What does grief feel like?

Bear with me for this post, not only is it a long one but I am branching out from my favourite topics of equine emotions and horse-human interactions to discussing the affective states felt by, and associated with, the canine-human bond. This is about to get a little personal but if this resonates with anyone going through a similar experience right now and helps you to feel less alone then it is worth me putting my own heart on the line here.

We know the importance of ensuring both a good life and a good death for our beloved animals and the complexities involved in making decisions about euthanasia¹. ‘Better a week too early than a day too late’ is the advice often given. But when the time comes, even if you know you are doing the right thing, can you ever be ready for that day? And how does it really feel to say goodbye to something that is so much a part of our identity, such an integral part of our life and so key to our own emotional wellbeing? Losing my horse, Nebu, three years ago has had a huge influence on my life, on who I am today and who I strive to be tomorrow. Whilst the initial wound from that loss has gradually scabbed over, it will never fully heal and instead has become a prominent and permanent scar on my heart, tender to touch and never the same as before.

Two weeks ago, however, I was irreparably wounded again when another part of my heart was torn out. After a sudden short illness, I had to say goodbye to my best friend, my dog Bud. He had been my loyal companion for ten years and was very rarely away from my side. Everyone thinks their dog is special, and nobody is wrong, but my dog was one in a million. He was gentle and kind, with the heart of a lion. He was my soulmate and it was no secret to my partner and family that I loved him more than anyone or anything else in the world. We had been through so much in our decade together, from nursing him back to health when I first rescued him as a nervous, malnourished and abandoned adolescent, through various house moves, relationship breakdowns, episodes of poor health (both him and me) and the numerous times I buried my face in his soft fur and it felt like home. To his calming presence in work meetings, camping adventures, road trips and wintery walks on the beach, documented in our infamous photographs, for which he would dutifully pose and patiently wait whilst I lined up the camera.

Someone asked me relatively recently what I lived for and I answered without hesitation; him. Through episodes of anxiety, loneliness, depression and even when Nebu died, it was always Bud who was there, giving me a reason to get out of bed, to venture outside, laying his head or paw on my knee and gazing at me with soulful eyes telling me it would all be okay. Life without him was impossible to contemplate. Yet here I am. My heart is shattered yet brokenly beats on. I am still breathing, although I don’t know how.

It is hard to put into words what grief feels like. It is an intensely personal process and each person, or animal, grieves in their own way. The neuroscientist Jaak Panksepp² linked grief to one of the primary process affective states, PANIC (capitalized to distinguish these systems from use in common language), the powerful separation distress system responsible for maintaining social bonds, a key consideration for social species such as humans, dogs and horses. Prolonged time spent in this state can diminish the SEEKING system and lead to emotional despair. I can testify to that.

I once saw love described as feeling like your heart is full of helium. Well, grief feels like your heart is full of lead. But I guess that makes sense, as grief is the opposite of love. One makes you feel light and one makes you feel heavy, but you can’t have one without the other. Grief is the price we pay for love. For me, grief feels like gravity is dragging my body downwards, like a magnetic tug towards the ground. Like carrying rocks in my chest, a constant feeling of heaviness and pressure. Like wading through deep water when I was never taught to swim and when wave after wave of pain is pushing me further under. It is hands tightening themselves around my throat, squeezing hard and making it so hard to breathe. It feels like the deepest cut, pouring with blood and I don’t know how to stem the bleeding so I let it all drain, until I feel unspeakably weak, a little dizzy and utterly depleted of energy. Grief is navigating an alien world without a map, feeling lost and desolate, bereft and confused, not knowing which way is up or how life can ever begin to make sense again.

I have barely slept since he left. Fitfully and exhaustedly I am plagued by thoughts, memories, cold sweats and vivid dreams at night, even now he is back home in a handmade engraved urn beside me on my bedside table and even as I cling to his favourite cuddly toy, waking groggily in the morning, to a world devoid of colour, to be punched in the gut by that fresh wave of reality. I have tried to throw myself into work, which is all I really know how to do, to focus on a job that means something at a time when everything else seems pointless. Throughout the day though, sat at my desk where he would normally be laying at my feet, I catch myself looking for him, turning to say hello, reaching my foot out to stroke his back, before the crushing realisation that he is gone.

