Tuesday, July 16, 2013

Dealing with loss

We’ve lost two horses this year – Saga in January after several months of ever-worsening mystery lameness, and now Oberon, suddenly, due to a twisted and displaced intestine from gas colic. I’ve owned horses for 17 years (Cash is my first horse) and these are the first ones I’ve had to put down. Both were young, healthy, and in their prime. To say it sucks is an understatement.

The good news in both cases is that I have absolutely no doubt in my mind, no second guesses, that we made the right decision at the right time for both of them. In Saga’s case there was literally nothing we could do, which we knew when we put him down but the true severity of the situation was revealed via necropsy. In Oberon’s case, colic surgery may have helped him. I say “may” because there are no guarantees.  The reality of surgery is that while some horses do great, others take 6 months to a year to recover, or never fully recover. There are lots of second surgeries, complications, and plenty of deaths on the table. I’m not knocking anybody who chooses to do surgery, it’s an individual decision (and not an easy one), but it’s something that we are not prepared to do.

As for how I’m dealing with things, the answer is OK. Yesterday I was on-and-off sniffly and didn’t get much done at work. The outpouring of love from the people who knew Oberon has been incredible. My poor husband is, as you might imagine, very upset and raw. What makes it worse is that he’s on a ship in Alaska right now, and not even accessible by phone. Imagine sending your husband an email that goes something like, “Honey, there’s no easy way to say this, but your horse is colicking and has a displaced intestine. Surgery is the only option and we've already discussed not going that route. I’m so sorry. Let me know when you get this.” That’s probably the worst email I've written in my entire life. Luckily we did manage to chat for a bit via Gmail, and I sent him emails from my phone when we were at the vet in the final moments, so he knew what was going on. Still, not being able to say goodbye in person must be awful. I’m very glad I got to be with both Oberon and Saga at the end. I’m also glad that it was fast and painless. Thank goodness for small mercies.

I don’t think saying goodbye ever gets easier, but maybe it gets… I don’t know, more real? Many years ago I was faced with putting Cash down due to impaction colic. We drove out to the hospital where he’d been all night to put him down. I’d come to say goodbye to him, but when we got there he was more comfortable so we decided to wait. We stayed with him all day, hugging him, grooming him, just loving on him. Somehow, by some miracle, he pulled through. Since that day, I think I’ve accepted – really accepted - that our time with them is fleeting. You could literally, at any moment, have to make that decision. In that moment with Cash, it went from being a theoretical “this is what I’d do if I had to say goodbye” to a real, in-your-face understanding of what it’s like and what you have to do for your horse. I was on the edge of the cliff that day, and by the grace of whatever deity you believe in, I got to step back. But I've never, ever forgotten that we’re really always on the edge of that cliff, most of us just don’t realize it. You might have to step off it at any moment, and every day you don’t is one more to be thankful for.

Saturday night I hit that cliff when the vet said “gas colic with impaction and displacement”. I had to sit down. I knew what it meant, but we agreed to try fluids to see if the impaction would resolve and allow the gas behind it to escape and let the intestine move back into place. Oberon was kept comfortable the entire time, and was feeling good enough at the end (due to the drugs) that he had some carrots, acted like his usual annoying self, and gave me a "hug" when I gave him a last hug from his dad. Sadly, medical treatments weren't enough – the displacement included a twist that we didn't know about until the necropsy was performed. But in the end, it wasn't a hard decision to make - it was the only one to make, because we’d already made it. There was a certain peace in knowing that we knew what we were going to do, because we’d discussed it before.

So I guess… be as prepared as you can. Really think about it and plan for it… it’s not fun, but it’s easier to make decisions ahead of time than try to make them when emotions are high. Know what you’re going to do, and know what your limits are. Try not to second guess yourself. Listen to your vet and your horse, even though your heart is breaking.

And give them one last hug. Every damn day.

32 comments:

  1. So Sorry. As Mark Rashid says, it's the Price of the Ticket. Doesn't make it easier. And we have made the same decision to not do surgery. I have a hard time doing surgery on an animal that can't consent. Especially one so rife with uncertainty.

    Hugs to you and yours. Cyber hugs to your husband.

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    1. It is definitely the price of the ticket. It sure is a lot to pay. :(

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  2. Oh Jen. So sorry for your loss. When it comes to colic surgery, I am one who said I'd never do it...and then, faced with a set of circumstances where it seemed warranted, I did choose to do it. My son's horse came through it and is fine today, and I have the cantalope sized stone they removed from Henry's intestine on my shelf, so I know the surgery was needed. But the rehab was long (4 months) and fraught with setbacks (incisional infection and a hernia) and though it did work out well for us in the end, I would not choose to do it again. And this coming from one who had a very good overall result. It is just too hard on both horse and human, in so many ways. Henry was absolutely an ideal candidate and an ideal patient, and it was still very hard on him. I agree about the making choices ahead of time and my choice for the future is the same as yours.

