Bereavement in animal owners and disenfranchised grief

I’ve been inspired to write this blog by a Facebook group for the owners of horses with Cushings disease. I’ve been a member of the group for some years, mostly lurking, but reading the posts with interest.
Over the last year it seems that many of us in the group have lost our beloved horses after much care, love and management of this tricky disease. Recently, one member posted twice in one week. Both posts told of her heartbreak at loosing one of her horses. She lost two, unexpectedly, in one week- that’s a lot of trauma and a lot of grief.
I’ve been reading a lot about grief in animal owners in recent months. It was all prompted by a cutting from a professional journal that my friend and vet sent me. So, I thought I might share, in some short blogs, some of the information I have come across.
Lots of studies, over many years, have looked at how humans grieve when they loose someone close to them, but little attention has been paid to the bereavement processes for humans who loose animals. What literature is out there will probably not be a surprise to many of us who have loved and lost animals.
The grief experienced when an animal dies is often, for those who were attached to it, much the same as a bereavement reaction when a close human dies. Sometimes it can be more deeply felt and experienced. There are several issues that make grief for an animal more tricky.
One of these is that often other people don’t recognise the owner’s grief, or think that they are just being silly and sentimental. It’s common to be told that, “it was only an animal” or “you can get another one.” It is not unusual for a grief reaction for an animal to be considered as a sign of mental illness or instability.
All of this can lead to what is called ‘disenfranchised grief’ – when an individual is bereaved but can’t express it or explain it to others, but instead has to keep it bottled up inside. How lonely and difficult this must be. And how unhealthy. Rather than the expression of grief for a lost animal being a sign of illness, the suppression, due to disenfranchised grief, of those deep feelings is much more likely to cause emotional damage and mental health problems.
So, the ‘Equine Cushings Disease Horses’ Facebook group looks like it has a very important function as, in addition to all the practical support and sharing of ideas, it allows horse owners to openly express their feelings before and after the loss of their equine companions. With each post that tells of sadness, grief and bewilderment as another horse dies there are many replies offering kind words, support, warmth and virtual hugs.
That very special group is a superb example of how, when at its best, social media can be connecting and helpful.


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.

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.