The reality is that grief from pet loss is not as easily ‘fixed’ as some would have us believe. It’s hard to live in grief that’s judged as unworthy. Grief is about love, and our animal companions often show us some of the most unconditional love we could ever experience. How often, despite our best efforts, do we absorb some of society’s judgments and think, I shouldn’t be grieving this much? Yet when we let these thoughts in, we betray our genuine feelings.
—Dr. David Kessler, You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death (Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Publishing, 2014), p. 136.
My role as cat midwife/cat mother has come full circle for my beloved Grendel: On September 21, 2007, I midwifed his feral birth in the woods behind my parents’ house; last night, June 11, 2019, I served as the death midwife who ushered him into the Spirit World after I made the heart-wrenching choice (given his Stage IV stomach cancer diagnosis less than 3 weeks ago) to have him euthanized at home sooner than I was expecting to.
I have written in detail, 3 years ago, of the traumatizing experience of having my beloved cat companion, Thor, euthanized at home. I was not at peace with that decision in 2016, largely because of my fear that Thor wasn’t actually clinically dead when he was buried: for nearly a month after his euthanasia, I had a recurring nightmare that he was buried alive and was desperately trying to claw his way out of the hole in the ground of my parents’ yard into which I’d interred him. As noted thanatologist and grief expert, Dr. David Kessler (I am a huge fan of his work and highly recommend attending his seminars in person; if that’s not geographically or financially possible for you, please immerse yourself in his award-winning books), has said about the difficult decision of euthanizing a companion animal, “it makes the loss a little harder when we wondered if we did the right thing at the right time” (You Can Heal Your Heart, 136).
In Grendel’s case, I know that scheduling the euthanasia after four days of severe breathing complications to the point that he was panting like a dog (the golf ball-sized cancerous tumor in his abdomen was pressing against his diaphragm, making it hard for him to breathe) and refusing to eat or drink water was the right—the most humane—decision for me to make.
But that didn’t mean I was emotionally prepared to let him go.
A traumatizing home euthanasia experience for my gentle, loving, 12-year-old cat and cancer victim, Grendel
The same Chicago mobile veterinarian who performed Thor’s euthanasia was the doctor who punctually arrived at 7:45 yesterday evening. Grendel, sensing a disturbance, actually began hiding an hour before my doorbell rang. Given Grendel’s respiratory distress, the doctor thought it would be good to give him an initial sedative to slow his heart rate. I agreed. By this point, Grendel had made a beeline for the bedroom and I knew if he managed to squeeze himself under my low-to-the-floor bed, I was going to face a serious complication. I managed to catch him by his hind legs mid-dive and gently slid him back towards me. I held his favorite wool-blend blanket in my right arm in the process and eventually wrapped him up in it, “purrito”-style, as cozily as I could. Toting Grendel about like a baby, I then went around to every window in the house and opened it; this was in deference to my Serbian culture’s death customs—windows need to be opened to facilitate the exit of souls from this world.
The windows open, I then rejoined the doctor in the living room. He extracted an electric razor, a tourniquet, and a massive syringe and vials of the sedative and the death-dealing drug from his doctor bag. As Grendel had long fur, he had to shave some off of a forepaw in order to find a suitable vein for the injections.
“You’re definitely making the right decision, kiddo,” the doctor said to me. “I know you had expressed doubts about Thor, but Grendel is severely dehydrated. There is no quality of life for him. At all. Sometimes, though, the animals linger on for our sakes because they know we’re not ready to let them go yet. But they’ve already rejected life,” he explained to me gently.
“Come here, Grendel,” the doctor held out his arms to take Grendel, who was panting with tremendous difficulty, from me for a quick physical exam. “And where is his tumor growing?”
“His abdomen,” I replied as I started crying. I had initially resolved to keep my composure for the duration of the procedure, but I couldn’t bear the wide-eyed, terrified expression on Grendel’s face, nor the sight of him gasping to breathe. I felt like I was betraying him and I hated myself for it.
