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Dealing with death of horse

From: Lorri

Dear Jessica, I've run out of ideas on how to cope with a situation and I am hoping for some of your wisdom. My daughter's horse died recently from colic, and Cathie is not dealing with it at all well. She's the animal-lover in the family, her father and I aren't really into animals of any kind, but we know that she was very fond of her horse so we have been cutting her a lot of slack and making a lot of allowances, probably too many allowances in fact. However, it's been almost two weeks now, and Cathie doesn't seem to be making any effort to pull herself together and "rejoin the human race" as my husband puts it.

She's an 'A' student and school will be out soon for the summer, and if she doesn't snap out of it and make a little effort with her classes, we're afraid that her grade average will drop. Next year she will be in high school, and she needs to learn that she can't let things like this throw her, she needs to study hard and keep those grades up. If she wants to indulge in some kind of overblown teenage grief drama, she really needs to wait until summer vacation. Naturally we have tried to tell her this, but she isn't responding well. We feel that she is old enough to act more responsibly and not make such a fuss about a pet when there are real issues like grades to deal with. Her grades can have an effect on which college she gets into.

I know that Cathie respects you a lot and will take advice from you even when she is totally ignoring her own parents. Please can you tell her, or tell us so we can tell her, that all pets die and that's one of the reasons we weren't crazy about the idea of having a pet horse in the first place, we knew that we would just end up going through something like this. It's just a fact of life that pets don't live as long as people, and Cathie needs to face this and put it behind her. I guess she is just one of those girls that gets all silly over horses, and since I was not that way and nobody in my family or in my husband's family is that way, we really don't know where this came from or what to do to get Cathie back on track. I even suggested that we could go to Disneyland this summer and she could take one of her friends with her at our expense, but she says she isn't interested.

We've talked about maybe letting her get another horse to replace this one, but first of all, I don't think we want to get into all that again, and second of all, her grandmother asked her if she wanted another horse and she started crying and locked herself in her room. I understand that she's unhappy but that's no excuse for showing bad manners to her Grammie! We have tried to bring her up well and usually she is a credit to us, but she has just gone nuts over this whole horse thing, and instead of getting more normal now that the horse is dead, she seems to be getting less normal. It can't be healthy for her to mope around like this. Do you think we should send her to a therapist? I'm hesitant to do that because it's the kind of thing that might keep her out of a good college if anyone found out she had mental problems. Please give us some advice here. You know all about horses and girls, and the way girls get about horses, so when can we expect Cathie to behave like her normal self, and what should we do in the meantime? We're just not getting through to her, I can tell. We are being very patient, but all of this is making life tense and unpleasant around home, I can tell you. Thanks for your advice in advance, Lorrie


Hi Lorrie! I'm glad you wrote, because I'm very much hoping that I can help you understand what your daughter is going through. I know that you and your husband aren't pet-owners or animal-lovers, so some of this may sound a little strange, but please bear with me. I'm sure that you and your husband love your Cathie and want her to be happy, and that you're very frustrated by her behaviour and the distance that there is between you. First, I'd like you to realize that this distance WILL go away in time - but that you'll help the most by respecting your daughter and her feelings.

Second, you need to undestand that right now, what Cathie is feeling is GRIEF. There's no question of her "pulling herself together" - you can't ask that of her. It's something that she will do, all by herself, at the END of the grieving process, but it has to come from inside, it's not something that you can ask or expect her to do - and she can't do it on command.

Middle-school years are difficult years for everyone - girls, boys, parents, and teachers. Cathie may be a teenaged drama queen - but that's a separate issue. A lot of young teens are drama queens. I certainly was, and my parents will be happy to confirm it. But what you're seeing right now is not acting or exaggerating - Cathie's grief is genuine, and it's deep, and it's not going to disappear overnight. In terms of grieving and mourning, which is what she is going through, two weeks is NOTHING.

Third, I want you to try to understand just how much that horse meant to Cathie. When a horse-owner of any age says "My horse is my best friend", it's like a dog-owner saying "My dog is my best friend." This isn't exaggeration, it's truly the way those people FEEL. When you lose a beloved pet - or a horse - you lose a friend. "Pet" is a very small word for the friend that Cathie has lost. You're going to have to use all your empathy, sympathy, and imagination to help you understand your daughter, because if you don't love animals, it's just about impossible for you to understand the kind of bond that can exist between a human and an animal. Your Cathie had a close, personal connection and a real, interactive relationship with a dear friend - who happened to be a horse. Losing a close friend leaves a large, gaping HOLE in your soul - I'm sure that you can relate to that. At any age, no matter how important or successful we may be, losing a close friend HURTS.

