This week at HorseBack we have been thinking about grief. There is so much of it about in this time of pandemic and, even if you stay away from the news, you can feel it in the atmosphere. Four of the HorseBack team have suffered losses during the lockdown, completely unrelated to the virus, so we are coming to terms with our own personal heartbreaks, and it made us even more keenly aware of the scale of loss out there in the world.
We have learnt so much from our years of working with veterans. We have watched people with life-changing injury draw on all their courage and resources, as they face the huge ramification of their physical and mental wounds. They cover the waterfront of grief – some of them have lost comrades, some of them have lost their vocation, some of them have had to say goodbye to their future dreams and come to terms with a completely different life. And one of the great lessons we have imbibed is that you can’t run away from painful emotions, however much you might want to.
Grief can feel very frightening, because it seems so overwhelming. The fear is that you simply won’t be able to bear it; that your ship cannot withstand such storms, and is in danger of sinking. Because of this, the temptation is to try to make the grief stop, to push it away, to do anything rather than feel it. That, we have learned, is when you get into trouble. Sorrow will not be denied, and the more you try to run from it, the more it twists itself up and comes out in sneaky ways. Denied grief can turn into destructive fury, or a flat depression, or a feeling that nothing matters any more. The savour in life disappears, and you end up trudging through the days, simply trying to keep your head above water.
We once heard a very wise person say that you can live and grieve at the same time. This sounds simple, but it’s easy to forget. Quite often, it feels as if everything is at an end; there’s the W.H. Auden sense of stop the clocks. What we have found is that if you are brave enough to step into the grief, to walk towards those intensely painful emotions, you can retain the capacity to feel the positive emotions. If you refuse to feel the pain, you can’t feel the joy. If you open yourself up to the full spectrum of feeling, you can still laugh, even when your heart is breaking. One does not cancel out the other.
This is hard work. It is, like all things worth doing, something that comes with practice. And it is a matter of awareness. This is where we learn from our horses, as well as the humans who come to us at HorseBack. To build a relationship of trust with a horse, you have to be in a constant state of mindfulness and awareness. You need to be truly present, and you have to practise that every single day. Eventually, it becomes a delightful mental habit, so that you do it automatically.
Practising awareness, rooting yourself in the present moment, really feeling what is going on in your mind and your body, and accepting those sensations is, we think, the first great step to understanding that you will survive. We’ve also studied resilience, and one of the great lessons from that study is not to fight the blows. Resilient people do not rail at fate; they do not cry, ‘Why me?’ They tend to say, ‘Why not me?’ They understand that every human will suffer the slings and arrows of outrageous fortune, and they know that they are no different. This builds in them a stoic and clear-eyed knowledge of reality. They meet the blows, and they look to see how they can move through, to a place of acceptance and renewal.
And here’s the very strange thing. There can be a kind of beauty in grief, if you walk towards it. It is an honouring of love, a mark of respect for a life lost; in its very best sense, it is a moment of existential grace.
We sometimes like to turn things round, when we are struggling a little, to get perspective. Imagine if someone you loved died and you felt nothing. That would be easier perhaps, but it would feel jarring and peculiar. Allowing your bruised and battered heart to ache is a connection with humanity, because everyone grieves. It hurts like hell, but there is a kind of rightness to it. We’ve found that when you think of it like that, you can breathe, and be still, and let your shoulders come down, and stop fighting the pain.
It’s so easy to write things like this, and it’s often difficult to put such ideas into practice. There is nothing easy about this time of loss – for us, for anyone. And yet it can be simple, if you stay steady and see clearly. Simple, but hard.
Authenticity is another great lesson we have learnt from our horses. They absolutely are what they are; horses, as one sage wrote, don’t know how to lie. There is an authenticity in strong human emotion, however uncomfortable and alarming those emotions may sometimes feel. When we remind ourselves that grief is real, and true, and even right, we find it easier to bear.
We know that we cannot control the weather. The tempests will come, and our little ships can feel as if they are tossed about on violent, uncaring waves. But if we keep our course and hold our nerve and stretch our sinews, we also know that one day those winds will quiet, and the sea will grow calm, and the sun will come out again, and our sturdy vessels will once again be sailing on.