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ISBN 978-0-939165-59-9
192 pages
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Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying and Beyond
By Rita M. Reynolds

New Edition


One Spirit Book Club Selection


amazon.com’s “Best of 2001”

There is a land of the living and
a land of the dead
and the bridge is love,
the only survival, the only meaning.

--Thornton Wilder

For more than thirty-five years, author Rita Reynolds has worked with sick and dying animals at her animal sanctuary, Howling Success. She offers a pioneering approach to understanding and working with aging and dying animals, with specifics on how to comfort and ease them into death, such as creating a soothing environment, herbal stress relievers, and comforting words.

Blessing the Bridge goes beyond the advice of most grief books, suggesting that even in death, there is tremendous opportunity for love and learning.

Reynolds’ compassionate approach to simply “being” with animals, offers a deeper understanding of our connection to all animals as well as moving beyond our own fears of death to be of assistance to our dying animal companions. Her nonsecular spiritual perspective for viewing death and its blessings is visionary. Blessing the Bridge includes many of Reynolds’ heart moving stories about animals in their final days and what they have taught her about living, dying, death, and beyond.

Visit Rita Reynolds' web site


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CONTENTS

  • Chapter One
    Creating a Sanctuary

  • Chapter Two
    The Garden of Life

  • Chapter Three
    Each Creature Brings a Gift

  • Chapter Four
    Euthanasia: The Merciful Release

  • Chapter Five
    The Art of Letting Go

  • Chapter Six
    Releasing Waggy

  • Chapter Seven
    Sadie's Bridge

  • Chapter Eight
    Common Ground

  • Chapter Nine
    The Power of Prayer

  • Chapter Ten
    Communicating Without Words

  • Chapter Eleven
    A Hand to Hold, a Soul to Ease

  • Chapter Twelve
    Tools for Caregivers

  • Chapter Thirteen
    Good-byes and Dragonflies: Acknowledging Mystery

  • Chapter Fourteen
    Animals and Grieving

  • Chapter Fifteen
    The Other Side of the Bridge

  • Chapter Sixteen
    Blessings and Prayers

  • Chapter Seventeen
    It's Really All Right: A Final Tribute

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Praise for Blessing the Bridge

Blessing the Bridge is heartwarming and thought-provoking, but always marked by an unshakeable assurance that the end of life can be faced without fear. Rita Reynolds has learned that animals, who always seem to live closest to the marrow of existence, can teach us to accept death as an opening for love and wonder.

--Gary Kowalksi, The Souls of Animals and Goodbye Friend


This book offers a profound entrance into the mystery of those two gleaming eyes before you. A must read for all animal lovers. A healing book.

--Stephen and Ondrea Levine, Who Dies and Embracing the Beloved

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Blessing the Bridge is head and shoulders above all the other books now out on pet loss. With great respect and insight, Rita leads us across the bridge between worlds and never for a moment lets us forget that the real heart of this journey is its deeply spiritual center. Although we face this bridge with our animal companions, the message Rita Reynolds conveys about love and loss is universal. It is a message that will fortify us for every other loss in our life--be it an animal companion, a relationship, a job, or a dream.

--Susan Chernak McElroy, Animals as Teachers & Healers


People seem to dread awarding human attributes to our fellow animals. In fact, as Blessing the Bridge so warmly and wisely shows, animals and humans share the ultimate experience--we all die. This book softens the sting of that, and shows how to ease the way for our animal friends.

--Roger Caras
President, ASPCA


This is a valuable book for those of us who feel a spiritual bond with the animals in our lives. However, this gentle, thoughtful volume is more than just a spiritual guide. It’s also a practical guide to helping an animal to die with peace and dignity. Maybe you’ve had a dog come up to say goodbye to you just before his death. Perhaps you’ve had a clear vision of your cat running, free and happy, at the moment her heart stopped beating. I’ve certainly had experiences like these. Until Blessing the Bridge, there wasn’t a book that talked about these experiences. Rita Reynolds gives the reader a lot to think about with her comforting beliefs about the animal afterlife.

--Deborah Wood, pet columnist for The Oregonion
author of The Tao of Bow Wao
and The Tao of Meow

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Rita M. 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 35 years her sanctuary has been home to hundreds of animals. Reynolds 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 also provides individual consulting for those who are facing serious illness or death with a beloved animal companion. Reynolds can be reached at PO Box 145, Batesville, VA 22924. You can also reach her by email at: Lajoieco1@aol.com.

