HOW WE WERE HEALED BY HORSES

Deb­bie Bin­ner and her daugh­ter worked through their grief with the help of an­i­mals

Good Housekeeping (UK) - - Editor’s Letter -

IDeb­bie says

f only I could turn back time. I now re­alise that I once had the per­fect life: a great job, a hus­band I loved, two naughty but won­der­ful daugh­ters and a golden retriever, called Ralph. can’t be­lieve that I didn’t re­alise how lucky I was, and I re­gret ev­ery mo­ment I spent moan­ing and striv­ing for more.

In March 2010, life changed for ever when my younger daugh­ter, Chloë, was di­ag­nosed with Ewing’s sar­coma, a type of pri­mary bone cancer. She was 15, stun­ning, clever, tal­ented – we thought she had the world at her feet. For three years, we bat­tled through months of chemo­ther­apy, ra­dio­ther­apy, op­er­a­tions, emer­gency hos­pi­tal ad­mis­sions and hair loss. It was like a tsunami of trauma, loss and hor­ror, and look­ing back, I’m not sure how we got through it. We had some good times (some great times even) and ev­ery sin­gle mo­ment was so pre­cious, but I think we all knew that we were just buy­ing time. Chloë Jane, the child I’d promised to keep safe for ever and ever, died two weeks af­ter her 18th birth­day on 28 Fe­bru­ary 2013.

The vis­ceral grief I felt was like noth­ing on earth. I would spend days curled up in a foetal po­si­tion. I had no in­ter­est in whether I lived or died. But time is a healer of sorts and, grad­u­ally, I did start to find rea­sons to live again. I wrote a blog about Chloë, and peo­ple started writ­ing back and shar­ing their losses with me. I felt a tiny bit less alone. A few years be­fore, I had trained as a yoga and med­i­ta­tion teacher. Work­ing gen­tly with my body, keep­ing a reg­u­lar prac­tice and shar­ing and con­nect­ing with oth­ers all slowly helped me feel a lit­tle more hope­ful.

I was just resur­fac­ing into some kind of man­age­able pain, when my hus­band, Si­mon, com­plained of numb­ness in his mouth. It was an in­nocu­ous-sound­ing symp­tom, but some­thing seemed amiss to me. I was right. My ‘rock’ was di­ag­nosed with mo­tor neu­rone dis­ease. His symp­toms pro­gressed quickly. He lost his power of speech within three months of di­ag­no­sis and was un­able to walk af­ter six. It wasn’t re­ally a sur­prise to me when my big, brave hus­band opted for an as­sisted death in a Swiss clinic in Oc­to­ber 2015, nine months af­ter his di­ag­no­sis.

Once again, we were left reel­ing. But this time, I felt I had built some re­silience to dark times and I kind of knew what to do. ‘Don’t look up, down, be­hind or for­ward,’ I told my­self. ‘Just take one step at a time.’ I got writ­ing again, cam­paign­ing and do­ing ev­ery­thing I pos­si­bly could to look af­ter my­self and Chloë’s older sis­ter, Han­nah.

As a jour­nal­ist, I’d once cov­ered a story about the US mil­i­tary’s use of horses to help veter­ans with post trau­matic stress dis­or­der. I’d al­ways wanted to learn more. PTSD, with its all-con­sum­ing symp­toms of flash­backs, emo­tional numb­ness and a fail­ure to find any joy or mean­ing in life, is not lim­ited to those who've ex­pe­ri­enced the bat­tle­field. It per­fectly de­scribes how it feels to live af­ter the death of a child.

I was also be­com­ing wor­ried about Han­nah, who is now 28. She’d been such a fear­less child, but I was notic­ing how lit­tle phobias were creep­ing in, in­clud­ing a fear of fly­ing. Was it the trauma? I so wanted her to live the best life pos­si­ble; not one blighted by the shadow of grief and sad­ness, but she was op­posed to any kind of talk­ing ther­apy. I won­dered if she’d take bet­ter to some­thing action-ori­en­tated, like equine ther­apy. She just loves horses, and, for the first time, she agreed that she’d like to ex­plore some­thing that might help.

The sun was ris­ing when the two of us ar­rived at Hale Court Farm in East Sus­sex. We were greeted by Erika Uffind­ell and

Sun Tui, both trained in equine ther­apy. They man­aged to com­bine a kind of warm, moth­erly kindness with huge pres­ence and a quiet wis­dom. Af­ter brief in­tro­duc­tions to the oth­ers in the group, we were told to stand in a field with our backs to a herd of some 14 horses, all dif­fer­ent sizes. I felt strangely self-con­scious, vul­ner­a­ble and a lit­tle ridicu­lous stand­ing in a field with noth­ing to do. Sun asked us to fo­cus in­wards. I was sur­prised this felt so dif­fi­cult.

CON­FRONTING GRIEF

We were asked to fo­cus on the strong­est feel­ing in our bod­ies, to name it and to try to pic­ture it, too. I didn’t have any trou­ble with this, as af­ter five min­utes in si­lence, in a field, my mind had sped into over­drive. It was lit­er­ally scream­ing at me: ‘Get out of here. This is way too close, too dan­ger­ous.’ But I held tight, it would have been em­bar­rass­ing to do any­thing else, and I let my­self imag­ine car­toon-like speech bub­bles erupt­ing, con­tain­ing the words ouch, zap, bang, wal­lop. Was this what I’d come for? Was this my grief speak­ing? I got a sense that it might be.

‘Now turn to­wards the herd,’ Sun said gen­tly. I was thrown by the most in­cred­i­ble surge of emo­tion as my eyes laid on these mag­nif­i­cent, gen­tle, serene an­i­mals. The con­trast be­tween the calm­ness of the scene and my manic mind could not have been more pow­er­ful.

