Sharon Discorfano has had a tremendous and varied career path. From child actor to yoga teacher and business owner to animal activist and lawyer, her path has been tied together by one important value: service. So naturally, when grief hit her hard over the passing of her beloved dog Pushkin, Sharon found a way to turn her experience of grieving into service. First, to herself — through the form of a letter-writing practice to Pushkin; then to the world, when she encouraged others to write their own letters to animals they’d lost (and, eventually, when her own letters were made available). Her website and subsequent book Letters to Pushkin became a viral sensation. Nectar News had the privilege of sitting down with Sharon (over skype) to discuss her book and her work as an animal protection attorney and advocate.
NN: Tell me about “Letters to Pushkin.” When and how did the idea come to you to publish the letters?
SD: Pushkin was one of my three canine kids. He was my first, and so I learned what it was to be a mom from him. I learned what it meant to have someone rely on me. He was my teacher in so many ways. One of the most significant ways was in 2009 when I lost him. I was 39 at the time and I was fortunate to have made it that far without having really experienced a lot of death, so Pushkin was my first major passing. When he died, I went through a lot of what I think people normally feel the first time they lose a loved one in their life. You are really confronted head-on with some of life’s biggest questions: Am I ever going to see him again? Where is he now? And the grief. Especially with a companion animal, the loss is so palpable because he was a part of my day-to-day, so his absence was everywhere in the house.
I grew up a Catholic school girl in a Catholic family. When Pushkin passed away, it was two weeks before Lent, and Lent usually entails giving something up or committing to some proactive practice. So I thought, ‘I’m a writer, and writing is one of the ways that I cope and I make sense of things.’ With that reasoning, I decided that Lent season to write one letter each day to Pushkin. The plan was to finish writing the letters on Easter, which I thought was a good plan because it would be a finite thing. It would be a way to spend time with him while sorting through my feelings and getting reflective, but it also would not go on for 20 years. It had an end. That process of writing wound up being very helpful particularly because I was going through this experience of loss and grieving for the first time on a very personal level. And then it was also very cathartic without becoming too much too handle.
NN: What was is about the form of letter writing that appealed to you?
SD: The thing about writing a letter versus creating a memorial or something like that is that you feel the desire to keep it upbeat. The letters became a dialogue I would write to Pushkin at the end of the day. A way of sharing things with him. It was something I would look forward to. So that is how “Letters to Pushkin” began. Initially, I wrote those letters with no intention of publication. They were handwritten letters in a little journal.
The process itself is interesting because the grieving process is non-linear and that is reflected in the letters. There were good days and bad ones. There were moments when I had surprise visits from friends who really had no business showing up in Tucson, where I was living at the time. So I felt like ‘wow – there are angels looking out for me saying she needs a hug from somebody that has known her a long time.’
The letters also became a record of all the different thoughts and inspirations I was taking in at the time. I was grabbing everything from the Baghavad Gita to Gloria Steinem to Marianne Williamson. I was pulling from everywhere I could ideas that would be healing for me.
At the end of it all, my thought was, ‘This was so helpful to me, what if I made a web site available to people where they could write a letter or more of their own to a companion animal that has passed. It might help them.’ And to me, that was a way to honor Pushkin in a unique way, creating a space where people could partake in their own healing around the loss of a companion animal and also a space where people could go and know there were others who understood the depth of their loss.
So, I asked my husband who is a software engineer and expert coder, ‘How hard would it be to create a website with a framework that would let other people write and share letters of their own?’ And that turned out to be a blessing because working on this together helped us as a couple through the grieving process. From the moment it was launched a few months after that initial conversation, the website took on a life of its own and continues all these years later to find its way to the people who need it, which makes me really happy.
Initially, I had only my first letter available for reading on the website. After the first few years, we ended up publishing all 47 of them in book form because people were asking to read them. I was hesitant about publishing at first because I did not want to turn these letters into a project — Pushkin was a living being, not a project. But then I thought ‘If it is going to help people, then we can self-publish and donate 50% to Bidawee, the NYC rescue organization that brought Pushkin and me together. The other proceeds we use to cover the costs of associated with maintaining the website.
NN: How long has the website been around and what has the response been?
It’s been around nearly 11 years and its popularity is almost solely by word of mouth. I have some postcards printed out so that when I stay in a hotel room I’ll tuck them in the drawer by the Bible or in the pocket on an airplane, and I just trust whoever needs it will find it.
If you visit the website, there are a few ways it can be a resource. If someone wants to write a letter of his or her own, it will prompt the person with questions to help gather and inspire thoughts. Once written, the letter can be kept private, shared with just family and friends, or shared on the site. I hear from a lot of people to this day that write to me saying, ‘I’m not ready to write a letter, but it was helpful for me to go read some other ones.’ So, some people just visit the website to read and to know that they are not alone. They need to feel that it’s not strange and it’s not abnormal to feel such grief over the loss of a companion animal.
