The loss of a family member is generally accompanied by grief, sadness, a sense of loss, anger, and depression. While everyone understands that this applies to loss of a human, not everyone understands the powerful emotions that accompany the loss of an animal. Many say “it’s just  a dog (or cat, or horse, or rabbit, or bird…), but for those who love our animals as family members, the loss is just as painful.

Over the years I have lost many pets to illness, cancer, old age, trauma, and accidents. Each time, the grief and pain arrives, sticking around for varying lengths of time. Sometimes there is guilt associated with the loss, feeling I should have or could have done more, that I missed some warning sign, that I let down my guard and didn’t watch them closely enough. I dread those feelings and it is incredibly easy to drag them to the surface, even years after the animal is gone. There are many sayings out there, like “Every time I lose an animal they take a piece of my heart” or “Each time an animal dies a piece of my heart is replaced by their memory”. I know my animals all live in my heart because my heart breaks and I feel physical pain in my chest when I think about them. I truly believe we will all be united one day, ever since I had a conversation with Roberta Grimes about animals in the afterlife. Our reunion is most likely many years away, but I do look forward to hugging each and every one of them again.

This past week was very difficult for me, as I said goodbye to my beloved horse Auto Pilot, better known as Rocky. I bought him in 1995, when my children were young and showing their first pony. I wanted to get back into riding and showing, attempting to relive my youth, winning ribbons and awards and feeling a sense of accomplishment. I rode many horses in my search to find “the one”. I went to a barn in Delaware to ride an off-the-track Thoroughbred. While watching the horse schooling in the ring, I realized the horse was way too much for me. I saw another horse schooling in the ring; he looked perfect. When I asked about him, I was told he was the Quarter Horse they had offered for sale that I had no interest in during our phone call when I stated I didn’t want a Quarter Horse. I asked if I could ride him instead of the Thoroughbred.

After one lap around the arena, I knew I had found my new best friend. He did everything I asked, was brave to the jumps, and had an incredibly smooth gait. He was out of my price range, but I begged and pleaded, negotiating a price I could almost manage. I took him home on a one week trial. My trainer predicted I would be bored with a horse that was so well trained and that he was a boring brown; I just laughed. In that week we went to our first show and he won every class. I never thought I could own a horse of this caliber.

Over the next 21 years Rocky and I went to shows and won more than I dreamed possible. He was shown by both my children and their father, along with dozens of lesson students and kids who didn’t have a horse to show. He taught children under the age of five, always careful with them. He challenged the better riders who thought they knew more than he did; after all, his name was Auto Pilot. He always wanted to do things his way; he knew how to get the job done. When I met Hue, he hadn’t been on a horse since childhood and had never been taught to ride. Rocky took him under his wings and taught him the basics. Rocky has been “retired” many times in his career, but was kind enough to return to the show ring whenever he was brought out of “retirement” for a person in need.

Rocky was healthy his entire life with me, until this past fall when he was stricken with EPM – equine protozoal myelitis. I suffered the guilt of being away from home when he got sick. Luckily, he survived and bounced back to normal, but he was showing his age – 33 years. He moved a little slower, had lost some weight, and was having trouble regaining what he had lost. He’s always hated cold weather (I knew we were soulmates), so the winter was not his friend. When he stopped eating and started lying down while I was at the barn last week, I knew we were in trouble. After 8 days of struggle, the impaction in his large intestine got the best of him. I knew the moment I saw him last Saturday morning that we would be saying goodbye. My heart split into fragments. While Hue, my daughter and her fiance’, and friends from the barn surrounded and hugged me, I couldn’t process the words of condolence, and still can’t. I’m having trouble believing he is gone and haven’t been able to go to the barn to see our other horse. Walking by his empty stall seems like an impossibility.

I know that time helps heal all wounds, even those that cut to the core. I tell that to people all the time when they lose a beloved pet. I understand there is nothing I can say that will ease their pain, but I say the words anyway. For now, I am grateful for those who have surrounded me with love and understanding, but grief is still my constant companion. Going to work and dealing with people requires incredible effort. For that reason, I am taking a short leave from social media and focusing on healing my heart. I’m not sure if that will help, but speaking without crying is difficult right now. Writing this blog has allowed a lot of tears to flow, something I’ve been holding back. Sometimes putting on a brave face and stuffing down the emotions just makes things worse. I give you permission to cry, scream, yell, and shake your fist when you lose a companion – emotions need to be felt in all their fury, but for some of us that’s difficult to do.

Until next time, go hug your animals and humans; tell them how much you love them and how much they mean to you. They won’t always be there.