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PAWS Chicago is the pet shelter you would want to stay in if you were a homeless pet. When you come to Chicago, tour PAWS, and you will see what an animal shelter can be with an appreciation of an animal’s perspective and with enough funding.

Sponsored by the Hinsdale Animal Cemetery and accompanied by David Remkus, I began facilitating the monthly Pet Grief Support Group at PAWS in June of 2013.

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The animals at PAWS are not in cages. They stay in rooms that have glass walls on two sides, so people can see in, and animals can see out. On the feline side, the cats stay far from the dogs’ area, enjoying their rooms which are furnished with climbing towers and toys. On the dog side, there may be two or three dogs (depending on size and dog-sociability) in each room, which is furnished with special hammock-type beds so that the dogs don’t have to lie on the cement floor. Volunteers come in daily to walk and run the dogs along Chicago’s Lake Shore so the dogs won’t be stressed or anxious.

Upstairs is an area called The Cat Suites, and that is where we had our Pet Grief Support Group meeting one summer night. In attendance were three people who had come to previous meetings and told their stories. Through their shared grief and love of animals, a healing connection had already formed.

Against one wall in this otherwise ordinary meeting room, was a wall of glass behind which were two rows of “apartments” housing cats: single and in compatible pairs. The cats had nooks to hide in and things to play with. As our meeting began, the cats were sleeping, grooming, and quietly occupying themselves as cats do.

Kevin, a man in his forties, had told us in the previous meeting about the painful loss of his two schnauzers—George, one year ago, and Gracie, two weeks ago.

“I just can’t wrap my mind around it: they’re not here.” Kevin spoke haltingly, trying to prevent the tears that wanted to come. “I just want to know they’re all right—somewhere, wherever they are—I just want to know they’re all right.”

“So,” I asked, “you would like to know that George and Gracie are in Heaven, or some good place?”

Kevin nodded. “Is that crazy, or what?”

“Not at all. Maybe others have the same feeling.” There was assent all around the table.

“Why don’t we try something? If you are willing to try this, we could do a visualization, or a guided imagery exercise, where we first relax our breathing, then relax our bodies, and then go to the mind and see our pet in a spiritual and beautiful state. How would you all feel about that?”

Everyone was eager to begin.

We practiced this Guided Imagery, eyes closed, complete relaxation of the body, then going to the mind, seeing the beautiful Light of Spirit, standing at the Entrance to Heaven and knowing that we can visit with our loved one just outside that great gate, the gate opening to let our dear friend come out to be with us, and enjoying a few minutes here: playing, cuddling, receiving or giving a message, or whatever we would like to experience here.

Just as we arrived at the point where the Gates of Heaven opened, the cats in their “apartments”—who had hitherto been silent—set up a chorus of Mrrooow, mrrooow, mrrooowing that made it a little difficult for us to stay in our peaceful guided imagery place—and also made us giggle.

The cats, in their exquisite sensitivity, seemed to perceive in the room a state of mind that resonated with them. They perhaps wanted to be a part of our meditative exercise. Although they disrupted our practice in a mild way, they also, at the most poignant moment, reminded us of life, of the animals who are still here and need us, in the here and now.

We came back to awareness of ourselves sitting in that room at that moment and opened our eyes, and the people began to share their experiences. Each person present found the guided imagery very comforting, and so in my next post, I will publish it here, for you.

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