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    1. Laura, I'm glad your decision turned out the best possible way, although it sounds like a long, bumpy road. Your experience is the biggest reason we have chosen not to go that route, although I completely understand why you did. May you have Henry for many happy years to come.

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  3. You are 100 percent correct. Love and appreciate every day with your horse and loved ones. This is why I am so torn by motherhood and my partnership with Harley. There is no guarantee that your horse will just be waiting for you when you have time to ride again and children are only young once. Sigh.

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    1. Val, that is a very hard balance to strike. I wish you the best of luck, and I hope that Harley will be there for a long time. :)

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  4. :( this just makes all the emotions flood back, I'm sorry.

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    1. L, I'm so sorry too for your loss. It seems insurmountable at times.

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  5. Appreciate every day. I do my best to, but can always do better. Bo (and all your critters past and present) are lucky to have you.

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    1. Lauren, thanks. We all do the best we can.

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  6. We've had to put down two horses as well. They were both 20-ish, one and clear cut decisions. When we moved the horses up to our new place, I knew there was a better than 50/50 chance Jackson would become so lame from the trailer trip that he would have to be put down. Fortunately, he surprised us by doing very well. But, like you said, you never know.

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    1. Annette, wow, I am so sorry to hear that. It's not been a good year. I'm glad to hear that Jackson came through the trip successfully, though! I hope he continues to do well at your lovely new place.

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  7. "we’re really always on the edge of that cliff, most of us just don’t realize it"

    I think maybe we realize it, but it's just too painful to keep in the front of our minds. We have to shove it underneath and behind all of the other cares and worries, or we'd be paralyzed by the many drastic eventualities that can come with horse ownership.

    Living in the moment makes us better riders, and saner horseowners.

    So sorry for your losses Jen.

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    1. CFS, you make a good point. Thank you.

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  8. I read this this morning and it made me bawl. I got the privilege of having the best horse I've ever ridden for a year before he had liver failure at 8 years old. You never know when or what will happen and it's so hard when it does.

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    1. AER, I am so sorry for your loss. It's never easy to lose them, but so young and so fast makes it doubly painful. Hugs.

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  9. Man it's been a rough year for you :( Hugs!

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    1. I am ready for it to be over already.

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  10. It's so hard to put them down, even knowing it's the right decision. Grady also had a twist and I knew that even if we tried surgery at 27 years old, it just wasn't going to be the best option for him. Hugs to both of you.

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    1. Wow, 27! What a wonderful long life Grady had! I am sorry for his loss.

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  11. You are so right, Jen. We should appreciate and enjoy every day with those we love (both human and furry) because you never know when there will be no more days. I'm so sorry that you had to go through this again, and sorry for your husband as well since he couldn't be there to say good-bye.

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  12. I'm so sorry for you and your husband. I feel so terrible that he couldn't be there. Hugs to all of your family, critters included.

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    1. Thanks, Megs. The hugs are much appreciated.

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  13. Hear hear. It's mind blowing that animals that big can be so fragile.
    My thoughts with you and your husband. :(
    I'm off to go hug all my animals now...

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    1. A horse's intestinal tract is definitely one of nature's poorer jokes.

      And thank you for your thoughts.

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  14. "It is a curious thing, the death of a loved one. We all know that our time in this world is limited, and that eventually all of us will end up underneath some sheet, never to wake up. And yet it is always a surprise when it happens to someone we know. It is like walking up the stairs to your bedroom in the dark, and thinking there is one more stair than there is. Your foot falls down, through the air, and there is a sickly moment of dark surprise as you try and readjust the way you thought of things. The Baudelaire orphans were crying not only for their Uncle Monty, but for their own parents, and this dark and curious feeling of falling that accompanies every great loss." - Lemony Snicket

    I try to always give everyone an extra hug every day, just because.

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    1. Great quote. And yes, you never can really hug them enough, can you?

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  15. I am so sorry for your losses. They were lucky to have you and your husband in their lives. {Hugs}

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  16. I have gone the surgical route and had complications and still ended up having to let him go when pain meds could not keep him comfortable. I understand and support people who make the choice not to put themselves and their horses through that.

    Your horses lead charmed and wonderful lives and even having never met you or them I can say that they are blessed to have owners who care so deeply for them.

    You and your husband are in my thoughts and prayers.

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