Cathie must be about 13 or 14 years old if she's in her last year of middle school. She has at least one grandmother still alive - it's quite possible that she has never before experienced the death of a relative or close friend. If she has lost a grandparent, it may have happened when she was very young and didn't really understand - and the death probably didn't come as a sudden, shocking surprise.

Losing a horse to colic hurts in the same way that losing a human friend to a sudden accident hurts. There's no lingering illness to help you prepare for the inevitable, there's no long-term deterioration that can cause you to think that death would be a release - or a relief. It's unexpected, sudden, and heartbreaking - all you know is that your friend was in a lot of pain, and then died. Full stop. End of story.

When "Grammie" asked about replacing the horse, it was a well-meant question - but not a good one to ask just then. This is something that humans often do, in an attempt to console others. It's kindly meant, but it invariably comes out wrong. Parents who have lost a child do not want to be told "You're still young, you can have more children, you'll have another baby, don't cry" - they've lost a unique, irreplaceable individual, and they're not ready to think in terms of another one. They may NEVER be ready to think in terms of a "replacement" - some parents continue to grieve for their dead babies throughout their lives, and that's certainly their right. In the case of someone who has lost a horse, like Cathie, when her grandmother tried to be comforting by suggesting the purchase of a "replacement horse", it wasn't the right time for such a suggestion. There may be other horses for Cathie, someday, but they will be OTHER horses - nothing will replace THIS unique, irreplaceable horse. And what Cathie probably HEARD, in her grief, was "One horse is the same as another, don't cry, one died, you can have another, so what's the fuss about?"

The bottom line here is that pet loss is friend loss is family loss is LOSS. It's a personal disaster for the human involved, and leaves a big hole. There's a very big hole in your Cathie's life, and there is no way to fill it up or pretend that it doesn't exist - and you shouldn't try. Clumsy attempts to comfort by offering another horse, or a dog, or a trip to Disneyland will only make Cathie feel more alienated - because they make it clear that you don't really understand or accept the depth of her grief. This isn't a mood or a moment of teenaged rebellion - it's genuine grief. If you can't share it, at least accept the fact that it exists.

Yes, life goes on. Cathie does have to get on with things - eventually. But before she does that, before she CAN do that, she needs to grieve. If you don't allow her to grieve NOW, when she needs to, you won't stop the grief, you'll just force it underground where it will remain as unfinished emotional business that will put in an appearance later in her life, probably at a very bad time.

The process of grieving is always the same, regardless of the cause. If you know and can recognize the various stages of Cathie's grief, you may be able to help her - and at the least, you'll be able to avoid ADDING to her burden.

The stages are:

There's no set number of days or weeks that are "suitable" or "normal" for any stage - the grieving person will go through each stage in turn.

Typically the progession through the stages will go something like this:

The person's first reaction to the death is SHOCK and disbelief. This is the time when people seem to be numb and unaware, unable to take in the news, unable to process the information, unable to understand that the friend is DEAD. This is a perfectly normal mental reaction - the mind, like the body, has ways of protecting itself.

The next two stages often occur very close together. Once the mental shock and numbness begins to wear off, the next reaction is typically ANGER. When a horse-owner is in this phase, she may be furious with everything - even with the universe itself - for allowing the horse to die. She may be angry with everyone at the barn, with everyone at the vet clinic, with her parents, with her teachers, with herself. Again, this is normal - and it doesn't last forever. It often very quickly shifts into the next - also usually brief - phase, which is to lose interest in the other people and horses at the barn, the veterinarian who used to look after the horse, her parents, her teachers, her friends at school... at this point, the anger has left the person exhausted, and everything seems very fuzzy and vague and unreal. As long as Cathie doesn't lock herself in her room for weeks at a time and refuse to talk to anyone about anything, don't pester her - this is normal.

After this, when the person begins to come out of the exhaustion and alienation, the next step is DENIAL. When an animal dies, it's important for the animal's owner to understand that there is nothing that can be done - the animal is dead, it won't come back, it can't come back, and there is no way to create a more satisfactory conclusion to the animal's life. It's gone.

GUILT is the next step - and perhaps the hardest one to deal with, both for the horse-owner and for her family. It's normal, but heartbreaking, to see your daughter beating herself up over what she thinks is her responsibility for her horse's death. If she had to tell the vet "Please put the horse down so that it won't be in pain any more" - as is often the case when a horse has a terminal colic - then she is likely to feel even more guilty, constantly asking herself how she could have "let" her horse die, and constantly wondering if she could have saved it if she had done something differently in the days or weeks before its colic and death.

This is a crucial stage of grief, because it's during this stage that Cathie will need to find the courage to forgive herself. Humans are only humans - not one of us can make a perfect, accident- and illness-free life for our animals. We can do the best we know how to do for our animals, and that is ALL we can do, and sometimes it simply isn't enough. During this stage, you won't help at all by telling Cathie "It was just a horse". If you must try to comfort her, don't push - let her know that you know (perhaps because the vet or barn manager or Cathie's instructor told you?) that she was a conscientious, caring horse-owner who always did the best she could for her horse, and that horses have delicate digestive systems, and that colic is the number-one killer of horses, and that SHE DID THE BEST SHE COULD.

