an animal?
Leigh: Yes, it is very common. It is what humans do. Part of it is just our innate predisposition to feeling guilty and bad about ourselves. Part of it is that, in their death/physical absence, we realize a greater value. We can take this in many different directions.
Gigi: Do you have any help for working through regret?
Leigh: It is a tough one and a place where we often get stuck indefinitely or for long periods of time. I think there are several different things we can do here. We can allow for this to be learning experience of things we would do differently next time. But to truly transition through regret, deeper work is needed. We need to see the good in what we are experiencing and we need to see the ways we can still accomplish what we want. For the first part, you are feeling regret because you wish you would have done more. Let’s break it down. More what? At this basis of this regret, is the desire to have alleviated pain, provided comfort, shared joy and love, etc. How beautiful is that? See that the fundamental desire is of good here. Give yourself love for having the desire to have wanted/wanting to do this. We can fully embrace the value we received from the relationship. We can also send love to it. This is one of my favorites and the next step in transitioning through regret. We can do this globally and specifically. If we understand that love transcends time and space, we can relive the moment, if we have regrets about a specific event. Except in this time, envision and experience your heart’s desire with the event. Play it out how you would have liked or want to experience in the actions and feelings. Doing this in a dedicated meditation is very powerful. It can neutralize the effects and let you feel things differently. It also engages, sends love and does the same for the beloved involved. You can actually do this with any event which still tugs at your heart. It elevates it to a higher level.
Gigi: One of my favorite writers, Eudora Welty, once wrote, “A good snapshot keeps a moment from running away.” I’m so grateful that you photographed Albert many times over the course of his life. Collecting some of these images all in one place has proven remarkably therapeutic for me. Likewise, I find myself wanting to tell stories about Albert. How can photographs and storytelling help in recovering from grief?
Leigh: I love photographs. I love them so much. I really feel they can be a source of connection to what was in that moment. We can get there other ways, but so much of our experience is visual. The visual of loving experience (and loved one) can be a heart-opener to staying connected to them and our experience. Storytelling, through expression and sharing, is another way. It is a beautiful way to continue to experience the relationship. What you have done well is noticing these desires and following through on them. I was just writing a chapter about listening to what the heart needs in healing grief. It is also what the spirit or soul wants as it is coming through the heart. Sometimes, just following what the heart needs helps heal grief. Sometimes, in the process we get an understanding which is important for us. Sometimes it leads us to the next step. It also can just be an expression of love, which is always healing.
Gigi: This year, I’ve been reading and re-reading Zen Mind Zen Horse: The Science and Spirituality of Working with Horses by Allan J. Hamilton. I think you’d like this book. The author writes about breath, energy awareness, and honoring the nature of the horse standing before you. Here’s a passage:
“Truly archetypal horse cultures appreciated the horse precisely for his enhanced awareness. Mongols, Bedouins, and Native Americans all treated horses like relatives and brought their most valued ones right inside their dwellings. A prized warhorse was zealously guarded. An enemy would have to display great courage and skill to snake into the heart of his opponent’s enclave and steal such a horse. Acquiring a man’s warhorse was equivalent to stealing his power, his very soul.”
I take two thoughts from this paragraph. 1. It’s really interesting to think about the idea of a warhorse (or a wardog!), if I sidepass the literal meaning. When I replace ‘war’ with ‘life’, the image emerges of a companion who willingly and courageously accompanies me into the glorious and grisly encounters that are life. Maybe, a lifehorse or a lifedog? 2. The idea of an entwinement of souls with our beloved animals is resonant and expresses what I think the term ‘pet’ lacks…not pet but part of me.
Leigh: I just wrote recently about my understanding that my pets have taught me the true meaning of partnership. Meaning, they have been with me through many wars and battles and defeats. Animals, more than any, have not only shown me the greatest love, but have assisted in my soul’s development. I think if we just open up to this idea a little, we would see could engage more with them, and nature to helps us. Nature and animals are always willing to assist us help us develop if we just listen and open up to them.
Gigi: An important focus of your ministry is the idea of honoring ceremonies for beloved animals after death. What is an honoring ceremony?
Leigh: Yes, I actually hold honoring ceremonies for both people and pets. Honoring ceremonies are a dedicated time to express love, honor and thanks to one who had great value in your life. I deeply believe that it is spiritually important to show honor and thanks in meaningful way. Plus, it just plain feels good to say thanks. It helps us as it fills a deeper emotional and spiritual of expressing honor and giving something back. It also helps the one be honored as it sends them love and elevates them. It is a gift to them. Honoring ceremonies can also be a bridge to connecting deeper with our beloved.
Gigi: How is that different from a funeral or memorial?
Leigh: An honoring ceremony fits a different need at a different time than a funeral. A funeral is usually held close to the time of death, helps with primary closure and serves a way of helping with the heavy emotions which accompany death. But grief does not end there. And often is more difficult, the deeper and more meaningful the relationship. We go through a long process of figuring out how to manage this change in our life. As time passes, we often still feel a deep lacking. There is something missing. We want to do something, to give them something. We want to have a way to show how much value they had/have to us. An additional ceremony of honoring at this later time can do this. An honoring ceremony happens when it feels right. This could be weeks, months or even years after a death. It can also pave the way for the love to link to stronger reconnection and relationship.
Gigi: Thank you, again, so much for your support through Albert’s passing. And, thank you, too, for appearing on my blog. Is there anything that I haven’t asked you but that people ask you frequently that you’d like to share?
Leigh: My pleasure, it is an honor to know you, Albert and be a part of helping in this process. As far as other questions, what I see a lot (and have experienced a lot) is that state of feeling stuck…just being in a place where you do not know what to do or how to get out of where you are. And what I would say to people is to keep looking and reaching for the answer. It will come. And, when you don’t know what else to do, take a deep breath and think of that which you love. This helps get us to a more relaxed place and helps us to be in a better emotional space. It will also align you with where you need to be. The other thing you can do is to start to imagine what it would feel like to be completely healed. Even just the idea of this can be tremendously healing. But, if we can just spend even a few minutes a day in this space, more and more of it will come.
Gigi: Where can people learn more about your work?
Leigh: www.PetHonoring.com and www.SpiritHonoring.com Thank you for this opportunity. Thanks to those out there for their love of animals and engaging in expanding their heart. Blessings to you and your work.