This grief thing is a bit of a bugger

It is now over two weeks since my old horse, Badger, went. I’ve stopped crying so much. Now it mostly happens during the morning drive to work and in the evening, after The Archers on Radio 4. Why then? I have no idea. Although the script writers on the Archers are causing some angst amongst us regular listeners, I don’t think it is the storyline.

This grief stuff is getting better but I am still very sad. When I look back to the weeks, and perhaps even the months before Badger’s last day, the pain of the grief that I had then – knowing I would soon loose him and would have to make that awful decision- was perhaps worse than the sadness I have now. Back then I had continual anxiety about how, what and when. Now there is a final certainty which is easier to live with. Then, I experienced a mourning of him whilst he was still alive. It was a physical pain, a tightness that was like wearing an old fashioned, boned bodice of hurt.

On the morning I had made the decision and spoke to my vet I remember saying to her that there was very little left of who Badger was. Yes, he had slowly lost a lot of weight and was now thin despite increased Cushing’s medication and painkillers and 3 to 4 small soaked feeds a day. But what I really meant was that there was little left of who Badger was. He had always been a personality, sometimes he was hard work, but that had reduced over time and in recent months much of him had already left.

Last week my partner picked up the ashes and transported them so very carefully. He had offered to do this although, I knew it would upset him. He put the wicker basket on the passenger seat next to him, with a seatbelt around it. The ashes are now in my living room and I have to plan what to do with them. I never understood people who keep cremation ashes and never get around to scattering them. But now I do. Much of me doesn’t want to scatter them as I feel there will then be nothing left of my companion of 27 years.

However, I have started writing a list of all our favourite rides together. Then I plan to take a small amount of Badger’s ashes to these places and free a little of him in each. What is left on 1st October next year will all be finally scattered on the last field he lived in – for a third of his life.

So there is a plan and I’m working through it. But, this grief thing is a bit of a bugger.


Social inclusion and recovery – not possible without pets?

I was training a Psychosis Awareness course recently and a video clip that we use in it shows a service user describing how important his dog is to him and his recovery. This led to a discussion, in the group being trained, about the importance of animals to mental health – something that I am very interested in. I muted the idea that it is difficult, if not impossible, for many of our service users to own a companion animal. One of the students said, as a counter argument, that some of the service users, that her assertive outreach team work with, have animals. My reply was to quote the statistic that 50% of UK households have a companion animal and to ask her if 50% of her team’s caseload had animals. They did not.

We talk about recovery in mental illness and the importance of social inclusion for service users but rarely do we really consider these ideas in the context of animal ownership. Those with mental health problems are often discouraged from owning a companion animal by their families, the staff working with them, or other agencies. Usually there are worries about how that person may be able to manage to care for the animal, the cost of keeping it and the accommodation of it should the owner become unwell. Often service users are provided housing that prohibits the keeping of pets.

For many, companion animals provide company, structure to the day and important relationships. Our animals can make us laugh and some may make us feel safer in our homes and communities. Many animals help their owners to have increased social contact, routine and excercise. Why should someone be denied the chance to experience these things, that are options for many of society, just because they have a mental health problem.

Animal assisted therapy is well known and used now in many health care settings. It has a wonderful affect for many of those that the animals come in contact with for short periods, often on a regular basis. Professionals often refer to these experiences for people, thinking that this satisfies the need for contact with animals. Whilst I do not deny that animal assisted therapy is of great value, it is very different to having your own animal in your life on a full time basis. In fact, for me, whose animals are very important, a visiting animal which was not my own, would probably be more distressing than helpful as it would remind me of what I had lost and could no longer have.

We stigmatise people with mental illness if we do not ofer them support to own a companion animal, should they wish to. A large number of our service users can never experience social inclusion unless their wish to have an animal can be accommodated.

So let’s really start thinking about how we might support recovery for our service users who desperately want a companion animal. Instead of dismissing their desires and aspirations in this area, or trying to put them off the idea, let’s support them. Let’s help find them accommodation that suitable for them and their companion animal. Co-write with them care plans that include their pets and ensure adequate crisis and contingency plans are in place should things go wrong, including who they want to take care of their animals. We should be supporting service users to access information and services for their animals, so not only are we thinking of the humans’ welfare, but the animals’ welfare too.

Aniaml ownership is not for everyone, but for those for whom it is important, wherever possible, it should be facilitated.

Deliberate acts of kindness

Over the past week I have had cause to think a lot about kindness.

It started with a friend, who is also a trainer, being treated badly by colleagues that she was training. It made me reflect on the behaviours that we sometimes accept in training that would be unacceptable in any other setting.

I re-read the Nursing and Midwifery Council’s Code of Conduct and noted that it says, “You must treat people kindly and considerately.” As trainers I don’t think we should accept that we are ‘fair game’ for unhappy and disgruntled colleagues or even ones that just want a bit of fun at the expense of the individual standing at the front of the classroom. Recently I have started asking, at the start of a course, that people behave in the training room as they would in a clinical setting. In my training today I asked this and added, that we should aim to treat each other kindly.

The past few weeks have been hard for me. I had to make one of the most difficult decisions of my life. For a long time I knew it was coming, I had prepared for it and had even written some fiction based on it. I finally had to make that decision last Wednesday – that I would ask my vet to euthanise my 33 year old horse.

The kindness that I received from our vet and the nurse that accompanied her made such a difficult decision, and the required process, as easy as it could be. Our vet knows us and our animals well. We have had conversations over the last few years about end of life plans for my old horse. So when we got to the day it was made easier by having talked through what should happen. Both vet and nurse were visibly moved by my dear old horse coming to the end of his long life and by my distress. The emotion shown by them was not only congruent, but itself a kindness as it made me feel I was not alone and that it was right and proper that I should grieve for my horse.

I sat in the field with our other horse, and the body, for six hours until the cremation people came. They too showed me utmost care and consideration.

Our field is close to a village and next to a road and footpath. Many people stopped to say how sorry they were for my loss. Some I knew quite well, and others I had never seen before. One lady reached out and took my hand through our field gate and held it as she talked to me. So many deliberate acts of kindness.

Friends and colleagues have been extraordinarily supportive, some crying with me when I get upset.

I had to find a companion for the other horse, who was not used to being on his own, and I asked a small, local equine charity for a companion pony on loan. I trusted them to find the right pony to fill our vacancy and they brought me a stunning welsh cob who is a lovely chap and moves beautifully but has a native, wile streak. This pony is not a replacement for my dear old horse, but rather this pony has come to distract us all and keep us on our toes. He has some small behaviours I don’t yet quite understand and he and I are learning to work together. And of course, all of this needs to be done with the utmost kindness as he has his own difficult history and the recent stress of a new home.

Some years ago the rather lovely idea of ‘random acts of kindness’ was quite fashionable. With so much kindness shown to me very recently, by so many different people, it has made me think that we need to make conscious efforts to deliberately, “treat people kindly.” And kindness should guide everything we do with animals.

Information about the Society for the Welfare of Horses and Ponies can be found here.