February 09, 2019

As I write this, it has been a little over two weeks since my sweetheart Joy’s death. Many of you followed her story - she was my heart-dog and we were together over 15 years.

One of my roommates pulled a card at random from a Tibetan Kuan Yin deck for Joy during her last days - the card is above. It was a wow moment.

In hopes that it will benefit you in some way, I’d like to share some insights from my last days with Joy and the death process.

Ah, sweet Joy. Let me just start by celebrating her when she was alive. She was perseverant, determined and wise. She survived many internal bleeding episodes with herbs — and her willful attitude. Once after a severe stroke, she lost all mobility and then forced me to walk her around assisted, non-stop for 48 hours, until she could walk on her own enough to rewire her entire brain and gain full mobility back within a week. Yep, back to being a normal dog — for years.

joyjoy with roses

My vet calls her the ‘miracle dog.’ Two and a half years ago, the vet asked me if I wanted to help her over the rainbow bridge because her body wasn’t producing enough red blood platelets and she was suffering from internal bleeding.

I realized two things that day:

1. I was committed to giving Joy the power to decide when she wanted to go + said I would never interfere in that natural process. I trusted that Joy would know the precise time to go.

2. I’m just as stubborn as Joy and wasn’t going to give up easily. I researched herbs for internal bleeding and gave them to Joy to see if they’d work (primarily Shepherd's Purse and, later, Cayenne and Cistus essential oil). If you want to know more specifics about this part of the story, they’re here in three different posts:

The Magic of Joy
Miracles + Caretaking

My Silent Teacher


Needless to say, Joy-Joy was super strong — in terms of her will to overcome anything.

Funnily, if during the last decade and a half, I ever went to her with heart pain, crying my eyes out, looking for sympathy, she would yawn and move her head in the other direction. Forever teaching me -- as if to say, “You humans and your emotions are so boring!” She was right. Emotions always pass.

I was her caretaker, but she often was the one taking care of me. In so many ways, she taught me discipline, awareness and the importance of being present and in tune with the ones you love. She taught me kindness, generosity, forgiveness and the power of always being there for someone.

The first day I ever saw her, she bowed her head down to me and I did the same to her. We did that often during our time together, and to be able to witness her last days and her last breaths was a tremendous gift, one that rocked me to the core and changed me forever.

There are so many gifts in death. I didn’t expect that. I guess I didn’t know what to expect. I just knew that I wanted to be as present as possible for whatever arose in the moment. I wanted her to feel my love + if I’m honest, I also wanted to feel her love.

So … if you’re like I was and just don’t know what to expect about the death experience, I thought I’d share some interesting insights from the experience that surprised me.

Here we go:

1. You absolutely KNOW with every cell of your being when it's the ‘last time’ for certain things.

What do I mean?

It started when I had the feeling it was the last time I’d walk around with Joy in the backyard. She was being sort of slow-pokey + stubborn. She didn’t want to go inside. I was barefoot and without a jacket. So I ran back inside to grab my boots and coat so that I could assist her to walk around an extra loooong time on a wintery morning. I tried to soak in every moment + be really present with her.

Other examples: the last time I saw her sitting up, unassisted. The last time she drank water. The last time we brought her outside into the sun. Her last day. Her last night. Her last breaths.

In each of these examples, I knew it was the last time. I didn’t know how I knew, I just knew. It is wild to me that we know these things. Perhaps Joy was communicating to me in some way. Or I was just intuitively picking it up. The point is: we know.

You know when it’s the last time (in a natural death situation). You just know. And you can trust those funny little inclinations.  

katie and joyjoy

2. Sometimes they get snuggly + affectionate during the last days + it’s such a precious time.

{Oddly, she looks a bit like a goat in the above photo, but her head is on my lap + I'm lying down next to her.} Joy was always one that loved my presence, but didn’t need a ton of physical affection. However, there was a window of time between when she stopped eating and before she stopped drinking water, that she was super snuggly.

