I’ve been tinkering with this essay since my Grandfather Horse died five years ago, but it would have been ungrateful to post it then. People were truly kind and part of it was my doing. I wrote a memoir about him, and strangers felt they knew him. Since then, two horses and two donkeys (including fosters) have died here. That doesn’t count the two llamas, three dogs, and two cats. Death is such a part of farm life, there will never be a suitable time to finish the essay. Is it mean to complain about word choice when someone dies?
I remember the first time I got upset at someone expressing animal condolences. When I was five, a man driving a truck hit my dog on the highway and then brought the bloody carcass to our farmhouse. My mother made me stand and listen to him. I have no idea what the man said. I couldn’t take my eyes off what was left of my dog. Then I got in trouble for not being polite to the man. I guess it was a brave thing to face a little girl after killing her dog, but I couldn’t thank this man, as my mother demanded. I like to think I’m better at hearing unwelcome news now. I also like to think I’m more polite with people, but it’s debatable.
We all have the best of intentions, and in emotional situations, we get, well, emotional. The grieving person knows you have good intentions, too, but why make her remind herself? Why tweak her feelings when all she wants is her horse back? I’m not suggesting I’m the equine Ms. Manners, but I’ve watched people stammer; I’ve heard it all. Worst, I’ve said the wrong things and caused pain that I’ve regretted later. That I still regret.
What NOT to say when a friend’s horse dies:
Don’t say you know how the mourner feels. You don’t have any idea. You might imagine but respect this sacred moment, respect her hollow place enough to let it be about her and her horse.
Don’t tell her your horse’s death story. All horses die; it’s as common as dirt. It’s just that hearing of this new loss of a horse reminds us of our ghost herd and we feel our own losses all over again. As hard as it is, bite your tongue.
The causes of death don’t matter. Don’t question her judgment. She’ll tell you or not, but if not, let it be enough that the horse is gone. Some people have necropsies done on decrepit old cats. Others know all they need to when the breathing has stopped.
Don’t say the horse had a good long life. It’s an excuse to minimize the loss and no matter the horse’s age, we are never ready. You know that.
Don’t say there’ll be other horses. We all hope so, but it minimizes her feelings today. Let her be sad, don’t try to fix it. When the day comes that she mentions a new horse, offer to go along. Give her a horse-warming gift. Until then, just listen.
Don’t say it’s like losing a family member, even if it’s what you think. The world is full of people who have watched children die and had spouses ripped from their lives. Regardless of how you define family, comparing a horse or dog to a beloved human may trivialize their loss. Besides, the one who hurts the most doesn’t win, and comparing pain is silly. There is no high side to maximizing the loss of a horse. When was the last time you were cheered up by hearing about a sad death?
“This will make you stronger.” Are you kidding? Three of us could build a barn by noon. We are already strong in every way possible, thanks to horses. Let her feel weak with loss because her horse was worthy of that.
“Your horse wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Don’t ask her to feign positivity or make her feel guilty for mourning. Dig out some tissues. If she goes into an ugly cry, take some deep breaths and let her howl to the moon, politeness be damned.
“He is in a better place.” “God took him home.” Religious thoughts might imply that a faithful person shouldn’t mourn and will not comfort those who don’t share your religion. Also, “My thoughts and prayers are with you” is a phrase said so often that the words may have lost meaning. Equal time, there are nightmares at the Rainbow Bridge. Some of us aren’t comforted by fairy tales. Unless you are certain, best to stay neutral.
“Let me know if there is anything I can do.” George Carlin, the truth-telling comedian, imagined a mourner replying, “Yeah, you can come over this weekend and paint my garage.” Horse people might quip, “Pay off my vet bill.” but for most of us, that monthly payment is a part of the mourning process.
What to say when a friend’s horse dies:
Of course, you don’t know what to say because it doesn’t matter what you say. Mourning is required to heal. Take a deeper breath and simply say, “I’m very sorry.” You can’t make it okay, so keep it simple. Acknowledge the reality, say “I honor your loss.”
Compliment the grieving person, say “What a lovely horse,” “This good horse was lucky to be yours,” or “You always did the best for him.” Then smile because you know it’s true.
Mourning is supposed to be uncomfortable. Let the air rest. Let less be more. Trust the words will come if needed. But do mark the day on your calendar so you can remember. Check-in over the next months.
Send a card. Words on paper are a rare keepsake. Or write an email to say you were thinking about the grieving person or the one they lost. Send photos if you have them.
Say the name of the horse or write it. Grieving people love hearing it from the lips of someone else. Grief carries forward. An email a year after a death could be more meaningful than one a week later.
It’s a tradition in my circle of friends to make a memorial donation in the horse’s name to a non-profit. It is a sweet thing when the mourner receives the organization’s thank you note, along with your intention to remember the horse forward.
Above all, make sure the grieving person knows that the one who passed has not been forgotten. Ask for the story of how they met. Share your experience of the horse. Memories are precious currency.
And on good days and bad, whether you’re alone or surrounded by dear friends and good horses, make a toast of gratitude for our unbelievable good fortune. Mourning a horse is a blessing because, for a while, we share their lives. We are the lucky ones. Then smile because you know it’s true.
Anna Blake for Relaxed & Forward
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