Letters are great because they are sometimes more accessible to those who are not already inclined to write. For a lot of people, a letter is just easier than perhaps an essay about their pet. And the letters range. There have been hundreds of letters written by women and men of all ages. . People write letters to all kinds of animals — not just dogs and cats. There are letters to horses, birds, fish, ferrets, various reptiles. Sometimes they are writing to an animal who passed away last night, and sometimes they are writing to their childhood companion 20-30 years later — and that’s beautiful too.
Meanwhile, the LTP Facebook page also has taken on a life of its own and complements the website because it’s on the Facebook page that people have been a support network for each other, sharing stories and offering words of comfort to each other.
So, here we are a decade after it’s creation talking about it. It’s amazing… every couple of years, just when things start to get quiet, I’ll get a call from a news station or a blogger wanting to talk about it and then there is a resurgence. People from all over have found the book and the website. Every once in a while someone will even recognize us. A substitute housekeeper once came to our home and, as she was dusting the pictures on the wall, she noticed the picture of my husband and me with a copy of our Letters to Pushkin book. She looked at me and said, ‘You’re the letters to Pushkin family!’ And when I confirmed, she added ‘My friend gave me your book when I lost my father.’ I found this especially heartwarming because, as I mentioned earlier, I believe there is a universality in the death experience. Some people say will say ‘It was just a Beagle. That’s a little weird.’ But if you take the time to read through all of my letters and see the kinds of things I’m thinking though, it doesn’t seem so strange at all. It was the first time I was experiencing a great loss, and it’s a lot of the same feelings that come up, whether the loss is human or non-human. And that housekeeper did share with me that it really helped her work through the grieving of her father and have faith in the afterlife connection.
NN: You now practice animal law and it appears have dedicated your career to animal advocacy. Have you always had strong relationships with animals and when did you discover that this would be a career path for you?
SD: I would say that my relationship with animals was pretty typical as a child. We had animal companions growing up and they were treated as members of the family. I was also a very busy child. At the age of six, I started working as a child model. I was in New York City every day either auditioning or taking classes. So, I was not at home as much as most kids. It was not until much later, after having a couple of career shifts, that my work became animal-focused.
I was looking at the tail end of my 30’s wondering ‘What do I want to do?’ As a yoga practitioner, a big part of this consideration was also ‘Whatever I choose to do next, how can I be of service?’ I also knew that this service could take many forms. So, I just decided I wanted to make animal advocacy more of a focus and put more of my time and energy there.
I had been the owner of a yoga studio and I had built it up to a wonderful business with a full staff. I was in the middle of this when I decided I wanted to attend law school with the purpose of focusing on animal law issues, and the University of Arizona offered me a scholarship that made that possible.
As for the field of Animal Law, admittedly I initially didn’t know such a field even existed. I just figured ‘Before I really get going with this advocacy, maybe I should learn the related laws.’ So, I ordered a huge law Animal Law casebook online. It’s now an earlier edition of the animal law book still used in most law schools, and I read the whole thing going through taking notes and highlighting.
But I was only about 150 pages into it when I realized there were not nearly enough protective laws written for animals. And the laws that did exist are not that well-written or have considerable holes in them. So, with my writing background and education in public outreach, it made the most sense this would be the area I could focus in on within the animal protection community and have the most impact. It’s where I felt I could put the skills I had already been developing to good use and where I also could be creative. We often have to draw from other areas of law, such as environmental law. Or consumer laws, for example, in cases about food labeling or legislation regarding puppy mills. Animal law as a field is still relatively new. There have been incredible milestones in the 40 years. But whether it’s about animals in agriculture, companion animals, or wildlife — there’s still a lot to be done.
A big issue in our laws is the treatment of animals as property. But that mindset is changing, and we’re starting to see that change reflected in the law. And so, as evidenced by the Letter To Pushkin web site, it’s becoming more acceptable now to talk about the grief of an animal loss. I think there is much greater understanding now about the complexity of the bond and appreciation for the role in a family that any companion animal has. The letters that people write to their companion animals on the website express that complexity, and they become a documentation of that. We use the language when talking about children in law of ‘what is in the best interest of the child.’ Our laws are just now starting to use the phrasing ‘what is in the best interest of the animal.’ That has not always been the case. And it’s still not the case in most states. But we are recognizing more and more that animals are emotional beings, they are having a life experience with complex emotions. There’s one letter on the website from a person to her fish and it’s simply beautiful. The person did yoga next to this companion and they would breathe together. That is a connection with life.
Especially for a writer and educator like myself, someone whose life has hinged so much on words, isn’t it a miracle that three of my greatest teachers — Pushkin and his brothers Otis and Galileo — have taught me so much and all of it without one word of English? And they did. They really did.
To read “Letters to Pushkin” CLICK HERE.
To find out more about Sharon visit her website http://www.sharondiscorfano.com/