Also, Rita Reynolds is collecting unusual or inspiring stories about experiences with animals related to animal death and dying, after-death communication, and after-death encounters . She would like to consider your story for inclusion in a future book project. You can contact her at the above addresses.


(The following is excerpted from Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond, copyrighted 2001 by Rita M. Reynolds.)

Chapter Fourteen

Animals and Grieving 

There is another facet to grief that is often neglected when an animal dies: the grieving by other animals in the family. Time and again I have seen animals feel loss when another leaves, the pain sometimes so intense that it results in a serious illness, or even their own death.

I will testify from experience that all manner of animals regard death -- both their own and that of others around them -- with more than just fascination or fear. When Corky, my beloved canine friend of fifteen years died the day after her birthday in April 1995, I brought her body home from the animal hospital. I wrapped it carefully in white cloth, and laid it on the front porch. The other dogs knew she was gone and would not cross the place where her bed had been, even though it was in a major traffic area between the kitchen and front porch. I had already removed the bed and washed it. It had been the same situation following Waggy’s death. After she died, not one dog would climb into the chair she had rested in that final year. Finally, I took the chair from the living room.

With Corky’s passing, the hour before her last trip to the hospital had been violent and confusing. She had a sudden grand mal seizure and the other dogs were frightened by it. When Doug and I returned later that night after having her put to sleep, the remaining members of the dog family were exceptionally quiet, too quiet. I could have used some noise and distraction!

The following day I dug the hole for Corky’s body in a beautiful bed of violets. I was about to lay her body in the grave when I looked up, sensing a strong presence nearby. There was Sam, always my guardian and alpha dog, watching intently. As I had done for Stef with Little Eddie’s body, I let Sam see Corky’s body, explained as best I could what I was about to do, and then folded the sheet back over our friend. Sam seemed to understand, telling me so by looking straight into my eyes and then bowing his head, Sam’s way of communicating with me. Together, we buried Corky and honored our very special friend.

Steffie chose to leave a healthy young body to be with Little Eddie, understanding that he was no longer alive once we presented his body to her. I believe it was at that moment that she made her decision to die. I was impressed by Thomas the cat’s reaction to Penny Reynolds’ death. He had stayed close by us throughout her dying. At the time I thought it amazing that one animal would care so much about another, giving her support throughout her dying. I was especially impressed that a cat would care that much about a dog.

Thomas was remarkable in many ways and had shown a strong attachment to other animals before Penny. His best buddy, Benjamin, another black-and-white stray cat we had adopted, was killed by a car. When his body was laid on our neighbor’s lawn by some thoughtful person, Thomas lay down right next to Benjamin, his front leg draped across the cold body. When our neighbor found them, Thomas was so quiet she thought he was dead as well. We had to lift Thomas off of Benjamin, explaining as best we could that his friend would not be coming home. Thomas moped for weeks after the incident before apparently resigning himself to life as an only cat. Naturally, in our house this would never be a permanent situation, and within a month we had taken in another stray feline in need of a family.

Thomas was, in fact, the first animal to show me that humans are not the only ones to mourn the loss of a friend. Animals feel the void left in the wake of death. Therefore, it is vital to take such grieving creatures right on through the resolution process. This means that as a caregiver, I am always acutely observant of any signs of grief in the other animals, such as despondency, loss of appetite, sudden aggressive behavior, sudden loss of weight, a desire to remain in dark corners, refusal to socialize with other animals or people. They may develop a dull coat, or severe allergies, or begin to lose eyesight or hearing. If all disease is preceded by a breakdown in the mental/emotional bodies as so many doctors and psychologists in the field of mind/body medicine now know to be true, then it is not such an outrageous proposition that in animals physical decline would follow intense grief.

Resolution in such cases asks great patience on the caregiver’s part because any explanation regarding death will naturally involve abstract principles and animals best understand humans when clear, precise mental images are offered to them. But I never hesitate to speak with the other animals in my family in a direct and honest manner, forming the clearest images I can. The conversation is always one-sided: I talk, my animal friend watches me patiently, sometimes grooms him or herself, or takes a brief nap. But I never fool myself; they do understand and they very much appreciate my concern for their feelings.

