The weeks leading up to and after the death of a beloved animal companion can be very difficult.
In my new book, Buddhism for Pet Lovers, I provide a full account of how we can best help our pet through the most important transition of their life. Here, I’d like to share a passage about how we can best be of assistance in the time after our pet has died.
I so hope you find it useful.
How to be of service in the seven weeks after death
In the immediate aftermath of our pet’s death we may have a feeling of release, relief, of shifting energy, perhaps even of freedom as our pet moves on from an aged or sick body. Or we may simply be bereft at the loss of our beloved companion. Whatever our emotions, what’s important is to recognise that while life has changed for us, it has changed in an even more dramatic and potentially challenging way for our pet, and it is within our power to continue to help them.
Meditating and mantras on their behalf
In the bardo state, your pet may still have some awareness of you, and perhaps other family members, irrespective of where you are physically. They can still be positively influenced by your practice of meditation and mantra recitation, particularly if you dedicate any virtue arising from the practice for their benefit. For seven weeks after the passing of your pet, you are still able to help them, and should do so to whatever extent you are able.
As Tulku Thondup says in his book Peaceful Death, Joyful Rebirth, ‘Beings in the bardo, in particular, are very receptive to meditation and prayers, as they live in a world of thought.’ He also suggests, ‘Meditation is a more powerful way to help these beings than our usual discursive thoughts and feelings because it comes from a deeper, more peaceful level in our mind.’
While meditation is powerful, it needn’t be the only time we can be of service. You don’t have to wait until you are sitting on your meditation cushion, in a quiet room, to recite mantras. You can do so, under your breath, as you sit in the car, go to the gym, take a walk and in everyday life. Even in a room full of people, you can recite mantras mentally, without needing to move your lips.
Given that ‘mini-death’ is experienced by a being in bardo every seven days, this is a particularly vital time to focus your attention and practice on your loved one—by the way, this applies to all beings, human and animal. You may wish to mark a calendar with the day that your companion died, and on the weekly anniversary of that day, for seven weeks, redouble your meditation or recitation activities for their benefit. This is particularly the case on Day 49, which you may regard as your last chance to be of support to the one who has passed, before they move on into their next life—and you move on with yours.
A suggested dedication is as follows:
By this practice of the meditation/virtue/generosity
May NAME OF PET, and all beings, quickly enjoy higher rebirth.
Meet the perfect teacher, and attain enlightenment,
For the benefit of all beings without exception.
Making offerings on their behalf
Apart from meditation and Dharma practice, Buddhism encourages us to practice generosity, to whatever extent we are able, and dedicate the virtue to the benefit of the being in bardo state. You don’t have to be rich to be generous. A poignant photograph I saw on social media showed a poor woman making flat bread to feed her child on a gas stove, at the side of a dusty road. In the image she is shown breaking off a small piece to feed a nearby bird.
You may feed ducks, birds or other animals. You may send a donation, or a series of donations to wildlife or other charities. You may drop a few coins in a charity collector’s tin. When you do so, recollect your pet, and your bodhichitta motivation, and dedicate the virtue for their benefit.
Once again, it is useful to time this on the daily anniversary of your pet’s passing, when their bardo state is in possible transition, and your positive influence can have greatest impact.
Keeping the pet bowls out
At any time in the bardo, our pets’ minds may turn to their old home, and they may perceive what is happening there. To avoid creating possible distress for them, it’s best to keep the landmarks of their old life unchanged, as though they may come back to us at any moment.
It is kind to keep your pet’s feeding bowls, favourite rugs or basket in the usual place, as much as you are able. If the sight of these now unused items upsets you, use this as a prompt to say some mantras, verbally or mentally, and dedicate them for the benefit of your pet. Think of them as prompts to help keep the focus of your mind on the welfare of your pet, as they move through the bardo. And remember: this is all about them.
The practical and spiritual benefits of Buddhist practices
This approach to helping our pets through the death process and the bardo stage has a number of profound benefits. Having outlined the process, and recommended actions you can take, the focus of this chapter has been on how we can best help our animal companions through the most important transition of their lives.
From a Buddhist perspective, there is no greater gift we can offer our pet than to do whatever we can to help them maintain a peaceful state of mind during the death process, knowing that they are surrounded by love and positivity, and by helping direct their journey through the bardo using the power of mantra, meditation and other offerings. Of course we live in a messy world, where things seldom go exactly as we would like. But it is useful to know what we are setting out to achieve.
What if you have doubts about the Buddhist presentation of death, bardo and rebirth? If you are unfamiliar with some of these concepts, it is understandable that, at the very least, you need time to reflect on them.
It’s important always to remember that you don’t have to believe anything. All you need is an open mind. Unless you are convinced by a different model of the death process, here, at least, is something useful that you can work with. What’s more, the advantages of the practices outlined go well beyond benefiting our pets alone.
One of the most debilitating aspects of losing a loved one is the way that our thoughts turn to ourselves. How upset I am to lose this beautiful being. How bereft and lonely I am that they are gone. How my relationship with them was irreplaceable. The common element in all these understandable, natural but painful thoughts is ‘me’.
By using mental habits and practices which have our pet as the focus of our thoughts, we shift our focus. When we are thinking about the wellbeing of someone else, we are, by necessity, not thinking about ourselves. And that pragmatic shift of focus means that we suffer less.
‘Suffer’ comes from a Latin root meaning ‘to bear’ or ‘to carry’. When we carry around our grief, by continually thinking about our own personal loss, we extend and magnify our pain. But if we can replace those thoughts with different, other-centric thoughts, not only are we better able to help our pet, we will also recover our own peace of mind faster and easier.
A further benefit of the Buddhist approach to death is that the seven-week bardo period gives us a fixed period of time during which to focus our energies on the mind stream of our departed pet. By the 49th day, our companion will definitely have moved on. They will have a new life, a new reality. And that gives us permission to move on with our own lives too.
Of course it’s natural to hearken back to the way things were. To wish for one more cuddle. One more walk through the woods. One more evening of contentment at the fireside. It’s entirely normal for us to wish this and to hold onto cherished memories.
But by Day 49, the mind of our companion, that formless continuum of clarity and cognition, is experiencing a different reality—and so are we. We are richer for having known them, and wiser for having accompanied them through the most important transition of their lives.
It is time for both of us to embark on adventures new.
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