Franne riding Casey


My Beloved Casey, 29
Faithful Companion For 22 Years
In Memoriam
December 9, 2010

In 1988, I was lecturing at a hospital, discussing suicide and how the grief from this manner of death is the most complicated in the hierarchy of grief. I noticed a woman jump out of her chair and leave the room. I finished my lecture and walked out of the lecture hall, where I found this same woman waiting for me. She apologized for leaving the lecture, which I assured her was perfectly all right, and told me that one month before, her 30 year old daughter had killed herself and her nine year old granddaughter, Emma, had inadvertently seen her mother's suicide.

Emma's mother, who suffered from mental illness, had gone into the bathroom with a butcher knife, climbed into the bathtub and cut her own throat. Her husband entered the bathroom just as she was doing this and pulled her out of the bathtub. He was so frantic to get his wife out of the tub, he didn't notice that she was still holding the butcher knife. As he was pulling her out of the tub, she plunged the knife into the wound in her neck. In his haste to save his wife, Emma's father left the bathroom door open and tragically, Emma saw her mother stab herself in the neck. She was so traumatized, she stopped talking. And had not spoken one word for a month.

Her grandmother asked me if I could possibly work with Emma, who was temporarily staying with her. I agreed to come to the home to meet Emma and try to get to know her a bit. I made two visits, making certain that I never asked her anything she couldn't answer by either shaking her head or nodding. I did not bring up the subject of her mother.

During the second visit, I asked Emma if she liked animals and she nodded "yes". I asked her if she like horses and she, again, nodded her head. I told her I had a horse named Casey, who had been whipped and beaten and that I had given him a good home and that I loved him a lot. I asked her if she would like to have her grandmother bring her to meet Casey and she nodded.

The following week, the grandmother brought Emma to my house to meet Casey. He is a very big horse and can be a little intimidating because of his size, so I told Emma that I would brush him while she watched from some distance. I glanced at her frequently to make sure she wasn't frightened and before she and her grandmother left that day, I had put a mounting block beside Casey for her to stand on and I stayed close to her as she tentatively brushed his mane.

They came back the following week and I showed her how to groom Casey's legs and sides, which she could barely reach. I also showed her how to hold a carrot, making her hand flat like a table so he wouldn't mix up fingers and carrots and with a little help from me, she gave him the carrot.

We spent some time talking - me talking, Emma nodding - about how scared Casey had been when I first brought him home, because people had been so mean to him and I asked her if she thought it would have made him very sad when people hurt him. She nodded solemnly, so I gently commented that she must be very sad because her mother died and must have been very frightened by what she saw.

That was my very first mention of her mother. And I said it while she was brushing one of Casey's legs and I was brushing his tail. I just casually slipped it into the conversation, intentionally couching it as a comment rather than a question, and continued brushing Casey's tail. I didn't make eye contact with her because I didn't want her to feel I was putting her on the spot. I also wanted to begin conveying to her that it was perfectly all right to be scared and sad about what happened to her mother, just as Casey had been scared and sad about what happened to him. I also felt it was important not to make any discussion about her mother be the primary focus, but to make it less threatening by addressing it only as an adjunct to our interactions with Casey. That was the only discussion we had about her mother that day. Before she left, I asked her if she would like to sit on Casey's back the next time she visited and she nodded that she would.

The next week, I rode Casey for about half an hour before their arrival so he would be less energetic, then put Emma on his back in the saddle, and led her around for about fifteen minutes. After we unsaddled Casey and were grooming him, I asked Emma if she had enjoyed her ride. She nodded and I saw a fleeting flicker of a smile for the very first time. I didn't mention her mother this time because I didn't want her to fear that I was going to try to get her to talk about her mother - or anything else - every time she came to see Casey.

The following week, I put Emma on the saddle in front of me and we went for a ride. While we were riding, I asked if her mother had liked animals and she nodded yes. I then asked her if she thought her mom would have liked Casey and she, again, nodded yes. I dropped the subject because I was careful to touch on this only lightly and not exceed her comfort level, so she could begin to trust me.

When it came time for Emma to leave, I asked Emma if she would like to say goodbye to Casey by herself and she nodded. He was in cross-ties so he wouldn't be wandering off, and I made sure she remembered not to walk behind him, and how to safely give him a carrot. I walked around a nearby corner and stood there. I heard crunching, so I knew she had given Casey his carrot, and then, to my absolute amazement and joy, I heard Emma softly say "I love you, Casey". 

I was in tears and felt like doing cartwheels, but I didn't want to alarm her, so I waited a few moments, then quietly came back around the corner and asked her if she thought Casey was happy to hear her tell him that she loved him. She started to nod, then very softly said "yes". I simply said "me, too", gave her a hug and walked with her out of the barn to where her grandmother was coming to pick her up. I didn't tell the grandmother that Emma had spoken aloud a little, because I didn't want there to be any pressure on Emma to keep talking that day, but I did tell her that when she felt like it, she could tell her grandmother what happened today that made Casey really happy. She did tell her a few hours later and her grandmother was even more joyous than I had been. She put Emma into specialized counseling and she and Emma would come out to see Casey every once in awhile, until I moved back to Vermont.

And that is how Casey, my beloved first rescue animal, whose registered name was Another Legacy when I found him, was responsible for the launching of the free Another Legacy Animal Therapy For Grieving Children.

Several animals have since joined the program. In addition to Casey, my menagerie of dear animal companions now consists of four miniature horses, one sheep, two pygmy goats and two llamas. My sheep and Casey are rescue animals and the llamas, goats and one of the miniature horses were donated to the program. 

The smaller animals - miniature horses and goats - are diminutive little critters who, because of their size, feel warm and safe to children. In fact, three of the horses are so small, they can stand under Casey's belly and not touch it. I transport everyone, except Casey, in my van and they have been in elementary and grade schools, nursing homes, hospital emergency departments, funeral homes and private residences.

Another Legacy's focus is on children whose loved ones have died suddenly, whether naturally, accidentally or from homicide or suicide. The grief from sudden death is completely different from expected death, when families have time to prepare and say goodbye. Therefore the emotional needs for those left behind because of sudden death are much greater and more complicated. Ordinarily, childrens' imprinted memories of sudden death may be focused on a household full of weeping relatives and friends and a parade of adult strangers - funeral directors, police officers and people dropping off meals, doing errands, yardwork or housework. Crowds of unfamiliar adults in the home under these circumstances can be quite frightening to children and there often isn't anyone their own size to talk to or spend time with.

If grieving children don't have a chance to talk about their death losses and to say goodbye to those who died, the experience, which I call Negative Death Imprinting, can affect them for years. They may need therapy as adults because of unresolved grief issues or grow up with a pervasive fear of death or of dead bodies.

There's a huge need for people who can provide Positive Death Imprinting for children. And with these animals, I try to give grieving children a positive legacy for their future, with a small memory of joy or laughter at the worst time of their life. 


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