So when I speak with them, I trust that the creature in question will understand the images I form as thought, and sense the color and tone reflected by my words. I remind my friend that the one who has died did so in their own time, with their own purpose, and is delighted to be just where he or she is. I reassure them that they can experience the soul aspect of their departed companion, as I know Thomas was aware of Penny leaving her body.

But sometimes, despite my efforts, the grieving will carry animals out of life. The situation with Sally illustrates this well... .

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(The following is excerpted from Blessing the Bridge: What Animals Teach Us About Death, Dying, and Beyond. Copyright 2001 by Rita M. Reynolds and NewSage Press.)

Chapter Fifteen

The Other Side of the Bridge

When an animal approaches that bridge of transition called death, I remind myself that my friend is simply coming to a juncture between worlds. She is not disappearing into nothing. And I trust that the beings of light are also present to help ease her over. My job is to visualize that expansive bridge and the spirit guides.

When I am able to be fully mindful of such a process, sensations of grief, anger and loss simply evaporate, at least temporarily, so that I can help make my companion’s passage out of body as easy and comfortable as possible. When the transition is complete, and she has separated from her body, all I need to do is return my focus to the beings of light. Miraculously, the grief momentarily lessens; I know they are here for me, too.

Yet, when the death of an animal is complete, I often feel suddenly and desperately alone. The silence and stillness of the lifeless body, the finality of death, can be overwhelming. Eventually, I emerge from the whirlwind of such an intense time. Relieved that the animal’s soul is free of pain and suffering, now I can begin to mend my own pain of loss through the ceremonies of grieving, burial of the body, and establishing a memorial.

But one sweet cat named Patches taught me, through her passage, that even though an animal has died, I, as caregiver, still have work to do. The focus of the work is on behalf of that animal’s soul. Where is that soul once death is complete? And, how is that soul adjusting to her new surroundings? Patches showed me that immediately following death, the animal’s soul may still be very close. And, that soul may need my help to adjust to her new state of being.

I called Patches my Halloween cat. She was a thin tortoise shell with high, puffed-out cheeks, and wide yellow eyes. At fourteen, she loped rather than walked across the floor and she had the loudest, most persistent purr of any cat I have ever known.

Patches and her sister, Snowball, came to live with us when they were thirteen. Both adjusted well despite the unexpected and traumatic changes of entering our busy sanctuary at such an advanced age. Shortly after joining our family, Patches developed a hyperthyroid condition that required careful monitoring and daily medication. Once again she took the situation in stride, always eager to greet us as her best friends, purring and meowing her contentment.

Early in 1999, Patches began to lose ground with her weight and her breathing. She had difficulty eating despite an excellent appetite and increasingly became too wobbly to do her famous lope across the floor. Michael and I took her to the animal hospital, and returned home to await the diagnosis. When Dr. Helle Stewart, an associate of Dr. Partridge, called, her news was sad. Patches had developed a condition causing air to be gathering outside her lungs. Because of this, Patches had partial collapse of both lungs and increasing overall distress. She could no longer eat and breathe comfortably at the same time, and every movement was painful. At her age, there was no successful treatment available.

Dr. Stewart suggested that we consider having Patches released from her pain. Michael and I agreed with her recommendation for euthanasia, but we wanted to be there. I needed to let Patches know what was going to happen. Dr. Stewart kindly agreed to keep Patches on oxygen until we arrived.

“Patches is a wonderful cat,” Dr. Stewart said when we entered the exam room. “But she doesn’t like us working on her. She will probably struggle when we give her the shot, and it could get rough.” She started to lift Patches to take her into another room.

“No,” I replied firmly, “we want to be with her, that’s why we’re here.” Then even I was surprised when I heard myself say, “I’ll talk to her, let her know exactly what’s going to happen. It will probably make a difference in how she reacts. It always does.” I had never told this to a veterinarian before, even though I knew it was true. I had always been too shy. Dr. Stewart hardly knew me, but to her credit she only nodded, and offered to let us have a few minutes alone with Patches.

