This month’s column is more sombre, but we find ourselves in sombre times. It is also a little misleading, to be honest, because my other columns focus on the lessons horses teach us that translate into the rest of life; but the grief that you experience losing a best friend is unlikely to prepare you for anything worse, because I am not entirely sure there IS anything worse. I am not being entirely flippant here - our animals give us an unconditional authentic affection that is very rare. I hope I never have too much to compare it to, but if I do, I think these ten lessons are a toolkit to loss, courtesy of some special horses, and in this instance, a small and cantankerous “Jerk” Russell named Spike.
1. YOU ARE NEVER PREPARED
It doesn’t matter if it’s been a long time coming. It doesn’t always help if there has been a long illness, or lameness. You are never truly prepared for the astonishing absence that a big presence leaves when they go. It’s not just that first morning that the stable or house is empty, either; it’s the first birthday. The first Christmas. The first show back where people are raising an eyebrow and asking if you are okay when there is a) no possible way you could possibly be okay, and b) no possible way to express it. You know it’s coming, you have processes in place, sometimes you even make the decision or are relieved by the end of a great suffering… but that void we are confronted with at 6am on a random Tuesday is gaping and hungry. Don’t punish yourself for being surprised. We all are.
2. SOME PEOPLE WILL NOT UNDERSTAND YOUR GRIEF… THAT IS OKAY
Your emotions and processes are yours, and you need to take the path that you need to mourn. Some people might judge others for sorrow over losing an abusive partner, some might be perplexed at the death of a horse that planted you like a carrot on a regular basis. People who don’t understand our grief at losing something likely don’t understand the joy that they also brought us - but we are seldom asked to explain our happiness. Friends and family don’t get that we are devastated over the loss of small stinky old dogs - that might have upset me ten years ago. Now, I feel a small “wabi-sabi” that I had something so worth missing, and that they will never know the pleasure of our whispered secrets into manes, or the special bonds we had with people who they didn’t like. They don’t need to understand. Other people will.
3. GRIEF COMES IN WAVES
It is necessary for grief to come in waves, because if it came all at once we would drown. So while people might rally around you at the time of loss, they should also check in weeks and months down the line (for those Tuesday mornings that catch you by surprise when no one chases the hadedas away, or whinneys from the stable, or brings you tea in bed). Grief is not linear, and I’m not even sure that time is anymore! It cannot be predicted, it cannot be controlled. Grief has no master other than that same heart that loved with such wild abandon - to misquote Khalil Gibran, as full as your cup was of joy, so shall sorrow render it that empty. But that’s the thing animals teach us most, perhaps… to have a stubborn heart. To keep loving in the face of certain and incomprehensible loss.
4. DON’T LEAVE WHEN THE GOING GETS HARD
Likewise, if you are there for the cups and cups of pleasure, so you must be present for the sadness. My vets have always asked me if I want to be present, and I’m always horrified that they would consider any alternative. But people do, and while I try not to judge them too harshly, what the heck? We won’t leave our people, we shouldn’t leave our animals. To abandon them on the last, and most final of journeys is to show a remarkable lack of gratitude, honour, and courage. Yes, it is hard. Know what? It should be. All be best things are. You sit there, you hold that carrot or paw and whisper and say how thankful you are for all the gifts that this soul and experience has brought you, and you keep yourself together until they are gone, and then it is your time to fall to the floor. They give us so much. You need to do this small hard part and be with them at the end.
5. THERE IS NO SHAME IN SORROW
It is hard to embrace loss, to be that crazy snivelling wreck that you might have rolled your own eyes at in the past. It is hard to admit that deep down, our animals evoke a flashback to childlike times when the world was a better place, problems were black and white, and nothing was better than sunshine and a patch of green grass with your best friend. We embrace that so wholeheartedly, but when it comes to losing it we try to revert to the most adult and resilient version of ourselves. That’s just crazy talk. You are allowed to cry, you are allowed to sit on the floor and refuse to move. You are allowed to refuse to fetch the ashes because that makes it more real (sorry Dr Ed Evans!) - you can’t live there forever, but you are allowed your sadness. Refusing to feel it is to deny a great love. To deny a great love is to risk the possibility of having it again one day.
To read more, visit the July issue of the online magazine and turn to pages 36 - 49: https://www.equestrianlife.co.za/digital-magazine
In loving memory of Spike Lee Roberts (2004-2020).
Georgie Roberts is a writer, mother to various creatures, and dressage diva based in Johannesburg. You can follow her at The Off Side and buy her coffee if you see her before 10am at a show, gin if it is after that, and Valium if it is at SANESA.