What Horses Teach Us About Childhood Bereavement
While there are dozens of books and clinical studies on the trauma and psychological pain of adult bereavement, there’s shockingly fewer for the study of childhood bereavement. There’s no single reason why. Partly, it could be because kids aren’t expected to go to work and support a family, so parents and school facilitators miss the subtle signs of their pain.
These psychological wounds, when not given room for expression, leave deep emotional rifts that, as an adult, can take years to unpack and resolve. For example, adults who have suffered the loss of a parent are more vulnerable to psychiatric disorders in adulthood.
We believe Equine Assisted Learning (EAL) can aid in the healing of childhood bereavement. But before we get into why, let’s learn more about grief during childhood.
Bereavement and Children
It’s important to remember that every child reacts to grief and the loss of a parent or loved one in their own way. And because bereavement separates them from others, they often feel completely alone. In this way, structured or forced dialogue can present more obstacles, adding to the frustration.
Parents or caregivers often notice that their child experiences grief through outward actions — refusing to complete schoolwork or bullying other children — rather than emotions. And because a child’s behavior changes dramatically over a school year or summer, the added stress or pressure of loss can only confuse the matter.
For example, imagine this situation, one that I had to deal with when my two boys lost their father: Is it grief that makes them want to stay home, six months after a terrible loss, or do they simply not like going to school?
Time may blur the wound, but it doesn't heal it. According to Dora Black, an adolescent psychologist, “children have higher levels of emotional disturbance and symptoms than non-bereaved children for up to two years.” They're also more likely to develop learning problems and fall behind in school. That means one loss can lead to years of unnecessary hardship.
Your son or daughter must have a space to talk about their feelings, which will range from frustration to anger to sadness and everything in between. This safe place can reveal potential coping strategies, revealing their connectedness with others. That is, we all experience loss, and it isn't about getting through it but learning how you cope as an individual.
Seeking help is in no way a failure on the parent’s part. Communities have always taken the burdens of grief onto themselves as a means of healing. But today, the community programs often fail. This is where horses offer a special gift to your child.
The Social Harmony of Horses
In these modern times, we must remind ourselves that humans are not so different than horses. I know, it sounds like woo-woo. But when you peer behind our flashy exterior, our Twitter and Starbucks and Black Friday Sales, you’re left with a jarring number of humans, flesh and blood, a 7 billion-strong herd. We’ve used herd to describe people before, herd mentality and herd behavior come to mind.
Horses are herd animals, too. In his book, Riding Home: The Power of Horses to Heal, Tim Hayes mentions that, while we’ve honed our language and outward expressions of consciousness to survive, horses turned inward. They’ve fostered a spate of evolutionary traits, including:
Every one of these traits presents itself when a horse interacts with a human. And at the heart of each of these traits is an emotional core. This is something we’ve all seen portrayed in heartwarming movies and thoughtful television shows, this idea of the horse-as-healer. It’s a narrative we’ve cherished since we’ve had narratives.
Some of the oldest paintings in the history of mankind are herds of horses. They're land and wind, strong and sensitive; they guide us, ennobling our grief and suffering. The foundation of these paintings and stories lives on, and you and your child can experience it.
Equine Assisted Learning and Childhood Bereavement
Today, thanks to the Internet, you’ll find dozens of child bereavement workshops and strategies and therapies. But many of them follow a rigid pattern, carting your child through the stages of grief, generalizing their specific hurt. While they can be helpful in certain situations, many children do not feel any connection to the material. They fumble through the program, then come home fraught with unresolved emotions.
Since grief is unique to the child, I cannot express the importance of a dynamic, adaptable experience that expresses their personal struggles. The challenges they'll face at Gateway Farms exemplify how often your emotions motivate your actions, rather than the other way around.
EAL programs occur on the ground. As strange as it may sound, it’s when you’re on the same level as the horse, staring one another in the eyes, that the epiphanies and insights arrive.
One thing EAL can offer your bereaved child is a moment of peace. In a calm and non-judgemental environment, the bond between horse and human is utterly peaceful. And in that peace, children have the opportunity to uncover powerful observations and immanent coping mechanisms.
This is especially true of teens. While children will usually suffer through a rote grief counseling session, teens rebel. They sense the phony nature of the sessions, that it doesn’t quite penetrate the somethingness that makes their grief unique.
Equine Assisted Learning relies on the horse's spontaneity; it resembles the natural world’s tendency towards restoration rather than the medical world’s pigeonholing diagnosis.
That means young ones tormented by grief have the opportunity to try something few have tried before. Working side by side with a horse presents emotional challenges that adapt with what they are feeling now, rather than talking points to print out and look at later — a later that, unfortunately, rarely manifests.
Equine Assisted Learning presents opportunities for your child to express their emotions and frustrations in a controlled environment. What’s more, facilitators aid in the discussion of these emotions and actions along with loved ones and other children experiencing similar situations.
Consider Gateway Farm’s EAL for Childhood Bereavement
During grief, finding the right words can seem hopeless. There’s only so much that can be said, as the true source of this pain is emotional. Horses are deeply emotional beings. We often see animals as lesser than us because they do not have the speech faculties we uphold so triumphantly.
While we’ve spent thousands of years honing words that never quite mean what we feel, horses have spent millennia entwined with their herds, delicately balancing the physical world with the emotional world.
Healing the subtle yet penetrating wounds of grief won’t happen overnight. And it’s almost impossible to do it alone; we’ve lost the cultural skills, the inherently emotional skills, to help children deal with the loss of a parent or loved one.
I believe that Equine Assisted Learning has the potential to elicit new and important opportunities to learn spontaneous and individual coping strategies.
If you'd like to know more, send us an email or call any time to talk about our childhood grief programs.