Grief is Not a Straight Line

By Elena Perea MD

Dr. Perea is a psychiatrist and assistant professor at the Duke University School of Medicine in North Carolina. She also is an avid competitor in eventing.


I had a young horse a few years ago who was insanely talented. I was frequently asked if he was for sale, and my answer was always “No! I could never find another like him!” I took him directly off the track to Training level eventing in two years, and it was clear he had the talent for more. As an adult amateur, my goal has always been to do a FEI one-star level event, and it was seeming closer to possible than ever.

Then we had a series of unbelievably bad luck. I struggled with his Thoroughbred feet, and he had to be in a stall for most of the day rather than turned out. He was exposed to Strangles because he was in the stall, and became so ill he almost died. After a week at the vet school, he came home emaciated and on quarantine for six weeks. When he was finally out of quarantine, in the very first week of turnout he cut his pastern on a piece of pipe in his pasture, and was again rushed to the vet school for joint surgery. During his stall rest following that, he developed severe head-shaking syndrome as a late effect of the Strangles infection. He was in pain, miserable, and unrideable.

My dream evaporated in front of me over the course of those months. I was crushed. The barn, previously my happy place, had become a place I didn’t even want to visit. I was so very sad.

Everyone has heard the old adage that the only sure things in life are death and taxes. I’d add that grief, too, is unavoidable (and sometimes due to death and/or taxes). Why then, are we so poorly prepared for the eventuality that we will experience the emotional turmoil associated with sadness?

There is no recipe for grief, for how long it lasts or how move on. Things will never be the same, and you will always miss what you have lost.

Grief is defined as “deep sorrow, especially that caused by someone’s death.” I think death is too specific — I know that grief is caused by loss, be that the loss of a person, an equine partner, or even the loss of a dream. People grieve when faced with sudden or unexpected loss — it smacks them in the face with no warning. That kind of grief can be traumatizing. No less serious is grief from a loss that is expected — this is often experienced in two stages: in anticipation of the loss, and then the loss itself.

I am often asked, “When will I feel better? When does it get easier?” If only there were an easy answer to that. It is important to remember that sadness is a normal human emotion, and not to pathologize those feelings. How people deal with that sadness is as individual as every person is. There is no recipe for grief, for how long it lasts or how move on. Things will never be the same, and you will always miss what you have lost. I can say, though, that you will learn to live differently without that piece of your life.

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What can we do, then, to get moving in that direction? Remember your community: your barn friends, your family, your faith. Use ritual, if your culture has one, or create one to help remember what you have lost. Talk to others who have been through loss and find out what helped them. Recall how you have dealt best with hard experiences in the past.

People grieve when faced with sudden or unexpected loss — it smacks them in the face with no warning. That kind of grief can be traumatizing.

If you are supporting someone else through grief, remember to ask them how they are doing. The initial shock of a loss may wear off, but that does not mean the feelings of sadness will just go away. Try not to avoid the topic — grief can be lonely, and acknowledging that another person is going through a hard time can be helpful. However, don’t force conversation, either. Just being there can be enough to show support.

An important thing to remember is that being sad is not the same thing as being clinically depressed: one is a normal human emotion, the other is a disease. One can, however, lead to the other. If your feelings of sadness impact your functioning for two weeks or more (i.e: you can’t go to work, you are losing weight, you get no pleasure out of anything in life), it may be time to reach out to a professional. If you ever have suicidal thoughts, it is definitely time to reach out to a professional.

Grieving won’t be a linear experience — it might often be one step forward and two back — but there will be change and eventual improvement. As humans, we will all go through this. I like to think that the preposition “through” implies a movement from one place to another, meaning grief is not the end, but rather part of the journey. One of my mentors is fond of saying, “Everything will be alright in the end. If it’s not alright, then it’s not the end.” I hold onto that in hard times, and I hope you will, too.

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