{Side note: my Mom had told me that from her experience that when they don’t get out of bed and don’t eat, that they generally have about a week left. That was pretty on point. Joy made it to 9 days with no food and 3-4 days with no water.}

I took the entire week off from work. I cancelled all my appointments. I only went in for an event that we’d planned. I spent as much time with Joy as possible. I hung out with her on the floor. I lived in the living room with her for a week. I was just present with her.

During the first few days she could still move, so she’d lift her head up and want to try to stand up for a while and look around. I’d walk her to her water bowl assisted. She’d drink tons of water. She refused food though, even all her favorite things. I tried everything. She knew. It was her time + she made the decision over + over.

I slept next to her on the floor and during those first few days, she was so affectionate. I woke up one morning and she was draped across my stomach - so unusual for her + it made me feel so warm + fuzzy. She was clearly showing me her love for me in a way that I would understand + deeply appreciate.

After she stopped drinking water, she was weak, but I would still put her head on my lap. I imagine for a determined girl like her, lying in one spot was frustrating. I would change her positions and viewpoints every few hours or when it seemed appropriate. It was helpful that she was in the center of the house, so she could see everyone coming and going. And putting her head on my lap seemed to comfort her. I misted my hands with flower essences and then gently ran my hands along her fur (Boundless Wisdom + Infinite Love). I did anything to try to make her comfortable. 

katie with joy ichi and gracie

I remember the last sunset. I was sitting on the floor with her head in my lap and a few tears spilled as I felt the rays of the falling sun come through the windows of the front door, lighting up my eyes and warming my face. I basked in the light and soaked up the feeling of her head on my lap during this last sunset with Joy-Joy. These moments of affection + simply being present with her were such a gift. I soaked up every moment of her beingness and rested in a sea of mutual unconditional love. And wrote this little poem at 3am during that time.

3. It is very common that during the last few days, the tongue closes the airway and prevents them from breathing (especially after they stop drinking water).

The first time it happened with Joy, I thought she was having a seizure. Her body began to shake vigorously and silently. I wondered if it was the way she was going to die.

My teacher hopped up and helped me realize that she wasn’t getting air. We uprighted her, and I used all my might to pry open her mouth so her tongue could relax, and so she could come back to breathing normally.

During this time, she was no longer lifting her head or moving her body, so after this episode, I made sure that I elevated her body up onto blankets and then draped her head off the side in a way that let her tongue hang down, so as not to roll back and block her airways.

One of my roommates was there during the first episode and told me that her father had heard from a hospice nurse while caring for his father - that one of the most common ways for people to die is that their tongue would roll back in their mouth and choke them. I wondered WHY - if this was so common - did we not all KNOW this? It baffled me. We should all be trained in the art of birth and death.

I texted a dear friend who’d lost her best friend the year before. She confirmed that during the last few days, the tongue unexpectedly closed the airway of her friend and she had to use all her strength to turn her friend over onto the side of her body, so that she could regain her breath.

With Joy, this situation occurred a total of five times. In each instance we uprighted her, made sure we could open her mouth so her tongue could hang down and then soothed her, spoke calmly and gently to her, and tried to get her to relax (and used mists like Inner Peace + Quiet Mind). The purpose here was to prolong her natural breathing so that she wouldn’t die in a state of anxiety and panic from not being able to catch her breath. The idea is to get them to breathe again, so that their final transition can be more peaceful.

After the fifth time this happened with Joy, she got her breath back but it was rattling. We laid her back down on her side and she breathed that way for several hours. I was lying next to her the whole time, and sometimes there would be longer pauses between breaths. I started counting the seconds in between each breath to gauge if she was slowing down.

In the end, she started taking smaller and smaller breaths. I stared into her eyes, captivated. I watched in disbelief; we never expect to watch our loved ones’ organs shut down. She took her last three tiny gentle breaths and her body relaxed into quiet. I was simultaneously in shock + knowingness. Adrenaline coursed steadily through my veins. I was ultra awake, aware + crystal clear.

I looked at the clock to see the time of her death. It seemed important somehow, like the time we’re born …  a timing and a ‘rightness’ and specific causes + conditions for the moment that we stop breathing.

