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Should I still be grieving my horse's death?

Asked by Stacy, Westborough, Massachusetts

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Is it crazy that I still feel this bad from my horse's death four years ago? This horse was my life. He died of cancer on November 20, 2007, when I was 12, and I've been affected by his death ever since. I feel as if I can't talk to anyone about it, because they expect me to be over it by now, but I just can't. I tried telling my mother once, but she told me point blank that she didn't understand why I was still upset, and that it was a little silly for me to still be this hurt by his death. I write my feelings in a notebook sometimes when I can't think, but all that's happening is making me feel worse. There are nights where I just break down crying until I can't breathe. Sometimes I think I'm depressed, but I'm scared to tell anyone. What should I do?

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Mental Health Expert Dr. Charles Raison Psychiatrist,
Emory University Medical School

Expert answer

Dear Stacy,

You are not the first young person, nor sadly the last, whose heart will be broken by being separated from an animal she loved.

And it's not just young people. I have seen some of the toughest men I know sob like babies over the death of their dogs. More than one of these guys became depressed and needed treatment.

So first things first. You are not crazy, although I do worry along with you that you might be struggling with a depression. We'll talk about that in a moment. But first, you should know that in addition to your personal love for your horse, there are larger reasons for why you are suffering.

Of all the animals in our world, humans have the deepest emotional ties with horses and dogs. This is no accident. Over many millennia we have co-evolved with them so that now, in a very real way, they are part of us and we are part of them.

We have co-evolved with other species like cows and pigs, but our relationship with dogs and horses is special because they have served so long and so faithfully as friends and partners in many of our highest aspirations. We love them in a way that is unique and powerful. Humans cannot take their place.

In this blog I can't really make specific treatment recommendations for you, because I don't know you well enough. But let me share a few ideas. Horses are increasingly used in psychotherapy, which makes me wonder whether you getting back involved with a horse or horses might help ease your pain and your depression.

One thing that a lot of psychotherapy techniques have in common is that they help the person face what is bothering them the most. In your case, knowing other horses might help heal the pain over the horse you lost.

If you can't re-enter the world of horses, I bet there are places on the Internet where people write about their own sorrow over losing a special animal. Sometimes sharing with other people going through the same thing can also be healing.

One very important final suggestion. I do worry that you might be depressed. Depression is not something you want to let continue any longer than you have to; first because it's miserable and second because it is not good for your brain.

I don't know what resources you have available to you at your school, but I really hope you talk to a counselor that you like and trust about what's going on. This will be helpful in itself, but a good counselor will also know whether you need to see a doctor to get medical help for the depression.

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