The grief journey is different for every person who experiences loss.  One thing everyone has in common, however, is that they must walk through the grief alone.  Friends and family support me, empathize, and sympathize, but in the end, the ‘work of grief’ is a journey you must endure alone.  My daughter and I are on separate grief journeys.  She lost her father and I lost my husband.  The same person had 2 different, but significant and important roles in our lives.  We are both processing the loss differently.

Recently, my daughter and I started participating in equine therapy, which is a non-traditional method of dealing with grief.  I have not had much experience with horses.  Working with horses requires physical and mental energy as I am learning.  One of the themes in this type of therapy is mindfulness.  Mindfulness is a Buddhist concept that emphasizes the acceptance of powerful emotions you are experiencing in the present moment.

I never gave much thought to feeling in the ‘present moment’ before I experienced the significant loss of my husband.  Unbearable pain, fear, anxiety, and sadness are all normal feelings from a tragic loss.  The brain numbs these emotions for a little while and then you feel it all at once.  For me, mindfulness began when I accepted that I live with feelings from grief, but know I can carry those emotions.  I know that among all these complex emotions, I can still also feel calm and happy too.

The equine therapist equates grief to a brain injury or having a concussion.  There are clinical studies to support this theory.  My brain absolutely changed after loss.  It was like entering a time warp where everything you knew to be true is gone.  I felt a lot of confusion and had a feeling of being in a fog often.  The inability to focus was a struggle.

During equine therapy, we did an exercise where my daughter worked with a pony and I worked with an older mare.  She had each of us try to get the horse to follow us in a ring using our ‘energy.’  The therapist’s concept was that some of the time we need to lead and some of the time we need to be a partner.  Horses respond to human energy.   She demonstrated the concept with the pony using a rope that she spun in circles while walking to get the horse to move.  The pony responded to the energy of the moving rope.

Katie went first and walked alone without the pony following, but later got the pony to follow using the demonstrated method.  Once the pony trusted her, she was able to lead.  Oh, the irony of me working with the old, gray mare.  Grief has made me feel so old and tired many times.  The mare did not follow me at first, which made walking in the ring frustrating because I was walking alone.

In the end, I did get the horse to follow me in the ring for a short time by touching her to guide her, which is leading, and she did walk over to me when I was in the center of the ring, so she trusted me and partnered with me.  When the equine therapist asked how I felt about the exercise, I told her that Katie and I are handling our grief separately and both need to walk alone through it no matter how lonely and uncomfortable it feels.  The energy, leadership, and partnership we share with the horses helps us do the work of grief.


Northern Virginia has been Jennifer Carstens’ home since she was a teenager. She met John when she was working at the D.E.A. Headquarters in Arlington, VA, during the summer when she was in college. Honestly, it was love at first sight for both of them. He had a way about him that made her feel like everything was going to be okay. They were married 4 years later and lived happily for the next 21 years. While their lives were not
flawless, they were close to perfection. Their daughter had just turned 16 when tragedy struck on March
11, 2017. John was healthy and happy, but suffered a massive brain stem hemorrhagic stroke. Much to
their horror, he slipped into a coma, and would never wake again. He was 49-years young. Their daughter
is now 18 and they are still piecing together their ‘new normal.

Jennifer believes he would be proud of the ways they are moving forward. They continue to seek peace and healing through humor, love, and sometimes tears.