We talk a lot about enhancing the relationship between people and their animals, and how amazing it is to have a special connection, but we rarely talk about the emotional trauma when people’s animals die. In Canada, where I used to live, there was a real understanding that when a pet dies, the people need time to process it; sometimes they take time off work or go to a counselor, and this was considered fairly normal. Here in Chile, however, there is much less of that understanding. There are no special euthanasia rooms in clinics and no time given for grieving.
When I first moved to Chile 8 years ago, I had terrible chronic back and neck pain that was aggravated by our move here from British Columbia on the west coast of Canada. It is a long trip, and there was a lot of packing and moving to do beforehand! When I got here, I found out about a woman who was an exceptional massage therapist and had studied acupuncture- so in desperation, I made an appointment. I didn’t speak a word of Spanish and Edith didn’t speak a word of English, but somehow we managed, and at least we apparently had a mutual love of animals evidenced by the presence of her lovely poodle “Rex” in her house, who was her loyal companion. Edith became my “go-to” savior for back pain, and I became her “go-to” veterinarian for Rex’s every need. He was a healthy boy whose owner always had his best interest in mind.
One night at about 9 pm, I received an urgent message from Edith. Rex had been vomiting blood and was lethargic. The GAAP Clinic is only open during the day since we do not have an x-ray machine and other critical equipment to deal with emergencies; so we always refer to larger hospitals in these cases. I told her to go immediately to the nearest emergency clinic. The next day she updated me- Rex had been admitted and appeared to have some kind of neurological problem. Throughout the day he worsened, and that night, Rex died in hospital.
I went to see Edith knowing the bond that she had with him. Understandably, she was devastated. We hugged, she cried, I cried. Rex was so sweet and he was so much a part of her life. The way she used to wander through the house chatting with him, crooning, waggling her finger at him when he was naughty and sending him to his little bed when she had a client to attend to. Without him, it was so quiet, so lonely. I felt terrible leaving.
We sent a few messages back and forth over the next few days and she said she was ok. Then I didn’t see her for a while…until my next appointment about 2 months later.
I went to her house and we started chatting right away. She told me that the loss of Rex had really hit her hard. In Chile, where the human – animal bond is sometimes rather loose, it can be hard to explain to friends and family what a huge hole a pet can leave in your life. Dogs often live outside in the backyard, or loose in the streets, so it is hard for other people to understand sometimes, why the grieving takes so long and can be so profound. Edith was suffering in silence and alone….so she decided to seek professional help. As soon as she started the therapy, she started working things through, and her dreams took on a fantastic theme. Edith started to dream of horses: wild, beautiful, galloping, manes streaming in the wind…and sometimes she was one of them. Her therapist recommended finding a friend with a horse, so that Edith could just quietly connect with an animal again, but sadly, Edith could not think of a single friend with a horse.
I stared at her, incredulous. Since our rescue horse Dulce had arrived in Valdivia, I have always thought that he was destined for something great, as a therapy horse for traumatized children or adults. He is just so gentle and sweet. “Edith”, I interrupted. “Edith….did you know I have horses?” She looked at me as if I was from outer space, then her eyes filled with tears. “Really????”, she whispered. “This is just incredible…”
And so began the love affair between Edith and Dulce. Every Saturday, Edith comes to visit, armed with carrots and hugs. She takes Dulce for a walk to find greener pastures and then grooms him. I have listened to Edith talking to him, and it is in the same way that she used to talk to Rex, with that mock admonishing tone as he nuzzles her pocket to steal yet another carrot. When she thinks no-one is watching, she hugs his big goofy head and tousles his forelock gently as he leans on her shoulder.
Some people say to me that they will never get another pet again after they have suffered the trauma of losing a loved one. I say that it is better to have loved and lost, than never to have loved at all; there is always an animal in need of your love, and they reciprocate in the most unexpected and endearing ways. This is the very reason that we promote the connection between animals and people…