Felipe was just four and a half weeks old when he came to stay at Joyce Leonard’s home in San Francisco.
The kitten was light in body — at less than a pound, he could fit in Leonard’s hand — and jet black in color, with a tiny black nose and black lips to match.
He and his siblings arrived from the local SPCA in worse shape than any of the previous kittens Leonard had fostered. The stress of being separated from their mothers, staying at a stark, sterile shelter and switching suddenly from mother’s milk to kibble is enough to make any kitten weak — and it does. The first 40 or so kittens Leonard fostered had worrisome digestive issues. It was her task to track every ounce they lost and gained and restore them to steady health. Eager to help the struggling kittens more, she learned reiki from renowned animal reiki specialist, author and teacher Kathleen Prasad.
The technique is a meditative and relaxing type of energy healing that originated in Japan. It can be done with the practitioner’s hands lightly touching or near the body, or from a distance, and is turned to for physical, spiritual and emotional healing in private practices, hospice programs, hospitals and more.
Although Leonard remained a partial skeptic of the therapy, once she started offering reiki to the kittens that came under her care she couldn’t ignore the results .
“After reiki, not one kitten came down with digestive issues — not one, and every one of them did before,” said Leonard, who went on to foster 120 in total.
She kept the kittens in her bathroom, as kittens feel more secure in contained spaces. Felipe and his littermates had stabilized somewhat, and were curled up in their basket when Leonard left for three hours. When she returned, four of them looked up at her from the basket, but Felipe was splayed out on the tile floor.
“He had throw-up on him and his eyes were open and he wasn’t breathing,” she said. “I touched him and he was as cold as the tile.”
She closed the bathroom door and began to sob. She’d never lost a kitten before, nor had she ever experienced death firsthand.
Leonard decided to offer reiki to little Felipe’s spirit. She wrapped him in a towel, set him on the toilet seat and sat facing him with her back against the bathtub. She scooted the basket of kittens closer.
“I’m sitting there in this meditative state with my eyes closed, embodying this beautiful reiki energy, and all of the sudden I hear ‘mew,’” she said. “I open my eyes and look over at the other kittens and they are all just staring at me. I close my eyes and go back to my meditation and I hear it again. Finally I open my eyes and I’m staring at the other kittens while doing my meditation and I hear it again — and not one of their little mouths move.”
She unwrapped Felipe, who remained lifeless but for his periodic, hopeful squeaks. She pulled him under her shirt to warm him up and slipped into a deeply meditative reiki state.
“It was my first huge experience with reiki, it was other worldly,” she said. “All of the sudden, I feel this immense energy just pour down into me, into this little guy — into both of us — and it was this tremendous energy of love and it was the purest love I have ever felt in my life.”
Her voice catches recounting the memory seven years later. “Pure, un-judgmental love,” she said. “It was overwhelming. I was sitting there with tears flowing down my face. It was so beautiful and all encompassing and this little guy was gaining a little bit of strength each minute.”
Leonard rushed the kitten to the shelter, somehow navigating the city streets in a stick-shift car with Felipe cradled in one hand. Once there, he was whisked away for treatment. She sat up that night to give Felipe reiki from a distance. She fell asleep and, when she awoke around 5:00 a.m., immediately began reiki for him again. But, for the first time, she felt like her reiki energy didn’t go anywhere, like it was hitting a wall. When she spoke to the vet later that morning, she learned that Felipe had died at 4:00 a.m.
It was a profound experience for Leonard, and the moment in which she realized that reiki actually worked: she had tapped into a powerful energy source and felt it course through her and the fading kitten. She could feel the difference when that channel had closed after his death.
“That was the first time I’d ever been around death,” she said. “And I thought ‘Wow, if this is the love that is present when death comes, I want to experience more of it.’”
She was inspired to bring that feeling of beautiful, loving energy to people who are passing away, and sought out volunteer opportunities at her local hospice program. After about a year, Leonard, who now also has a private reiki practice, moved to the Santa Cruz Mountains, an hour and a half south of San Francisco, and joined the volunteers who offer reiki at Hospice of Santa Cruz County.
While interviewing patients to determine what palliative care might make the patients’ last months of life most comfortable, nurses or social workers gauge interest in services including reiki and match patients with treatments that are a good fit. If a patient is open to receiving reiki, Leonard or another of the reiki-trained volunteers will provide anything from a one-off treatment to ongoing treatments until the patient passes.
“People come to a reiki treatment for healing,” Leonard says of non-hospice reiki clients. “[With hospice] I’m not there to heal. They’re dying. My presence there and my attitude I go in with is that they receive whatever it is they need for an easy transition.”
Hailed as a restorative experience for anyone, reiki is an appealing option for the ill and dying. For those suffering from severe pain, recovering from traumatic injuries or illness, or with fragile, sensitive bodies, the light-touch or no-touch modality can be a gentle and soothing experience.
As such, hospitals are an increasingly welcome setting for the practice. Reiki is one of a variety of alternative wellness treatments, known collectively as complementary and alternative medicine (CAM), that are increasingly commonplace offerings for hospital patients. More than 42 percent of American hospitals made CAM services available alongside their conventional ones in 2010, according to a survey by Health Forum, which is under the umbrella of the American Hospital Assocation and the nonprofit Samueli Institute. This was up from 37 percent in 2007.
The Center for Reiki Research has on its website a list of more than 60 hospitals that offer reiki sessions, including Columbia University Medical Center in New York and Yale New Haven Children’s Hospital in Connecticut.
While research on the effectiveness of reiki is currently limited, there are more studies being undertaken on the subject, including by the National Institutes for Health’s CAM center. According to the University of Minnesota, the existing studies — which looked at reiki’s impact on everything from diabetes and AIDS to fibromyalgia and stress — suggest that it has the ability to boost wellbeing, curb symptoms of fatigue and depression, and alleviate anxiety and pain. Its most celebrated and acknowledged effect is relaxation.
Reiki appears in hospices well beyond Leonard’s home county in California: it’s cropping up in end-of-life programs across the country, from Hospice of Marion County, in Florida, and Penn Wissahickon Hospice in Pennsylvania to all of the branches of Ascend Hospice, which is based in Cranford, New Jersey and has hospice programs in seven states.
Leonard says it is just as critical for the patients’ caregivers, as well as hospice staff, to receive reiki. For the reiki practitioners, it takes a dedication to self-care (their own energy must be clean and stable) and training in how to deal with death and dying. Leonard is currently working with her hospice program on incorporating reiki into the organization’s grief support groups.
When asked what it is like to support a dying person in this way — to share and comfort in the energy that blankets the doorway to death — Leonard says that the single most powerful takeaway, for her, is the patients’ openness. She suspects that many of them would not have partaken in reiki earlier in the life. All of them are “beautiful” and “expansive,” she says — and she comes to love them each.
“[It’s amazing] how open they are at the end of their life to death. They are stoic and open and loving. That’s what I’ve found,” she says. “They are so open because they’ve embraced death. They understand that’s their path. They aren’t striving to survive anymore.”
About a year ago, she experienced the overwhelming rush that she had with Felipe in his final hours again, this time with a hospice patient who was “actively dying.”
“I had a patient, whom I had been seeing weekly for many months, who reached the point of being non-responsive,” she says. “I was offering her reiki and all of a sudden she opened her eyes and said, ‘Oh I knew it was you! I could feel you!’ Then she closed her eyes again. She died a few days later.”