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Monday, August 02, 2010

A lesson in compassion


I remember very clearly the Friday morning in June several years ago that I got the call from my pet sitting client, Kristen. Her puppy, Lita, had died that morning. I had taken care of Lita, and Kristen’s older boxer, Ozzy, only the day before, and both seemed fine. A voice in my head kept repeating, “Are you sure? Are you sure she’s dead?” But by the time Kristen called, it had been several hours, and I was forced to believe that it was true.

The following days were dreadful. I could barely speak as I ordered a small bouquet of flowers for Kristen, and then another young dog, Rosie, a Labrador retriever, fell deathly ill. I worried that some kind of canine epidemic had broken out, or that I had unwittingly passed some disease from one dog to another. Would the rest of my clientele be safe? What about my own dogs?

Rosie made it in to the vet’s office by the skin of her teeth and they managed to keep her alive over the next week until her test results came back. Throughout this period of time, I grieved for Lita and worried about Rosie. I couldn’t imagine Rosie dying. In the end, what the vet had thought was pneumonia was a case of strep, and once he’d determined that, he could administer the right medication, and Rosie survived. Lita, it had been concluded, had died of a heart condition called cardiomyopathy.

A couple of years later, I began practicing Reiki. I continued caring for pets and offered Reiki to as many as I could. Some were well and some suffered from minor maladies, either physical or emotional, some were aging, and in decline. I quickly learned who would soak it up, who preferred play or treats (which they often associated me with) and who wanted Reiki under absolutely no circumstances. As I continued to offer Reiki to animals over time, our relationships deepened. And as time passed, disasters happened and animals passed away.

By this time I was a member of an online forum of practitioners who offered Reiki to animals. I sent requests regularly.

Please send Reiki to my dog Bella. She swallowed the plastic wrapper that her food came in.

Please send Reiki to Polly, a calico cat. Her leg hurts and the vet can’t figure out what’s wrong.

Please send Reiki to Rosie. (The same Yellow Labrador who had almost died of Strep). She’s had a bloody lip for a week and only now has the vet determined that she was bitten by a poisonous snake.


Each time I got the email notifying me of updates in the forum, I anxiously opened it. The group members always answered my requests. I felt so relieved. But over time, I participated in the group less and less. There were several reasons. One was that I felt guilty that I was not reciprocating by offering Reiki to all of the requests that came in from others. How could I possibly find the time to do self care and Reiki for my own dogs, meditate and respond to the dozens of requests that poured in each week?

Another was that despite the good that Reiki does, I was starting to feel overwhelmed by the enormity of suffering that seemed to be going on in the animal kingdom. But there was something else that I couldn’t put my finger on, and as often happens with Reiki practice, it became clear only much later.

I realized that despite requesting Reiki for probably dozens of animals, my request was actually the same one over and over again.

Please send Reiki for (fill in the name of the animal here.) He or She (fill in the problem here). The only thing missing was the “because”. And the big “because” was always the same: Because I don’t want this animal to die.

Of course, no one wants an animal to die, but the anxiety I felt surrounding the possible loss of these animals caused me to make a serious mistake. My requests for help were not truly made out of the compassion I thought they were. Compassion is defined as having concern about a situation and wanting to do something about it. Of course I was concerned and wanted to do something about the situations the animals were in. But I was also very worried about them dying. My requests had been borne of fear.

Another thought occurred to me as well. While I was then and always will be grateful for the Reiki that others offered, it was not the Reiki per se that made me feel better each time I opened the email messages from the forum. What helped me was the mere fact that my requests had been acknowledged.

This acknowledgement, or acceptance of the facts as they stand, is really what’s at the crux of compassion.

I started practicing Reiki with animals professionally at the same time I had started practicing Reiki with my own dogs and my pet sitting clients on a more personal level. When I started practicing professionally, I assumed I’d get calls about dogs with separation anxiety, or cats who refused to use the litter box. Instead what I found was that the overwhelming majority of jobs I got were for terminally ill pets.

You might be starting to wonder how effective I could be working with dying animals considering my apparent fear of death. But working with animals with whom I had no previous connection was easy. I had not formed a close bond with them. I had not seen them in happier, healthier times. It was precisely for this reason that I could accept the facts as they were at the moment I met them, and why it was easier for me to accept whatever the outcome would be. It was also the reason why I could go on to form a deep bond with them that was not negatively affected by fear or worry.

Working with the dying gave me great comfort when I could see in the eyes of the animals that they understood why I was there and as they immediately moved into position each time I saw them. It gave me great comfort when I could see in the eyes of the humans that they were reassured by the serenity of their animals during Reiki treatment. Working with the dying made clearer for me the role of humanity as witness and the importance of acknowledging the plight of others without judgment. Understanding this and being able to accomplish it on a daily basis are two different things.

So now, a few more years have passed. Ozzy’s had a new sister, Ford, for four years. He has developed degenerative myelopathy, a progressive autoimmune disease that affects the spinal cord. His front legs are still strong but as he attempts to run, his hind legs scuttle along the ground like crabs’ legs, throwing his body sideways behind him.

Ozzy and Ford

Rosie, the dog who survived strep and a poisonous snake bite is living on borrowed time, according to her vet. I wish he hadn’t used quite that phrase. She’s been diagnosed with a syndrome called Evans Disease, an autoimmune disorder that occurs when two autoimmune diseases, IMHA and AIHA are present. These affect the body’s ability to produce blood cells and platelets. It’s often likened to Hemophilia.

These are the facts as they stand. Please send Reiki.


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