“Call the mobile vet! NOW!!” I shouted.
Nikki, our Cavalier King Charles Spaniel, had been a cherished family member for just six years, but the cancerous lump on her side had grown rapidly in recent weeks.
She never complained, but on this particular afternoon she staggered into the kitchen, collapsed on the floor and yelped loudly. I fell to my knees and stroked her head, assuring her that everything would be ok. I knew her time had come.
The vet arrived thirty minutes later. While he prepared the injection, I grabbed her bag of canine chocolate drops. I had always restricted her to just a few at a time, but for this greedy little princess, a few had never been enough.
I knelt beside her and held the treat close to her nose. She raised her head slowly and gobbled it up, her enormous brown eyes shining with excitement. At any other time she would have leapt to her feet and wagged her tail. Now, lifting her head was the best she could do.
The vet joined us on the floor at Nikki’s tail-end. I turned my back on him, focusing on her beautiful face, placing chocolate drops in her mouth one at a time and watching her gobble them up with delight. Her eyes never left my face, nor mine hers.
For a brief moment, it occurred to me that I had already given her far too many! Then I remembered what was happening behind me and kept popping them into her mouth, talking softly to her as I did.
As she stretched her sweet head forward to reach for the tenth treat, she slowly closed her eyes. I cradled her head and gently lowered it to the floor.
Then I cried for a long time.
Barry buried her in the back yard, and I agonized over whether I had made the right decision. I knew she could not have recovered, but was it the right time? I had learnt that people had “a time”, but did these same rules apply to dogs? I didn’t know. I only knew she had been in pain and I couldn’t let her suffer.
Three days later, I crouched next to her grave and began to weed around it in preparation for a small headstone. Suddenly, a small bird swooped down and collided with my head.
“Strange,” I thought. We regularly fed magpies and butcher birds in our yard, and other birds rarely trespassed. They certainly didn’t dive-bomb us! Even magpies – known for their aggressive behaviour –took food gently from our hands.
I continued weeding when another bird did the same, and I wondered if I was too close to a nest. I looked around. There were no trees nearby where nests might be.
I took the hint and moved away, sitting on a step nearby to watch and wait.
The birds remained on Nikki’s grave for ten or fifteen minutes. They didn’t chirp. They didn’t scratch around looking for worms. They stood, silent and still, staring at me as I stared back at them. I was instinctively aware that something unusual was happening, but at the time I had no idea what it might be
Birds have long been considered “messengers of death”. There are numerous superstitions surrounding this partnership. My Irish grandmother always shivered if she heard a bird sing after dark. “Aaach, someone just died!” she’d announce. Many times she was right, but of course, someone probably died every minute of every day.
My grandmother also accepted, without question, that a bird tapping on the window brought news to the household and often predicted the death of a loved one.
The Irish do love their superstitions!
However, the Irish were not the only ones with supernatural notions about birds. Even the eminent psychiatrist Carl Jung recognized them as encapsulating the archetype of transcendence and rebirth, and Jung was certainly not Irish!
A wide range of cultures throughout history believed birds were symbolically connected with death. In Egyptian, Greek, Roman, Nordic and American Indian mythologies, birds were said to serve as spirit guides, messengers who were able to fly between the worlds of the living and the dead and assist the departed on their journey.
Even today, many cultures view birds as psychopomps – a Greek word meaning a creature that escorts newly-deceased souls from earth to the afterlife. (Psycho=soul, Pompos=escort)
But psychopomps are not restricted to escorting the deceased to the spiritual realms. Historically, birds were also credited with helping to bring newborn souls into this world. The legend of the stork delivering the baby no doubt grew out of this ancient belief.
Psychopomps are also believed to act as messengers between worlds. Renowned American naturalist and explorer Ernest Ingersoll wrote in his 1923 book, Birds in Legend and Folklore: “the belief in the supernatural wisdom and prophetic gift in birds is … based on the almost universal belief that they are often the visible spirits of the dead.”
Is this why the bereaved often notice birds – especially those that have special meaning for the departed – acting in a surprising or unusual way?
This occurred to me shortly after my mother’s passing. She had often voiced regret that the kookaburras we heard laughing merrily in the distance never came close enough to be fed.
One morning, shortly after her passing, our first kookaburra appeared on the railing around our deck and waited patiently to receive a tasty morsel. Since then, his entire family regularly come to take food from our hands. Is that a coincidence?
While birds are universally recognized as psychopomps, they’re not alone. The veil between worlds is thinner for most creatures than it is for us. Wolves, dragonflies, cats and dolphins are among many that have earned reputations as messengers from the spirit world.
Of course, I didn’t know any of this as I sat on the step, waiting for these annoying feathered creatures to move away. I had never heard the word ‘psychopomp’. I just wanted to get on with my weeding.
I was almost ready to give up when the two feathered guards flew away. Somehow, I knew they wouldn’t bother me again. I was right.
Perhaps, three days after the lethal injection, it had finally been Nikki’s “time”, and her escorts had been waiting to take her on her final journey.
At least, I like to think so.
Have you ever encountered a psychopomp? Has one appeared to escort a dying loved one or come to comfort you after their passing? If you have a psychopomp story, I’d love to hear about it.