Love, grief and our four-legged friends
We don't talk much about death
Grief, loss, bereavement and death are topics that we tend not to discuss very much...
They are often very difficult to talk about and can involve many fears and worries. These can be about both our own emotions as well as what we might trigger in someone else or perhaps even burden them with. We can be afraid to ask someone how they are feeling for fear of upsetting them, saying the wrong thing or just feeling awkward. Sometimes loss may be relatively straightforward yet deeply and intensely painful. Other times it can be more complex and the emotions and reactions that come with it can be very confusing, surprising or even shocking.
In this article I talk through some of these things as well as a little about my own recent experience of loss. There is a link at the end to listen to an interview I did on the same topic.
I really hope it brings some comfort...
The inevitability of loss
What is certain is that this is an experience that will affect every single one of us at some time in our lives. A universal truth is that if we love or care for someone or something, another being, we will inevitably experience loss and grief and we cannot control that. It is also the case that it is a very unique and individual experience for each person. This can result in us feeling very alone and isolated and sometimes even 'wrong' in some way.
Over the years that I have worked as a therapist and healer I have talked with many, many people about their grief and losses. So often what we most need is someone to simply listen, to really hear the pain of it and help to reassure us that there is no right or wrong way to feel or a 'right' timeline.
I have also worked with a number of people who knew they were dying, something that has always felt like a huge privilege. When someone is given a diagnosis of something that will almost certainly be the thing that ends their life, something shifts. Of course this is also a very unique and individual experience, with no right or wrong way to navigate it, but it does seem to change something quite fundamental for most people. Their death may be very imminent or some way ahead, (and then the challenge can be about finding a way to live whilst knowing that you are dying), but either way the impact is felt.
I suppose you could say that we all have that knowledge that we won't live forever and therefore we are all technically dying... There does, however, seem to be something that happens within a person when they learn that they have a life limiting, terminal illness. Perhaps without that we are somehow able to distance ourselves from the reality of our own death? In the UK at least, and many western cultures, death often happens in hospitals and quite privately, behind closed doors. Many people have never seen anyone die or a dead body. It may be that this contributes to us being able to disconnect ourselves from death in some way and, for most people, to have very little experience of it.
For some the idea of discussing death, dying and loss might feel an unnecessarily maudlin or negative thing to do. Being able to acknowledge and not shy away from death itself, as well as all the sorrow that can surround it, can help us to carry less pain with us. It can also help us to feel closer and more connected to others and perhaps even to enjoy the life we do have with greater joy and depth.
A personal story
Inevitably throughout my years helping others with loss and grief, these things have not left my own life untouched. Both my personal experience of it and my work with clients has resulted in me feeling increasingly passionate about the importance of sharing and opening up conversations. Unless we do this we are left in isolation and perhaps feeling bad about our feelings or that they are somehow wrong. We need to do better at making room for all our feelings, not just the easy, pleasant, positive and fun ones. It is my firm belief that the more we feel and acknowledge the difficult ones the easier it is to come back to the nicer ones. Trying to 'be positive' all the time denies a part of what it is to be a human who is an emotional being.
Last summer I very unexpectedly lost my beloved horse, Brandy. I was grateful to be able to be with her and to be able to make a decision that meant she didn't have to suffer too long, something that isn't of course possible for our human loved ones. This felt like my last service to her and, whilst glad to be able to do it, was a traumatic and painful experience. Her death and loss from my life left a huge hole that, like most griefs, has taken time to process and come to terms with and that process continues. Grief is most definitely a journey and rarely a quick one. Grief can be described as something that sort of rips us open, emotionally. It can make us feel very raw, exposed, vulnerable and in that process it is common to find other older griefs and hurts that perhaps haven't been attended to enough resurface.
Losing an animal
When the loss we have experienced is with an animal there can be some extra complexities that can make it hard to process. The phrase "it was only an animal" may come to mind. When a person dies there are usually various processes and rituals that occur. One benefit of these, along with the practicalities, is that they can help our minds to cope in those early days of the initial loss. Even when a death is expected, or even wanted to bring relief from suffering, it can still feel like a shock when it happens. With the death of our animals we don't have those same rituals to help us. There are also those daily tasks that we fulfil in order to care for the animals in our care and these may have a whole lifestyle that come with them and being an animal owner may become part of our identity. The question "when or will you get another one" is hard not to ask and can be a tricky one.
So I talked about it on the radio
My local community radio station, This is Alfred, based in Shaftesbury has a regular show called Horse Tales. Local author, Kathy Morgan, hosts it and covers a range of equine related topics. Kathy approached me to ask whether I might be willing to talk about the loss of a horse, both from my personal perspective and with my professional hat on. I have done a fair bit of public speaking and been interviewed a number of times, but never about something so personal. I felt uncharacteristically nervous about it but also that it was an opportunity I very much wanted to take up. So on a windy morning in February I met Kathy at her horses' field and we recorded our conversation. There were a few very emotional moments, for us both as Kathy has also experienced the loss of horses in the past, but there was also laughter and a real sense that we were doing something important. I feel proud of what we did and if it makes just one person feel a little less alone or weird in their grief I will know that we did our job. By coincidence it happened that I uploaded the interview on the 21st anniversary of my mother's death. She never knew that horses were to become such a huge part of my life but I know that she would also have been very proud of this.
You can listen to the full interview on my bandcamp page. Please note that we do discuss some difficult issues and touch on details of a horse dying that some people might find difficult.
You don't have to struggle alone
If you do feel like you are struggling with grief, loss, death or illness please know that you don't have to do it alone. It doesn't matter if it is something current or very recent or from years ago. These things don't have a timeline and often, if we aren't able to express and process our grief in the time immediately following a loss we can end up storing it up for later.
I often describe grief as needing to be allowed to flow and move like a river. We can feel assaulted by waves of it and it can catch us out when we least expect it. It can be an incredibly chaotic and unnerving thing to experience so, above all, treat yourself and your broken heart gently and with great care. Reach out for help if you need it.
© Dr Karen Janes, March 2023