I woke up my teacher who was sleeping on the couch and told him the time of her death. He nodded, confirmed the time and went back to sleep. Kate was lying on some cushions a few feet away fast asleep. I sat upright and my body was filled with silence. I felt like I was in a vacuum of space in the room. I listened to the sound of Kate and my teacher, both breathing gently in their sleep. I was in awe of their breathing — realizing it as the only thing that separates us from death.

I thought to myself, how could I possibly take any breath for granted when each one is so precious?

The next few hours I remained by Joy’s side, staring into her eyes or up at the ceiling. A huge chasm of silence filled up my entire chest cavity. I wanted to be motionless, still and quiet.

4. When you’re in the presence of a being that is dying, you receive a gift.

I had heard from my friend Robin that she experienced waves of unconditional love when her horse died, so after Joy’s last breaths, I looked for the same experience. I didn’t feel it and for a few moments wondered if I’d missed it or if I’d done something wrong.

Later I realized that for the hours following Joy’s death, I did experience some interesting and unusual states of being. They were not like Robin’s experience; it was different. I later asked Robin about it and she explained that when she saw her best friend die, she’d had an entirely different experience. In that moment I realized that the gift given is different each time.

I won’t share exactly what I experienced, so as not to create some kind of expectation, but we can feel confident that when we witness a loved one’s death, we’re given a gift. It's exactly what we need. It is ultra transformative - and unexpected gifts like these stay in our hearts forever.

5. Grief - even when it’s subtle - takes over your operating systems.

It’s as if it takes up space in your body. You are functioning. You are present, you are normal, but there are some strange phenomenon that occur.

What I noticed was that I needed to go slow. After Joy died, I would hit certain walls inside myself that if I tried to just push through them, I would fall apart. So I tread carefully with myself and remained patient. For example, I had a table full of things I’d been using to nourish Joy during the death process: flower essences, moxa, hot water bottle and other things. I could not pick them up during the first day of her being dead. I could do laundry with all the blankets we’d used for her, so I did laundry. I left all the things on the table until the following day, when it no longer felt like I was coming up against a wall inside me to do it.

I also noticed that it was really nice to get help with day-to-day things like cooking dinner or washing dishes. It felt like I was consumed by the the experience and my cognitive skills were not as strong. I needed to push back from the office, my phone, social media and everything I would normally be doing on a day-to-day basis. I needed to fully be with myself and the experience and let it transform me.

I also learned that people show or process grief in different ways. On the last night of Joy being alive, it dawned on me that I was having my last hours with her. Her head was on my lap. I didn’t want anyone to see me sad, so I was crouched over, my head hanging down, looking in her eyes from upside down. One of my roommates started vacuuming the entire living room where we were, and the loud noise made me want to explode. I could feel the anger rising.

I realized that when we’re grieving, it’s as if there’s so much to handle in our bodies, that our skin becomes really thin. Anger is right under the surface and can arise very quickly. It felt like I could easily fly off the handle. I didn’t. I just sat with that tremendous rush of energy and steadied myself, letting it wash over me - in hopes it would alchemize me — and waited until it passed. I also realized that in grief, some of us have to get totally still, while others have to physically move and do something with their energy.

Later I could have more compassion and make space for understanding that everyone processes grief in different ways. Some of us slow down, get quiet and isolate, others want to scream + shout and it’s all a natural process. Observing it all + staying with it is the practice.

The most important thing to remember is that grief pretty much takes up all the energetic space in your body. It consumes you in a quiet, heavy way. And that means that your capacity to be patient is compromised. It means you may be more sensitive than usual and emotions may rise up unexpectedly. It also means that others around you may display behaviors that you don’t understand and it’s all ok. Just keep going slow and being patient and kind to yourself.

{This kind of feeling passed in about a week for me; I'm sure with humans we love it can last much longer.} 

joyjoy mandala offering

6. Rituals offer great relief.

Joy died in the morning before the sun came up. After the sun rose and I’d had enough time to rest (I didn’t sleep a wink that night), during late morning we washed her body. We got a bucket of water, paper towels, plastic gloves, plastic bags, essential oils and flower essences. We changed out the bedding. We cleaned her fur from all the fluids that came out at the time of death. We added essential oils and flower essences to the damp paper towels as we cleaned her.