When she left the room, Michael and I talked to Patches. By now Patches was so weak she needed to be supported while she gasped for breath. We stroked her and gently assured her that soon all her pain would be gone. I told her that Dr. Stewart would give her an injection to help ease her out of her body. “You won’t need that old, frail body where you are going to, Patches,” I told her. “You are going to a wonderful place where you will be so happy!” She wasn’t tense, but didn’t seem to be listening either. I continued talking to her. I knew she heard me on some level of her being. “You need to help Dr. Stewart,” I said, “by being very calm and just letting go. Michael and I will be here to help you, and you know we will always love you.”

Dr. Stewart reentered the room with a veterinary technician. They stood on either side of Patches while I sat at the head of the exam table, cradling her head in my hands. I spoke quietly to Patches, continually telling her that everything was okay, that she could relax and begin letting go of her body. Just as Dr. Stewart was ready to insert the needle into Patches’ hind leg, once again I surprised myself by saying aloud, “Okay, Patches, this is the part where you help Dr. Stewart.” If there were any lifted eyebrows, I didn’t see them.

Patches neither whimpered nor flinched as Dr. Stewart gave her the shot. I watched Patches’ eyes as she changed her focus from me to within herself until the pupils became fixed and her head eased over in my hands. Her soul was gone. While her heart continued to beat for a few seconds, again I spoke aloud to her, encouraging her to let go.

Dr. Stewart sighed with relief. “I love it when it’s easy like that,” she said.

“It always is, when you let them know what is happening each step of the way,” I said. “Dying is much less frightening.”

Michael was called from the room and Dr. Stewart said quietly, “I’ll just give you some time to be with Patches,” a gesture I truly appreciated. Now I was alone with the small, lifeless body of my Halloween cat.

I closed my eyes and visualized on her sweet face. Suddenly, I saw her in my mind: She looked luminous and healthy. She appeared to be sitting up on her haunches and looking up and around her as she moved her head back and forth repeatedly. I received the strong impression that she was confused, wondering, Where am I? What’s happened? How did I get here? She seemed disoriented by her new surroundings, although she was not frightened. I again focused all my thought toward her, saying, “You’re perfectly safe, Patches. You’re in that wonderful place I told you about. Notice how easily you can breathe now.”

I couldn’t seem to get her attention, although I felt as if my words were reaching her. She continued to turn her head back and forth, looking everywhere, but her expression began to shift from one of confusion to one of absolute wonderment and joy. She glowed!

“Patches,” I said, sending my thought as strongly as I could, “look around you. There has to be a being of light there. Go with that being, follow that light-—the light is there to guide you on.” Again I felt as if she had received my message even though she did not seem to be aware of me. I had the comfortable sensation that from now on that the soul that was Patches, was going to be fine.

At that precise moment, the vet technician entered the room, and I opened my eyes.

****

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The process of death and the efforts of a caregiver transcend all religions and philosophies. The Buddhists, in particular, work with a person to help him or her prepare for death and leave the body. Buddhists continue to assist that soul for days and sometimes weeks following death, through the next stages that soul will experience. An excellent, detailed explanation of this practice can be found in The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying by Sogyal Rinpoche. I had read of this practice before knowing Patches but had never applied it. My experience with her confirmed for me the importance of continuing my support of the soul until I sense that the animal’s soul feels safe and at peace.

Patches’ heart stopped within seconds of being given the injection, typical with euthanasia, causing her to experience confusion by so sudden a jolt out of her body. If she had experienced a natural, slower dying, I believe her soul would probably have spent considerable time moving between earth and the etheric, preparing for the transformation. When the final crossover did occur, the etheric plane would, by then, be at least somewhat familiar and the transition less of a shock. This seemed to be my mother’s experience during her passage. After ten intense days of obviously moving in and out of her body at precise intervals, my mother’s soul seemed to finally simply ease away.

Because of Patches I now ask for time alone with the animal once euthanasia is complete. I continue to send reassuring thoughts to help that animal’s soul safely on his or her journey. Hopefully, every veterinary hospital will eventually have a room set aside specifically for times when an animal must be euthanized. Such a room would provide a quiet, less austere atmosphere, with a tape or CD player available for playing supportive music or chanting. Such a room would also have a comfortable chair to allow a people to be more relaxed with their animal companions prior to, and after, euthanasia. I believe that someday veterinarians will understand the importance of hospice support for animals and their humans-before, during, and after that animal’s death.


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