Welcome back to the world of Your Awesome Life. My apologies for my absence these past few weeks; I was largely away from my computer for much of July as we continued to work on our home renovation project, and then welcomed our cousin Debra and her friend Beryl from the U.K. over for a visit.
As has happened before, I had begun a blog entry a few weeks ago on a topic that was completely different than the one I will be sharing with you today.
You may have noticed that every blog I have written has included at least one picture of one of our horses. As part of our future plans to open our farm as an equine assisted learning facility to members of the public seeking relief from PTSD, grief, depression, or trauma, my intention has been to showcase our beautiful therapy partners for all of my readers to enjoy.
This blog is dedicated to the memory of my horse, Coyote's Valiant "Coyote", who passed away very unexpectedly on July 30, 2016.
The first days following Coyote's death were a blur of terrible images replayed in my mind of the moment when we found his still body that Saturday morning in our east pasture. Of mind-numbing "whys" as to how such a healthy animal could have died so suddenly. Of overwhelming guilt. Why wasn't I there when he breathed his last? Did he suffer? What could I have done to save him?
The worst part of this initial grief reaction was in not being able to recall any of our times together. Absolutely no memories found their way to my consciousness for the first 72 hours, and this tremendously compounded my sadness and feelings of guilt. I know of no explanation for this memory amnesia that I experienced, although I am certain that I am not alone in this phenomenon.
Most of us are familiar with the stages of grief, the first stage being shock. With the benefit of the past few weeks of Time -- that Great Healer -- the memories of my riding partner of eleven years began to resurface. I am grateful and humbled by the love and warmth within those vignettes that have been keeping me company for the past few weeks. They, along with a never-far-away lump in my throat, have become my steady companions.
Grief shock is intended to protect us from absorbing the full impact of a tragic or overwhelming event all at once. It is a basin of numbness and denial with reality seeping in at a rate that our minds can accept. It also is the beginning of a very personal and often convoluted journey.
I was first introduced to Coyote's Valiant eleven years ago when he was offered by a private owner as a lesson/lease horse at a local riding stable where daughter Heather and I had been riding for about two years. This was shortly after my offer to purchase a different horse had fallen through. My lesson instructor felt that Coyote and I would be well matched. Little did either of us realize at the beginning just how right she was.
Coyote was flashy to look at with his large white star and right hind white sock. He stood about 15.2 hands high and I was just tall enough to see over his back when I brushed him. In the winter and in low light his coloring was known as liver chestnut, however in the sunlight his shiny coat took on a luxurious burnished mahogany sheen. He loved to be brushed, was a farrier's dream, and trailered easily. But he was so very much more than his good manners.
As beautiful as Coyote was to look at, it was his attitude and personality that captivated me. While I was still a fairly new rider in those early days, Coyote demonstrated early his ability and willingness to adapt his style to meet my ability while still providing me with riding experiences that helped to improve my skill level. Coyote's trot tended to be a little on the staccato side; quick short steps that required me to adjust my posting speed to keep pace.
He would move smoothly into a lope, and come out of it back to a trot if I became unbalanced. Like many horses, he preferred to turn in one direction more so than the other, not unlike how humans have a preference for which hand to write with, which foot to kick a soccer ball with, which way to hold a hockey stick. He was gentle, always willing, and always appreciative of attention. I told my riding instructor that if Coyote's owner ever decided to sell him, I would buy him, but I honestly doubted that it would happen. However, in 2009 Coyote came up for sale and in June that year, we brought him to our farm. It was then that we were able to experience life with Coyote on a daily basis and truly appreciate his wonderful personality and his versatility.
So, on that overcast July morning as I began to process my grief and all its delicate facets, I was haunted by two words.
And two more words.
I wish I had ridden Coyote more than I had this spring and summer. I wish I had walked over to where he was grazing on his last earthly evening, buried my head into his neck and breathed in deeply, and told him how much I loved him. He was happily grazing and I was tired from a long workweek. I thought I would spend time with him in the morning, brush his shiny coat and saddle up for a Saturday afternoon ride along the tree line. But it was not to be. My dearest equine friend, with whom I had spent hundreds of joy-filled hours, who had comforted me during some very low periods of my life, and who taught me so much about life and about myself, had slipped from this world before I woke up that cloudy Saturday morning. I was grief-stricken with pain and regret.
Regret and Guilt are unwelcome and terrible companions to Grief. They accompany Grief and their role is not to comfort, but to confuse. One of the lessons I have learned from this painful journey into bereavement once again is that these twin negative emotions can send a grieving person into the ditch of despair. Regret and guilt stunt our progress through what is simply a part of life. As an active student in the field of genealogy, I believe that our grandparents and their grandparents understood and accepted the life rule that with life must also eventually come death. In their time, death was not necessarily something to be feared or left unspoken. More importantly, death was given its rituals, all family members including the smallest children were exposed and taught about their importance, and mourners were given time to mourn, without question.
