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Giving Comfort

Giving Comfort


I was 20 when Shambalah was left on the front stoop of my San Francisco apartment. She was only a few months old and funny looking, a tiny head on a big, white body. An ugly duckling, who matured into a dog so beautiful, people often stopped me on the street to ask if they could buy her.

My Shambalah saved me. She was the one constant in my often tumultuous, sometimes frighteningly sad life. We lived together in San Francisco; Albuquerque, NM; Glassboro, NJ; Chicago. She died at 15 and a half, a long life for a big dog. She had been failing for about six months, and I am certain that she stayed as long as she did out of her concern for me. When she left, my guardian angel, my spirit mother was gone. My grief was so thick, I could barely breathe.

I choked on that grief for weeks. It would hit me at the most inopportune times, walking down the street to the store, in the middle of a workout at the gym. I would swallow my anguish, then collapse once I’d made it back home.

Everyone adored Shambalah, and so I imagine my friends, my family shared verbal condolences, but I don’t remember. I only remember being alone and sick with grief.

Some 20 years later, I lost my beloved Nikos, the Thoroughbred who had walked into my life six years earlier and completely turned it upside down. He is the being who led me to my work with animals; he is the being who, day after day after day, taught me how to hear them, taught me how to begin recognizing the Divine all around me, inside of others, two-legged and four-legged, inside of myself.

Nikos had come into my life when he was 18. He’d had a hard life, both as a race horse and then a hunter/jumper. He was terribly thin, his feet hurt, his whole body hurt. He brought me to this work, he showed me how to help him, and he healed. Every time I looked into his beautiful face, my heart swung open. Every time I had to leave him to go home, my heart ached.

Living with him the last year of his life was a blessing I will always cherish. Despite other hardships, other anxieties (all of which, I realize now, were meaningless in the larger scheme of things), that year with him was one of the richest years of my life.

When Nikos fell ill, I cared for him around the clock for three months. When he left, my heart was shattered. I simply could not imagine life without him. I wanted to let go of the things holding me to this earth and follow him wherever it was that he had gone.

I am so very fortunate that this experience was vastly different from the experience of losing my beloved Shambalah. This time, I was not alone. Friends called; friends came with food and movies, with offers to care for the rest of the herd. A student in the Saturday morning writing workshop that I taught drove miles out of her way to come get me, take me to class, and bring me back. Friends spent the night with me, bought me gifts of healing stones. Friends and family sent me cards, flowers. A dear friend who was also a Reiki practitioner shared treatments with me, treatments that calmed my ferocious tears, that helped to soothe my heart.

Several friends helped me to plan a memorial service, and over 20 people filled the barn on a windy February day, to pay their respects and to offer me their support. Then we shared a glorious pot-luck meal in the house and celebrated life.

Throughout my months-long healing journey, no one said:

“Nikos is better off now. He is out of pain. He is with his friends.”

“You will see him again one day.”

“Don’t you think it’s time to get over this?”

My friends acknowledged the tremendous loss I had suffered, held out their arms to  me, helped to create a safe space for me to once again find my feet and choose to walk on this earth again.

Many in our culture fear death so deeply that they are unable to reach out to those who have suffered a loss. They may send a card, with someone else’s words on it, but they cannot find their own words and often just don’t know what to do to help.

And it seems that even those who can offer sincere condolences for the loss of a human find themselves without words when a friend or family member has lost an animal companion.

Acknowledgement of someone’s pain is so important. The words, “I am so sorry for your loss” mean the world to someone in the throes of grief. And if you live close enough, your loving presence can bring exquisite relief —your gift of food, of time, of a kind and patient ear, of a strong shoulder, a comforting touch.


I would love to hear your thoughts about ways that we can comfort each other in times of loss. What can you say? What can you do? How have you been comforted and nourished in your time of grief?

I hope you will be moved to share your thoughts.

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