“Oh my, oh yes, here it is—the tumor,” the doctor announced, as he felt his way across Grendel’s stomach. “Ana, it’s time,” he said to me; then, to Grendel, he said, “Your mommy loves you and she did the very best that she could for you, and I know you love her too. She knows it’s time to let you go. Now you can go play with Thor again,” he said in a soothing voice as he stroked the fur on Grendel’s forehead.
I grabbed several tissues from the Kleenex box on the coffee table and buried my face into them, thinking I could audibly muffle my sobs. It didn’t work.
“Let’s make the light in here brighter so I can find a good vein on Grendel,” the doctor announced, snapping me out of my state of abject horror for a moment.
I turned on all the lights in the living room. The doctor wrapped Grendel loosely in the blanket and placed him back in my arms. He took his electric razor and shaved off a bit of fur from Grendel’s right forepaw. Instinctively, I took the shavings of fur and shoved them into my jeans’ front left pocket for safekeeping. Grendel was still wheezing horribly, his brown-black tongue lolling out of his mouth as he gasped for breath. Eyes wide with terror. The sedative injection could not come soon enough! It took about two minutes until I felt Grendel’s tense body relax and his heart rate slowed down so that he was no longer panting. His eyelids grew heavy. He let out a heavy sigh.
“Is he starting to go limp?” the doctor asked. “Let’s wait another minute or two before the lethal dose.”
By this time, Beowulf, Hela, and Máni crowded around us. Beowulf climbed up onto the ottoman that faced where I was sitting and holding Grendel. Beowulf’s green eyes displayed pupils dilated with fear. I sensed he was having a moment with his brother, communicating something to him telepathically. Hela, meanwhile, began scenting the air near Grendel’s feet. The sedative did have a peculiar odor to it, one that I couldn’t define. Máni, who is only one year old and perhaps too young to understand the gravity of the moment, was busily exploring the contents of the doctor’s open leather bag to notice or care about Grendel’s imminent death. The doctor turned around to chuckle at Máni, calling him “a silly cat,” while he playfully tickled him under the chin. Hela smelled something offensive to her and she hissed and ran off. Beowulf still sat on the ottoman, frightened eyes locked on Grendel, until the doctor came to gently set him onto the floor so he could sit there and administer the lethal drug. “It’s good you got to say goodbye to your brother,” he said to Beowulf.
Then, turning to me: “Are you ready?”
My eyes stinging from the mascara that was mingling with my tears and cascading down my face and onto my chest, I nodded. A cartridge of I don’t know which medication was loaded into the massive syringe and then slowly administered via injection into Grendel’s shaved forepaw. Grendel surprised me after so many minutes of stillness by attempting to leap out of my arms; it was a death spasm. One final wheeze and then his head began to loll about, slipping from my chest and dangling into the cradle of my left elbow.
“I’m so sorry, Grendel—I’m so sorry!” I sobbed. I kissed his forehead. Beowulf ran away in terror. Hela was long gone. Only Máni stayed in the room, enjoying the experience of making a fortress out of the doctor’s bag splayed open on the floor.
“Time of death: 7:57 p.m. I know how you’re hurting, Ana, but remember—this was a peaceful release at just the right time for Grendel,” the veterinarian said to me kindly. “It would have been far, far worse to delay this and have him continue to suffer. I’m so sorry to see you going through this again. But you are a wonderful pet parent, and I hope there is some comfort for you knowing that Grendel has gone to join Thor.”
As soon as I saw the doctor leave my condo building, I collapsed onto the daybed, still holding Grendel. Rocking back and forth, I wailed my grief for a solid 60 minutes. My despair escalated as I felt the life force ebb out of Grendel; my cries grew more frantic and much louder the colder his little 6-pound body became.
I had a pounding headache and my voice sounded gravelly from screaming and from dehydration. I was convinced that my upstairs neighbors, who had been having an argument by the sound of things while the veterinarian was here, were going to knock on my door to ask me what was wrong because I noticed they immediately stopped arguing when I began wailing. I was relieved, however, that none of my neighbors came to check in on me. I just held Grendel and continued wailing.