In our present time all of these natural phases are at best, not nearly as well understood or incorporated as they were in the past. As a society we seem to want to rush through the very important work of grieving and are uncomfortable when grieving emotions in others are demonstrated longer than we think necessary or even at all. This is a compounded tragedy for those who mourn.
One person who is working to help people understand and accept the importance and naturalness of the grieving process is Mr. Len McEwen, MSW, RSW. Len is a grief therapist with whom I have worked in work-related losses. He is currently completing his fellowship in Thanatology (death and grief studies). I first met Len when I asked him to assist the employees at the company I worked for at the time, with the sudden off-duty death of one of our co-workers. Len is a wealth of compassion and information for those who are grieving. His practice, Highlander Counselling can be found at http://www.highlander-counselling.com/.
Len’s practice has developed a special initiative, the Rainbow Ribbon Program, to recognize and acknowledge those who are grieving the loss of their pet. Len reassures us that our pet loss is significant and deserving of grieving rituals and traditions that historically have not been a common part of our culture. Upon request, he and his team provide a small quantity of pins in the shape of a rainbow coloured ribbon and a lovely written message of comfort to someone grieving the loss of their beloved pet. There is no charge for this service, which may be accessed toll free: 1 (866) 824-8175 or by email at email@example.com.
I also believe we humans greatly underestimate animal emotions regarding loss. Many experts believe that animals lack the ability to reason and therefore to have “human” emotions. I disagree with this assessment. I have seen mama cows bawling over their stillborn calves, the depth of their raw emotion unmistakable to anyone nearby. I have also experienced how animals comfort us and each other.
Immediately after finding Coyote’s body, one of our other horses, Splash, came up and intentionally placed his head on my shoulder in an equine hug of compassion. Splash watched me carefully that afternoon as I sat with Coyote while Chris went to rent the equipment necessary to lay my riding companion to rest. None of our horse herd or our cattle herd came near for those two hours, choosing to graze in our other pastures. But every time I looked up it was Splash who was watching me. And in the weeks since Coyote’s death, it has consistently been Splash who has sought my attention whenever I have come into the pastures.
Two years ago we lost another horse, Bailey, following his courageous fight with an aggressive, untreatable form of cancer. Bailey was primarily Chris’s horse and they had formed a tight bond. The morning that Bailey died, our other horses and the cattle each gathered around him for a few minutes. On this rainy July afternoon, we gently lifted Coyote and moved him to his final resting spot. As Chris was preparing a grave, all of our cattle and then all of our horses in turn came over and joined us. The atmosphere was silent and solemn calm. Just as with Bailey, they were saying good-bye.
A few days after Coyote passed away, I had dinner with Lisa, a dear friend and high school classmate. We spoke of Coyote. We spoke of the loss of her family’s dog a few years prior, a black lab retriever, and how she and her husband and children handled his illness, made the most difficult decision, and then honoured their Stanley as he made his final passage. We spoke of how, just as our memories are stored within us, the sadness over such a loss also remains present in the background, and how grieving a loved one is the price that we pay to love and be loved by another being. And we spoke of others we know who have lost their pets and how mourning these loves have affected them. It was interesting that while we talked after dinner, Duke, her chocolate lab who had not previously met me, chose to lie down at my feet. Lisa remarked that Duke usually stayed close by her side and that his choice to lie on top of my feet was unusual. As I returned home the following day and reflected on our conversation, I wondered if Duke’s ability to perceive my inner emotional turmoil compelled him to provide comfort to me, a stranger in his home.
Our daughter Heather is an outstanding rider. From the time that Coyote joined us at our farm, whenever Heather rode him, Coyote showed the full extent of his athletic capabilities. In his late teens at that point, Coyote looked and behaved like a young colt, galloping with Heather on his back, her long hair flying in the wind in time with his tail. They herded yearling cattle back into our pasture. On one occasion, Heather asked Coyote to shepherd one of our timid rescue mares into another pasture and he did so, rider-less (also known as “liberty”) without any prior training, reassuring the nervous mare that all was well and she was safe. Heather and Coyote frequently took summer sunrise walks down to the river bank and galloped back to the farm once the sun was high. Chris and I learned not to worry if we got up and both Heather and Coyote were missing. They would turn back up by mid-morning with tales to tell of their adventures, with Coyote soon munching happily on some oats shortly afterward, and a teenage Heather napping on the couch.
We also soon learned that Coyote was a terrible ham for a camera. He loved having his picture taken, seemed to always know when a camera was out, and would often "pose" when he knew someone was taking his picture. As I have sifted through pictures over the last few weeks, his photogenic qualities were demonstrated time and time again.
During my search for understanding and solace these past weeks, I came across the following information from www.recover-from-grief.com. The information makes sense to me and for those of you who are also grieving a loss; I hope it makes sense to you as well:
SHOCK & DENIAL- You will probably react to learning of the loss with numbed disbelief. You may deny the reality of the loss at some level, in order to avoid the pain. Shock provides emotional protection from being overwhelmed all at once. This may last for weeks.
