Giving Permission to Grieve
My new book, "The Littlest RaceHorse," due out in July, has a lot to do with gains and losses, both human and equine. And as so often happens in these unique relationships, the horse is both a friend, and in some cases, a healer of unseen wounds. I first published this story in The Chronicle of the Horse -- probably about 1988 following a series of interviews at the University of California-Davis.
Loss is an unavoidable aspect of animal ownership. Almost as surely as a deep bond of affection will develop between people and their animal companions, the human partner will have to cope with the animal's death. The ensuing bereavement can be a difficult period when, instead of support, the owner is reminded time and again, "It's not worth being upset; after all, it was only an animal"
Not so, says Bonnie Mader, MS, associate director of the Human-Animal Program at the University of California, Davis. More than anything, she believes, grieving animal owners need "permission," in the form of social support, to express the loss they feel when a companion animal dies --whether that animal is a dog, cat, or a horse. Together with program director Lynette Hart, PhD, Mader has developed a unique counseling program.
As a non-profit organization within the Davis veterinary school, the Human-Animal Program serves both the veterinary community and the animal-owning public. One of its missions is encouraging research into and education about the human-animal bond and the role animals play, both as companions and as instruments of healing, particularly for the disabled and infirm. Another is immediate and direct assistance to grieving individuals. Thanks to a telephone hot-line, set up by Mader in February [possibly 1986] and staffed by vet student volunteers, that assistance is just a phone call away for animal owners all over the United States and Canada.
A grieving dog owner provided the seed money for the program's establishment in 1985. Bill Balaban, a retired television producer, found himself virtually paralyzed with grief over the loss of his poodle, Tiger. Balaban worked through his emotions without support, but he decided more should be done to help people in similar distress over the loss of companion animals. Following his donation, the school hired Hart, a zoologist by training, to oversee the program's development.
Mader, whose degree is in counseling, joined the program shortly thereafter, first as a volunteer and then as full-time staff. When she found more and more of her office time being spent on the telephone counseling pet owners through their difficult times, Mader decided to establish a call-in service modeled after a suicide-prevention hot-line operating in Davis. In a year's time, more than 700 callers from across the continent have found solace through the service.
"People really need to be legitimized for feeling as bad as they feel," Mader says. "A lot of people will call, and when I tell them what they are feeling is common and that I've talked to hundreds and hundreds of people, they say, 'So, I'm not crazy?' They really feel that they are crazy."
"No one is raised to feel that it is okay to be attached to an animal," she continues. "You can be upset if you lose a human being, but we're not raised to be upset if we lose an animal. So if we do lose an animal, and we're distraught, then that doesn't fit with our mental concept of what's normal."
The intensity of grief felt for a "mere animal" often makes people feel guilty, says Mader. If euthanasia is involved, making the owner "play God" so to speak, that commands the bereaved person's guilt.
Horse people have their own distinct problems with loss. Horse owners generally aren't present at their animal's deaths, and there's often little opportunity to memorialize a horse through burial and grave markers as compared to smaller companions. Though human-horse relationships often involve trust and love, there is no fitting conclusion, no supportive ritual to help the owner deal with its dissolution after death.
Mader is concerned that so few horse owners make use of the program's hot-line or face-to-face counseling. Only six of the center's 700 calls have come from horsemen, yet Mader knows from her own distress at watching her childhood horse being towed down the lane after being sold, that losing a horse can hurt every bit as losing a dog or cat.
"You should be able to talk about it, says Mader. "You should be able to say, 'It hurts not to have that horse in my life anymore.'"
Operating on weekday evenings, the hot-line is staffed by a force of 60 student volunteers. Each volunteer takes a mandatory six-hour training session, mans the office telephone and serves backup duty for a total of at least six hours monthly. Training continues throughout the hot-line experience in discussion with Mader and fellow students.
When a call comes in, the counselor serves primarily as a sympathetic ear, allowing the animal owner to breach the biggest barrier -- the sense that, as Mader puts it, "they're crazy for feeling this bad." After the call, the volunteer writes a personal letter, enclosing support materials and a suggested reading list that may be useful to the caller. Though the project is time-consuming for students who are already extraordinarily busy, Mader believes the number of volunteers alone proves that the next generation of veterinarians appreciate how affecting the loss of a beloved animal can be.
[Note: Not sure if this, or similar programs are still in service.]
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