Priestess at My Fur-Son’s Funeral: The Fellowship of Isis Dulce Domum Ritual
Our human brains are strange, mysterious worlds comprised of chemical signals through neural pathways that fuel the functioning of our autonomic nervous system, our thought processes, and our emotional reactions to our experiences. When we undergo grief and the outer world-oriented expressions of grief known as mourning, our brains function in ways that objectively might be viewed by others as “illogical” or “bizarre.” So what? We shouldn’t have to justify why we do what we do when we’re in the throes of grief.
And so I found that, almost like clock-work, as soon as the clock struck 9 o’clock, I immediately ceased crying and I went into Priestess-mode: I announced to Grendel’s corpse that I needed to make preparations in my home temple room to perform the profoundly impactful Fellowship of Isis funeral ceremony entitled Dulce Domum, The Soul Returns Home. I sprang to my feet and gently laid Grendel into one of the cat beds on the living room floor. I went into my home temple space and vacuumed the rug (physically cleaning it) before fumigating the room with frankincense and myrrh and sprinkling a few drops of Florida Water in the four corners (spiritually cleaning it). I announced to my Orisha and to other spirits that permanently dwell in that room that the space would serve as a welcoming abode to death energies.
My main devotional altar to the Kemetic Neteru (Deities) honors the Goddesses and Gods of Death and Deities known for providing spiritual protection: Nephthys (my Mother and Patron Deity), Anubis, Isis-Melania (“Black Isis” in Greek), Osiris-Sokar, Selqet, Taweret, and the Four Sons of Horus.
In terms of supplies, the Dulce Domum ritual calls for three unlit white candles, a vessel of pure water, incense, an ankh, a sistrum, a white veil, and sheaves of grain. I carried Grendel’s body, still wrapped in his favorite blanket, into the temple room in the plush cat bed, which I decided was going to become his funeral bier. Keeping in line with both ancient Egyptian and contemporary Serbian mourning customs, I cut off a large lock of my hair and laid it onto the altar. I lit a small charcoal for burning incense and placed my jars of grains of myrrh tears and kyphi incense on the altar, along with their little pewter spoon for dispensing. I shook my sistrum, saluting the Six Directions (South, East, North, West, Realm of Fixed Stars/Heavens, the Duat/Underworld). I sang my Opening Hymn, which I composed in 1991 at the age of 18 and have used in every devotional ritual and magical working to the Gods of Egypt ever since:
Reҳ hᾱᾱiu I rejoice
Ma a-ᾴ paut neteru May I look upon the company of the Gods
Nuk ut’a tep ta ҳer Rᾱ mena-a nefer I am strong upon the earth before Ra,
Ẋer Ausȧr May my arrival be happy before Osiris
Nuk t’a pet I have sailed over heaven
Nuk ȧȧh I am the moon
Ba-ᾱ pu neteru bai u en neheh My soul is the Gods, who are the Souls of Eternity
Au-ȧ ab kua neteri-kuᾴ I myself am pure, I am mighty
A net’-hra-k Neben Neferu Homage to Thee, Lady of Welcome (i.e., Nephthys)
A net’-hra-ten nebu heh Homage to Thee, Ye Lords of Eternity
Nuk ab per em seҳet I am the pure one coming forth from the field
Ȧn-na en Ɵen netersenƟer I have brought you incense
Tu a Anpu You are Anpu (i.e., Anubis)
Suten heh Lord of Eternity
Ta-k-na uat seś-a em-hetep Grant to me a way that I may pass in peace
Ȧn-na kert ᾱb-kua I am silent, I am pure
Ĺ-nᾱ, ҳerk-k neb Ra I have come to Thee, O my Lord Ra
Reҳ hᾱᾱiu I rejoice
Reҳ hᾱᾱiu I rejoice
After bowing and shaking my sistrum, I fumigated Grendel’s body with the myrrh tears incense. I placed three sheaves of dried wheat atop his abdomen in the sign of the Witches’ Foot.
I began to perform the Dulce Domum ritual, and as soon as I recited the Oracle of the Goddess Isis, I felt the sensation of the Goddess enfolding me in Her wings, comforting me in my outpouring of grief. The nape of my neck began to tingle. Hearken unto Her words:
Manifest your Divine Origin which is born from the Mother of All, Nuit, Whose children are immortal like onto Herself. Nourish then all good gifts in each person and each being, and you strengthen the harmony between the Divine Sphere of Heaven with its transient reflection which is this world. There is no death. Love is eternal. Osiris and I are One. So is it with us all.