PAIN & GUILT- As the shock wears off, it is replaced with the suffering of unbelievable pain. Although excruciating and almost unbearable, it is important that you experience the pain fully, and not hide it, avoid it or escape from it with alcohol or drugs.
You may have guilty feelings or remorse over things you did or didn't do with your loved one. Life feels chaotic and scary during this phase.
ANGER & BARGAINING- Frustration gives way to anger, and you may lash out and lay unwarranted blame for the death on someone else. Please try to control this, as permanent damage to your relationships may result. This is a time for the release of bottled up emotion.
You may rail against fate, questioning "Why me?" You may also try to bargain in vain with the powers that be for a way out of your despair ("I will never drink again if you just bring him back")
"DEPRESSION", REFLECTION, LONELINESS- Just when your friends may think you should be getting on with your life, a long period of sad reflection will likely overtake you. This is a normal stage of grief, so do not be "talked out of it" by well-meaning outsiders. Encouragement from others is not helpful to you during this stage of grieving.
During this time, you finally realize the true magnitude of your loss, and it depresses you. You may isolate yourself on purpose, reflect on things you did with your lost one, and focus on memories of the past. You may sense feelings of emptiness or despair.
More 7 stages of grief...
THE UPWARD TURN- As you start to adjust to life without your dear one, your life becomes a little calmer and more organized. Your physical symptoms lessen, and your "depression" begins to lift slightly.
RECONSTRUCTION & WORKING THROUGH- As you become more functional, your mind starts working again, and you will find yourself seeking realistic solutions to problems posed by life without your loved one. You will start to work on practical and financial problems and reconstructing yourself and your life without him or her.
ACCEPTANCE & HOPE- During this, the last of the seven stages in this grief model, you learn to accept and deal with the reality of your situation. Acceptance does not necessarily mean instant happiness. Given the pain and turmoil you have experienced, you can never return to the carefree, untroubled YOU that existed before this tragedy. But you will find a way forward.
You will start to look forward and actually plan things for the future. Eventually, you will be able to think about your lost loved one without pain; sadness, yes, but the wrenching pain will be gone. You will once again anticipate some good times to come, and yes, even find joy again in the experience of living.
Processing a loss often requires attaining the knowledge to understand why this event happened in the manner and timing that it did. In my opinion this is an entirely human characteristic; I’ve never observed an animal searching for reasons and meaning the way that we often do, especially when a death was unexpected. And I am mindful that for many mourners, there are never any adequate answers to those questions. With Bailey, Chris and I had a diagnosis, a prognosis (grim), and an estimation of how much time we had left. We had some time to at least intellectually understand that we would lose Bailey in those next few months. But actually grieving is an intensely personal and private journey. By no means does grieving follow a linear path. Bailey’s very expected death hit Chris hard. Coyote’s unexpected death hit me hard. I had to know the “why”.
With his training as a certified equine first aid instructor, Chris was able to determine that Coyote had no signs of external trauma and it initially appeared that he had suffered a heart attack. Upon closer examination, however, there were signs of internal trauma suggesting that this wasn’t a simple heart attack. During the night a violent thunderstorm had raged over our area with several close lightning strikes. Coyote hated to be inside and rarely would stay in a shelter. The evidence suggests that Coyote was grazing peacefully when he was hit by lightning and killed instantly.
This information was of some comfort. At least Coyote didn’t suffer for hours in the night with painful colic or a broken leg. His passing was very swift. He likely never knew what happened. My gentle companion was present one moment, and lifted to the sky a moment later.
Coyote was a registered Morgan, a uniquely American breed characterized by their deep loyalty and big heart. There is a saying within those associated with that horse breed, “you don’t choose the Morgan; the Morgan chooses you.” Coyote clearly chose me back in 2005. The morning before Coyote died, I saw him grazing in the west pasture next to the road by our house. As he always did, when I called his name he looked up and nickered. "I'm here. I love you too." We walked toward each other and I wrapped my arms around his neck. "How's my Big Boy?" Another nicker to acknowledge. He knew he was my Big Boy. "You smell so good, like a horse." He would look at me indulgently, like, "um, yeah." and knew it was my routine compliment and joke that we shared each time I saw him. He spoke perfect "Human"; I spoke passable “Horse” and we understood each other well.
A few weeks after Coyote died, I received a message from my former riding instructor who had just learned of his death. She wrote, “I’m so sorry to hear of this. But I am so glad that Coyote got to spend his last several years with you. “
Me, too. My heart is filled with gratitude for the gift of his love, loyalty, and devotion.
We buried Coyote next to Bailey under a copse of poplars in a small area of our west pasture just north of the dugout. The rain fell steadily as the world cried with us.