We placed her on a fresh white cotton cloth on top of her bed. I went outside in the front yard and clipped some leaves from my favorite pink pepper tree. We placed flowers next to her. We covered part of her with a cream-colored khata (auspicious offering silk).

I was surprised when my roommates + loved ones brought flowers. Then a friend of mine from the salsa dancing community brought flowers. And a friend of my roommate unexpectedly showed up with a dozen roses in her hands and tears in her eyes. It’s amazing to me how deeply people understand, especially those who’ve had profound relationships with animals.

I was surprised people brought flowers and was SUPER touched by it. I told myself, “Note to self. Flowers are a great gift when someone is grieving. They are beautiful, alive and gentle and speak for themselves. They are honorific and enlivening.” I wondered what kind of flowers I would choose for Joy. Days later I found myself at the wholesale flower shop, allowing myself to pick out any flower that sparked ‘Joy’. I went home and built flower mandalas around her body.

Rituals like washing the body, using essential oils + flower essences and surrounding the body with flowers and offerings fills us with a sense of relief, gratitude + peace.

flower offerings and altar for joy

7. You can keep the body in your house for three days.

That’s our tradition. We keep the body postmortem for three days. I have yet to do this with a human being and perhaps dry ice is needed in that situation (I don’t know), but with my sweet Joy girl, we kept her body for three full days and it was fine. Her body eventually became stiff and cold (except her velvety floppy ears stayed floppy + her belly stayed soft). We’d cleaned her up, and there was no odor. Nor was there any decomposition.

Why would I keep the body for three days?

With humans, the tradition has more to do with allowing the person more time to eject their consciousness from their body. Some people take longer or through their own meditation practice, can retain their consciousness in the body after the physical death. In either case, it’s nice when the body can rest undisturbed.

With animals, it seems to me they fly off pretty quickly after transitioning, but then the benefit is more for us to adjust to their passing. Even though I knew Joy’s consciousness was no longer inhabiting her furry suit, I was still very attached to her form. It still gave me comfort to touch her soft ears. Seeing her body there in the living room, allowed me to fully face the reality of it + the loss of her.

8. Cremation can be a beautiful ritual to help us adjust + there are ways to make it more like a ceremony.

My roommates had a dog that they brought back to the U.S. with them from Nepal. When he died, we brought him to be cremated and I remember the moment I saw him go into the fire - it was profound. A Tibetan Buddhist nun was living with us at the time and I remember her doing puja as it happened. After having Joy in the house for three days I brought her to a cremation place. Since I had to travel to NYC + CA for a week, they agreed to keep her refrigerated for that week, until I could come back and witness her cremation.

There are three types of pet cremation: 1. Together with other animals, 2. With other animals but partitioned, so that you get your pet’s remains back, 3. Witness Cremation, where they are placed into the furnace alone and you can watch the entire process if you wish to. I chose the third, because I remembered how profound the moment was that I saw our previous dog enter the fire.

We brought tons of fresh rose petals and pink pepper leaves. We adorned her body. And said our last goodbyes to this precious velvety body that we’d loved on for over 15 years (she was almost 17 when she died!). I wrote a little poem about this experience on my personal instagram page here.


So, all this to say: death is real. It is the destiny of each and every one of us, as well as all of our loved ones. It may not be a popular topic of conversation, but one that is desperately needed, I believe. The more we face the reality of it, the more deeply we can appreciate what we have in life. And the more thoroughly we can be present to the gifts of life.

Deep down, none of us wants to let life just pass us by. We don’t want to be so distracted and busy.

We want to be more alive and awake to what’s happening right now in the present moment. We want to taste more, breathe in more, be more in tune and in touch with our bodies, our senses and our spatial awareness. We want to feel more and hear more clearly the sounds of life around us.

Death is not easy. It’s damn hard, but also a tremendous gift, because it’s so transformative. When I hug loved ones now, I really feel their bodies, their bones, their breath. I have a profound sense of cherishing. There are so many other ways that this simple and natural experience has transformed me, but for now, I hope what I’ve shared thus far is in some way helpful for you now or in the future.

All my love,