Sun pushed on, ask­ing us to see if any horse caught our at­ten­tion. For me, it was ob­vi­ous. There ‘she’ was: an older white mare, a lit­tle beaten up, muddy, but proud, grace­ful and strong. This horse had re­ally lived, or so I imag­ined. The power of pro­jec­tion! I couldn’t have been more wrong. My ‘mare’ was, in fact, the al­pha male of the herd. Named Ko Li (the Daoist mean­ing is fire in the mist and light at the end of the tun­nel), he was the con­fi­dent boy who’d had a sta­ble, lov­ing back­ground and lived life en­tirely on his terms.

We went into a pad­dock with our cho­sen horses. I rode as a child and was look­ing for­ward to show­ing off my horse­man­ship. I marched into the

The horses reignited some kind of life force, and I’ve felt lighter and brighter ever since

pad­dock and looked Ko Li straight in the eye, urg­ing him to come over and make friends. Well, he couldn’t have tried to get away fast enough and even at­tempted to es­cape into the next field!

HORSE POWER

Hu­mil­i­ated and hurt, I looked to wise Erika for guid­ance. ‘Hold your ground; go in­wards,’ she whis­pered. I knew what she meant. Was I look­ing for too much from the horse? Was I ask­ing him to take care of me? In any event, I’d cho­sen the horse the least likely to do any of this.

I felt de­feated, so I sat down and cra­dled my­self like a child. There was a les­son here. This was my pain and it was up to me to look af­ter it. I looked up and there was Ko Li stand­ing be­side me. It was as if he was say­ing, ‘Okay, that was a bit much, but you’re start­ing to get this. Take care of your­self and we may be able to be friends, but I’m not do­ing this for you.’

When we worked with our horses in an ob­sta­cle course that we’d con­structed, my per­for­mance was dis­mal again. I tried to make Ko Li fol­low me. Erika stepped in, and un­der her guid­ance, I was able to step back, take con­trol of my emo­tions and show him the path for­wards.

As the day ended, I felt men­tally and phys­i­cally ex­hausted. We were urged to write a jour­nal over the next few weeks to see what came up. The the­ory is that the real learn­ing and heal­ing hap­pens af­ter the ses­sions. It was in these re­flec­tions that I un­cov­ered how the herd, and es­pe­cially Ko Li, had helped me in the next stage of tak­ing care of my grief.

The frozen feel­ing that per­vaded my mood was lead­ing to a de­tach­ment from the magic of life. The feel­ings were so pow­er­ful that I needed a safe space to re­lease them. I think the power of this grief drove Ko Li away, and showed me how huge it was. Over the next few weeks, I felt some­thing lift­ing. Han­nah and I talked more. There was still scary ground be­tween us – the losses loomed so large – but we talked about her well­be­ing, how emo­tional the horses made us feel and the relief of be­ing able to cry.

Af­ter Chloë died, I found it al­most im­pos­si­ble to look at her spe­cial things (her first shoes, a lock of her hair, her prom dress). I keep them wrapped up in a mem­ory box. I hadn’t looked at pho­tos, ei­ther. It’s still early days, but af­ter the horses,

I took the first step of peek­ing into the box and felt the things that con­vey the essence of who she was. Tears fell and my heart ached for my child, but I felt bet­ter, as one seems to af­ter re­leas­ing sad feel­ings.

It’s no ex­ag­ger­a­tion to say that I found that day, in that Sus­sex field, life chang­ing. It reignited some kind of life force and I’ve felt lighter and brighter ever since.

I don’t think life can ever feel nor­mal again af­ter los­ing a child. Ev­ery year is a painful re­minder of the young woman she would have been. I miss her and my hus­band so much. But through all the work I’ve done, in­clud­ing horse ther­apy, I have a box full of tools that I can take out when I need a lit­tle help.

Han­nah says

Imiss my sis­ter and step­fa­ther ter­ri­bly, but I’ve never found it es­pe­cially help­ful to talk about my feel­ings. I pre­fer to get on with life and keep busy run­ning my fam­ily’s care busi­ness and look­ing af­ter my chil­dren, Ro­man, seven, and Nahla, five.

I was re­ally sur­prised to feel my­self get­ting emo­tional when we stood in the field look­ing at the horses. I don’t know why, but I started cry­ing and couldn’t stop. I don’t cry eas­ily, but I no­ticed how much bet­ter I felt let­ting go of this emo­tion. In the class­room, I sur­prised my­self again when I started to open up and speak from the heart.

I chose an older black mare called Lozen as my spe­cial horse. She was (I later learned) the ‘mother’ of the herd. The wise old lady that oth­ers look up to. Spend­ing time with her on my own was lovely. I felt a re­ally deep con­nec­tion.

The most mag­i­cal mo­ment came when I was work­ing with Lozen in a pen. I broke down in tears and she came straight over and nuz­zled my arm. It was at that point that I re­alised it was okay to be a bit more open and vul­ner­a­ble.

Horses will be a part of my life from now on. More than any­thing, I recog­nised how calm and con­tent I feel around them. Their pres­ence alone feels heal­ing.

• Yet Here I Am (Splen­did Books) by Deb­bie Bin­ner is out now

I re­alised that it was okay to be a bit more open and vul­ner­a­ble

Open­ing up to each other: Deb­bie Bin­ner and daugh­ter Han­nah Drury

Her rock: Deb­bie with her hus­band Si­mon

Ev­ery mo­ment with Chloë was spe­cial, says Deb­bie

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