Over thirty years have passed since my first horse, Patti died in her 7th month of pregnancy. While I have emotionally and intellectually accepted her death today and am able to talk about it more easily, whenever I do I open myself to re-experiencing the depth of love that I still feel for her, and the hole left in my heart ... it took me five years after Patti's death to be able to write the original article, (which appeared in THE CHRONICLE OF THE HORSE in the April 15, 1983 edition). It was the initial step in the long journey in learning to accept her loss, and being able to finally let her go. It was also a vehicle for me to be able to discuss how the loss of a beloved animal, who often is considered to be a part of our family,is often not considered to be as "important" as the loss of a beloved human being.
I was inspired to re-write the article this morning, since this is the week that many horse lovers are celebrating Barbaro's life, through sharing our enormous love for him, I remember all too well that sorrowful day, January 29,2007 when Barbaro died. I not only experienced a powerful depth of sadness by his loss, but I also re-experienced the overwhelming sorrow I felt 30 years ago when Patti also died so unexpectedly.
My lovely old mare was quiet and kind. She was responsive and affectionate. She seemed to have a special love for the physically handicapped children who rode her in complete safety and joy during the therapeutic riding sessions provided by the Pegasus Riding for the Disabled program, at our barn. My lovely old mare accepted my love without question or judgement.
I was preparing myself for the fact that she was, in reality, getting on in years. She was 17 when I discussed the feasibility of breeding her with my vet. After the go ahead. I made the decision to breed her, so that we could pass on her legacy; her special disposition and quiet way of being, to a new life.
After finding the perfect stallion, a gentle Thoroughbred named Jolly Thief, we were thrilled that the breeding was a success. Patti was "in foal". The joy that I felt, along with her many fans was indeed a tribute to our great love for her.
Through the winter months we waited and saw her grow round and full. We watched with delight her baby kicking within her, and felt life throughout her. Death was an unreality, a never-thought-of event. Life was good. Patti was lovely, fat and sassy.
However, the words, "We lost Patti last night" still resound in my head as one of the deepest shocks and losses I had ever experienced. No Patti, no foal, nothing remained. We had been cheated.
Cultural and Social Responses
When death is expected and close by, people have the opportunity to prepare slowly and in various degrees to accept the inevitable event. When the loss is a human being, we have been conditioned to "understand" and empathize with the bereaved in social and work-related contexts. Mourning behaviors can be expressed within cultural frameworks. Volumes have been written on the subject of death. Loss is very subjective and personal in the ways in which we experience it.
Existing social norms permit life disruption as a result of the loss of a significant other, but rarely the loss of a pet. The value of a pet's worth as opposed to a fellow human being is frequently questioned, and that loss is often described by those who do not understand, as "only a dog" or "just a cat", in contrast to the premium placed upon a spouse, child, sibling, parent or dear friend. The importance of the animal-human bond is more often than not, played out as one which is secondary and, in fact by those who have never experienced the depth of feeling for an animal, can be often judged as a substitution for the more "appropriate" and normal inter-human relationship.
I experienced this phenomenon from the outset of my intense grief at Patti's loss. Initially, my employer was sympathetic and supportive to taking time off work, but later inquired as to how I planned to account for the time - vacation, personal leave or a "sick" days. How could this be resolved? I was not sick, did not attend to personal business, and it certainly was no vacation!
Had I been confronted by the death of my child, there would have been an established category to protect my right to mourn. In attempting to enlighten her to the fact that Patti's death left me unable to adequately perform my job, I became very aware of the gap in our value systems, and in the general society's as a whole.
Well-meaning people, eager to comfort me, tried to minimize my loss and advised me to replace her as soon as possible. The energy I expended in the desperate search for Patti's replacement I learned was an attempt to avoid the depth of pain I was experiencing..
Would these same people encourage me to immediately become involved in a new relationship in the event of my husband's death? I would think not. A significant period of mourning, following the death of a human family member, is supported and encouraged by those with whom we regularly interact, yet the grief associated with the loss of a pet generally does not receive that same validation of feelings. I realized then there is a huge need to educate people who are unaware of the magnitude of such a loss that grieiving cannot be categorized into what is allowed and "appropriate" and what is abnormal and "inappropriate".
After several months of searching for a new horse, I purchased a young gelding but was devoid of feeling. I hoped that a relationship would grow; however, I could not be fair to him as I constantly compared him to Patti, and was frustrated by the fact that they were not the same. She was unique to herself. I sold him to a friend within several months, where he was able to receive the love he deserved.
A year later, while visiting a local stable, a small brown horse cantering in the ring with a young girl on her back, captured my eye. The little girl was laughing in delight, enjoying her ride and the glorious summer afternoon. I became fascinated and mesmerized as I to watched the two with intense interest. I felt my hear open wide and beat quickly with anticipation. I had long stopped consciously looking for Patti, but I knew immediately that Patti had found her for me. Sweet and Low and I found each other.
I shared my life with her for many years. She, too, was an older horse with a loving, quiet disposition. She, too, assisted handicapped children to ride. In fact, Patti and Sweet and Low were very similar nature, but when I compared them I found myself doing so based upon my affection for both rather than out of a sense of loss. I derived pleasure from having the opportunity to have been able to share my life with two remarkable mares.
I feel a strong need to share this knowledge with others which gives us the opportunity to talk about the need for society in general to give credence to the relationship that many people have with their pets, no matter what species. There should not be a distinction in the impact made upon us when experiencing the loss of a human being or a beloved pet. The need still exists for further education so that these losses will be viewed with equal support and empathy which will enable the bereaved to work through the grieving process without judgement.
We cannot replace a beloved pet or human being. The danger that exists when we attempt to do so is the potential loss of their individuality and the unique joy we experience with them.
Have you deeply experienced the loss of a beloved pet, and felt unsupported in your grief? How did you handle it? Please leave a comment and share with us.