Dr. Jenny Susser: Cop­ing with the Loss of a Horse

A bet­ter un­der­stand­ing of the griev­ing process can be a source of com­fort through this dif­fi­cult time.

Dressage Today - - Front Page - By Jenny Susser, PhD

Maybe cer­tain parts of life can be de­scribed as a se­ries of bat­tles, fights or strug­gles. That’s just one way of look­ing at things, and this out­look might sound neg­a­tive, but per­haps that is just be­cause I fi­nally lost one—the fi­nal bat­tle—with my horse, Ta­hari. He died and it is a loss that cov­ers me com­pletely right now.

Grief is a tough one for us all. Since all horse lovers go through this, and most likely you al­ready have, I de­cided to ded­i­cate this col­umn to the topic of loss. Here are some things to think about as you sur­vive an an­i­mal you love.

Ev­ery­one grieves dif­fer­ently. It is tempt­ing to com­pare your process to some­one else’s or to try to hurry some­one you love who is griev­ing be­cause it is so un­com­fort­able. Don’t. It would be like try­ing to change eye color—it’s not pos­si­ble. We grieve be­cause we need to.

We are emo­tional be­ings. An­i­mals are, too. Dur­ing the time that we own horses, we spend years in hap­pi­ness know­ing one day the sad­ness will come. When it does, you need to give your­self time and space to grieve. It takes quite a lot out of you to be this sad and you need to be mind­ful of that. While it can be par­a­lyz­ing, make sure to eat enough, sleep enough, ex­er­cise enough and be with peo­ple. I say “enough” be­cause it is a lit­tle about sur­viv­ing for a while and ex­pect­ing nor­mal be­hav­ior right away is not ra­tio­nal. We need to be sad be­cause we can’t help it, but we also need to feel happy at some point. If you spend too much time in sad­ness with­out some re­lief, it can over­whelm you. We feel guilty for laughing or en­joy­ing some­thing when we are griev­ing, but joy is nec­es­sary for heal­ing.

I find that just un­der­stand­ing what you are go­ing through can make the process of griev­ing a lit­tle eas­ier. The pain is now part of you and will be for­ever. There will be days when it will bring you to your knees—more at first then less later—but that is just your horse stay­ing with you for­ever.

In 1969, psy­chi­a­trist El­iz­a­beth Kübler-Ross pub­lished the ground­break­ing book on the stages of grief, On Death and Dy­ing. Her work has helped many griev­ing souls and helps me to­day as I miss Ta­hari, so I’ll share them with you.

1. De­nial. That’s when your brain says No, no, no, this didn’t hap­pen. This is nec­es­sary men­tal pro­tec­tion that helps you ease (if there is such a thing) into the event. This stage will not last long and it is meant to help you deal with the shock.

2. Bar­gain­ing. Be­lieve it or not, you will find your­self try­ing to make a deal with God (or whomever) to bring your loved one back or go back in time to pre­vent it. Bar­gain­ing is an in­ter­est­ing and sur­pris­ing re­sponse of the psy­che, but like all the other stages, it is meant to pro­tect you.

3. De­pres­sion. Deep sad­ness will come and it is nec­es­sary to ex­pe­ri­ence. Cry your heart out and don’t try to pre­vent it. It’s not like you could any­way. This is where you need to take good care of your­self phys­i­cally so the feel­ings don’t over­whelm you or make you sick.

4. Anger. This is the one that catches peo­ple off guard. It feels weird and dis­loyal, but you will have anger to­ward your horse, even if for a mo­ment. Then, you will want to ex­plode from some­thing as sim­ple as drop­ping a pen. Anger moves the en­ergy, mo­bi­lizes it and gets it go­ing. It helps you get out of de­pres­sion even though it doesn’t nec­es­sar­ily feel any bet­ter.

5. Ac­cep­tance. In a dis­tant gal­axy far, far away…we fi­nally ac­cept that the one whom we’ve lost isn’t coming back and that our own lives won’t end just

Jenny Susser has a doc­toral de­gree and is li­censed in clin­i­cal health psy­chol­ogy, spe­cial­iz­ing in sport psy­chol­ogy. A four-year all-Amer­i­can swim­mer at UCLA, she swam on two na­tional teams and at the 1988 Olympic Tri­als. She has worked with ath­letes of all sports and ages—col­le­giate, pro­fes­sional, in­ter­na­tional and am­a­teur. She was the sport psy­chol­o­gist for the 2010 WEG South African Para-Dres­sage Team and the 2012 U.S. Olympic Dres­sage Team. Dr. Jenny is also a per­for­mance coach with Hu­man Per­for­mance.

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