Don't try to go beyond that, though, and don't get mad at Cathie, or at yourself, if she isn't ready to be comforted. You might try just sitting with her. Sometimes a quiet presence is more comforting than anything that you can SAY. The only people who are likely to be able to get through to Cathie on the subject of her horse will be horse-people - for preference, people who have also experienced the loss of a beloved horse.

There is professional help available, as well - there are professional grief counsellors who specialize in helping people get through the emotions they experience when they lose an animal friend. Cathie can call the C.A.R.E Helpline at 1-877-394-2273. This is a free service provided by the College of Veterinary Medicine at the University of Illinois. There are volunteers - veterinary students who understand the depth of the human/animal bond, and who are trained in grief counseling - answering telephones there on Tuesday, Thursday, and Sunday, between 7 and 9 PM, Central Standard Time.

I'm going to guess that Cathie may already be at the next-to-last stage - DEPRESSION. This can last a long time, and is hard to deal with. The "moping around" you've described sounds like depression to me - and again, that is simply a normal phase of the grieving process. If Cathie seems to think of nothing but her horse, if she's phsyically tired all the time, not very interested in food, and mentions that she's having trouble sleeping, those are all very typical signs of depression. This seems like something you would want to help her get OUT of quickly, but in fact this is a phase of healing - the mind and body get very slow and quiet so that the healing process can begin and continue.

During this time, it would be very useful for Cathie to talk to someone who has been through what she's been through - and you may be able to find someone like that by calling Cathie's instructor or vet. It's worth the effort. This is how support groups work - people who are in a bad place get to talk with others who are in the same place, and with those who have been there and managed to get OUT. Different people work through the stages at their own individual rate of speed - let Cathie heal at the speed that works for her. You can't rush this, no matter how much you love your daughter, no matter how much you want her to be happy again.

The final phase of grief is RESOLUTION - that's when we - all of us, and in this particular case, Cathie - finally realize that death is part of life, and that there is no way to give a piece of your heart to another being, human or animal, without risking the desperate sorrow that comes when that other being dies. THIS is the stage during which Cathie will be able to pull herself together and move on - but you will need to be realistic about your expectations.

Don't expect her to forget about her horse. She won't. She will always love that horse. You and your husband have probably lost beloved family members - perhaps your grandparents. Did you stop loving them when they died? Of course not, and neither will Cathie. "Pulling yourself together" means accepting and living with the loss of a loved friend, NOT forgetting about the friend or denying the love. "Letting go of the past" means not blaming yourself for being unable to prevent the loss of the loved one, NOT forgetting all about the loved one.

I think that you would do well to stop worrying about Cathie's grades. She's an 'A' student who has had a traumatic experience and a great loss - of course she's not doing as well! But she is not even in high school yet. Give her the chance to recover and heal, as she needs to do, and you'll have your 'A' student back by the time it matters. Some colleges care only about the grades students get in their last two years of high school; some colleges care about the grades they get all the way through high school, but NO college is going to accept or reject Cathie based on the grades she got in middle school when she was 13 or 14 or 15.

If you want to show some sympathy for and solidarity with Cathie, here's a suggestion for you: You and your husband can make a donation to the Hooved Animal Rescue and Protection Society - that's HARPS - you can find them online at www.harpsonline.org - or to another reputable horse rescue society in your area. Make the donation in the name of Cathie's horse. That way, without making a fuss or saying things that you don't believe, you can SHOW Cathie that you respect her feelings and her grief, that you are sad too, and that you aren't trying to pretend that her horse never existed.

Whatever you do, be patient, and stay aware of the stages of grieving and of Cathie's journey through them. She needs her parents' support just as much as you and your husband need to be able to support her. Just as Cathie would undoubtedly give YOU sympathy if you lost a grandparent she had never known, because she would see that you were grieving and in pain, you need to give Cathie YOUR sympathy now that she has lost a loved one. Don't let yourself get sidetracked by issues of the loved one's species and Cathie's age - those things are really irrelevant. Your daughter is in pain - let her know that you are sorry, and let her know that that when she wants to talk, you will LISTEN. In the meantime, even if you can't imagine why she would be upset about the loss of an animal, don't try to tell her what you think she "should" or "shouldn't" feel. Accept the fact that her feelings ARE her feelings, and don't trivialize them. Grief is grief. If you understand that, you'll understand Cathie better - and you'll find it easier to help her through the grieving process.

And tell Cathie that she's welcome to get in touch with me directly, as well.

Jessica

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