—Olivia Robertson, Dulce Domum, para. 4
As a devotional Kemetic-Hellenic Polytheist, what I truly love about this funerary ritual is the series of beautiful invocations of Deities, including Ma’at, Anubis, Persephone, Hermes, Isis, and Osiris, and the devotional gestures performed on Their behalf and on behalf of the deceased. Ideally, each of these Deities is served by clergy devoted to Them, the ritual roles parsed out accordingly through the stages of the ritual known as Shedding the Shadow, The Fair Heaven, The Spirit Awakens, and, if appropriate, the Committal of the body either to the earth (burial) or to the flames (cremation). In her offering to Persephone, the Priestess of Persephone declares:
I offer incense to the goddess Persephone. Divine Persephone, Maid of flowers of spring, Queen of the Spirit World, Goddess of High Olympus, shine for our departed friend as Thou didst shine for the Initiates of Eleusis as the Shining One of Midnight. Lighten our darkness so that we too may have spiritual vision. Remembering the mourning for Thee by Thy Mother Demeter, take pity on those who mourn and bring them to knowledge of life after death! Grant also that our friend shall remember this life on earth, as a dream that has passed. Give us joyful reunion now and in the hereafter.
—Dulce Domum, section 3, para. 1
If you personally happen to have a well-cultivated devotional relationship with each of these Holy Powers, as I do, I cannot emphasize enough how transformative and emotionally uplifting it is to perform the Dulce Domum. The words the late Rt. Rev. Olivia Robertson received/channeled when this ritual was composed truly do suggest Otherworldly origins, and the effects both spiritually and even lyrically as language to be savored are profound.
I was part of the Fellowship of Isis Chicago clergy assembly that performed the Dulce Domum for our late beloved Lyceum of Alexandria founder and Archpriestess, the Rt. Rev. Deena Celeste Weglarz Butta in 2013—less than four years after we performed it for her active-duty military son, Maris, after his tragic suicide. (His was an official military funeral ceremony, 21-gun salute and all, and I actually found it very heartwarming to see the intermingling of U.S. military and Pagan religious worlds.) So I’ve performed it for deceased human loved ones, but last night was my first time performing it for a beloved companion animal. In my personal theology, I do very much indeed believe that animals have souls, not just spirits, and an Afterlife awaits them as surely as it does me. As mortal creatures, we all have a survival instinct; we all fear death. The very opening lines of the Dulce Domum make this clear:
Divine Isis, Who doth hold the Ankh, Sign of Life, have pity on our human weakness. We all fear death. There is no creature that will not fight for its life! The most terrible calamities that befall us are yet more acceptable than their ending through even the quickest death. We dread the loss of ourselves, our own consciousness, of all that we know. When we grieve for those who die, truly we fear for ourselves! Thou Who didst shed Thy tears for Thy dead husband Osiris, and Who brought Him to everlasting life, bring us true knowledge.
—Dulce Domum, para. 1
I can’t say that I’m at peace with Grendel’s death, but I feel better knowing I did perform this funeral ceremony from my spiritual tradition for him. I pray that he will always know of my maternal love for him, of how hurt I am for how he physically suffered from the sickness that so cruelly took him from me, and that he and I will reunite someday in the gleaming halls of Amenti. To borrow the words from my Gardnerian Wiccan coven’s catechism in 2001, my hope is that
“We will meet, and know, and remember, and love one another again.”
So mote it be.
Kessler, David and Louise Hay. You Can Heal Your Heart: Finding Peace After a Breakup, Divorce, or Death. Carlsbad, CA: Hay House Publishing, 2014.
Robertson, Olivia. Dulce Domum—The Soul Returns Home. Funeral Ceremony and Committal. From: Panthea: Initiations and Festivals of the Goddess by Olivia Robertson. (c) The Fellowship of Isis. Available at: http://www.fellowshipofisis.com/liturgy/panthea4.html. Accessed June 12, 2019.
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