With chalk in hand, six women walked up to the wooden plank before them and wrote one or two words that described how they were feeling in the present moment.
Terms like “on hold,” “stuck” and “brokenhearted” were among the scribbled phrases.
Next, the women wrote where they wanted to be in the future on a second plank inside a stable at Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation in Baiting Hollow.
“Myself again,” “at peace,” and “further on” decorated the black-painted wood.
The women, all participants in East End Hospice’s new equine bereavement program, were then paired with a horse and proceeded to guide the animal over the wooden planks.
“When I started, I walked in here feeling heavy,” said Elyse Ray of Calverton. “When somebody dies, so much joy gets pushed out from inside of you and heartache lives inside of you … but even after the first time, I felt a skip in my walk again.”
Ms. Ray lost her mother in October 2016. She’d also lost her sister and, while growing up, her brother and father.
On Monday, Ms. Ray was partnered with a horse named Pirate, and they’ve formed a strong bond. All the horses are rescues. Just a few years ago, Pirate, who watched as his family was taken to slaughter, was rescued by Marisa Striano, founder and president of Spirit’s Promise.
“All of our horses have been through traumatic events,” Ms. Striano said. “They choose to love again, which is what a lot of people are doing when they come here.”
Many of the women in the program feel a connection to the horse they’re paired with. Diane Bluemel of East Moriches said her horse, Dude, brought to mind her “surfer dude” brother, who died suddenly in June.
Monday was the third session of the free six-week bereavement program run by Ms. Striano and Angela Byrns, a social worker from East End Hospice. The eight-member group meets for 2 1/2 hours each Monday. Both organizations are nonprofits funded through donations.
During the program, group members gather inside the barn to talk about their feelings and struggles over the past week. Ms. Byrns said this is not unlike most other bereavement groups.
Later, they go outside to work with the horses, doing a different activity each session. The point of working with the horses is that the person paired with the animal has to be focused on the present moment, giving them a break from their grief and concerns for their future well-being.
“It’s great. Just to be here is freeing,” said Wading River resident Minna Waldeck, who lost her son to suicide in 2014. “You can’t be all over the place in your head, you have to be focused. You can’t be confused or thinking of a loved one or whatever’s happened to you. You have to live in the moment and that’s what it’s all about. It’s just wonderful.”
Following that week’s exercise, the group meets again to process what they experienced during that session.
“I lost my husband in June and this has been amazing healing for me,” said Jeanette Cooper of New Suffolk, whose husband, Jason, died suddenly from a fall.
This is Ms. Cooper’s second six-week session in the equine bereavement group. She learned about it when her three children attended Camp Good Grief, a bereavement camp for children and teenagers also run by East End Hospice.
“I got so much out of it the first time,” she said. “My grief is still kind of new, so I felt it would be helpful to continue. It has definitely been helpful for my confidence and navigating this new life I have to figure out with my three kids.”
Top photo: Elyse Ray of Calverton praises Pirate after he successfully steps over a barrier Monday at Spirit’s Promise in Baiting Hollow. (Credit: Nicole Smith)