Two weeks have passed by in the blink of an eye. Two weeks since I loudly screamed and sobbed on the floor of the vets as he quietly slipped away in my arms. The thoughtful flowers and cards sent by people have started to wither and my partner subtly suggested that perhaps we look to pack away the bowls and bed. It is like grief is given a time limit and I’m meant to move on now, before I am ready, when I will never be ready because I can never begin to understand or process the injustice and unfairness. I am lucky to have incredibly considerate friends and family who have been checking in with me regularly, but the toughest thing about grief is that there isn’t really anything anyone can do. The only thing you want is for the one you love to be alive again. To miraculously return like it was the most macabre magic trick or the worst practical joke.

People talk about time but it doesn’t fix this. It doesn’t make the ache go away. At best you learn to live with it and it becomes who you are now. The same way that the one you lost will nestle themselves in the cracks of your heart and you will carry them there, wherever you go, whatever you do, always. Eventually there will be longer moments between the crying, maybe there will even be moments of joy. But my god you will still miss them with every fibre of your being and you will never ever stop.

People ask how they can help and I just want to shout at them to just please bring him back to me, but they can’t. He is gone. They and I are helpless to that fact and so I just have to work through this in my own time. I can tend the wound and try to help it heal, and my loved ones can help me do so, by offering kind words, by forcing myself to eat even when I feel sick, by encouraging me to feel like life somehow still has a purpose even when it all feels so empty and futile. They can sit beside me whilst I journey through the stages of grief – denial (the shock stopped me eating or sleeping at all for the first three days), anger (I’ve felt a lot of that), bargaining (so many what-ifs), depression (just feeling really, really goddamn sad), acceptance (nope, not there yet) and, as the author and thanatologist David Kessler³ argues, the sixth stage, which is to find some kind of meaning, something other than pain. Meaning can feel incredibly hard to find amongst the other stages but sometimes, Kessler concludes, the meaning can be just to “give you a heightened sense of the beauty of the life we are all so privileged to have as long as we remain on this earth.”

Kessler accepts that “the grieving mind finds no hope after loss, but when you are ready to hope again, you will be able to find it.” For loss is inevitable if we are to love and what an empty life it would be if we did not dare to love. I would rather be enduring this unfathomable pain than never have had him in my life. And so I am still trying, even at times I desperately want to give up, even when carrying on feels like a superhuman achievement. Right now I might feel like I am barely even existing, that I am just going through the motions, ensuring my primary needs are met, just surviving but not thriving. But we have to try and seek out those positive experiences amongst the negative, the moments of joy in the seemingly unrelenting sorrow, to believe that it is worth holding on and pushing through. That not only could life one day be worth living again but that, even without the one we have loved and lost – the one we said we lived for – we can still piece together the fragments of this mess and enjoy some sort of a good life. A life that they would want us to live.

For advice and resources about pet loss, visit https://www.theralphsite.com/

References:

¹ Meijer, E. (2018). The Good Life, the Good Death: Companion Animals and Euthanasia, Animal Studies Journal, 7(1), 205-225, https://ro.uow.edu.au/asj/vol7/iss1/1

² Panksepp, J. and Watt, D. (2011). Why Does Depression Hurt? Ancestral Primary-Process Separation-Distress (PANIC/GRIEF) and Diminished Brain Reward (SEEKING) Processes in the Genesis of Depressive Affect. Psychiatry: Interpersonal and Biological Processes: Vol. 74, No. 1, pp. 5-13, https://doi.org/10.1521/psyc.2011.74.1.5

³ Kessler, D. (2019). Finding Meaning: The Sixth Stage of Grief. New York: Scribner. ISBN: 978-1-5011-9273-9.

Published by Kate Fletcher

I have an MSc in Equine Behaviour, Performance & Training and over 10 year's experience working on the front line of animal welfare operations, helping people help animals. I currently work for an international equine welfare charity and am committed to promoting compassionate training and positive human-animal relationships using least invasive, minimally aversive methods and through encouraging human behaviour change.

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