By Cailin Riley
Jeanette Cooper stood in front of the small wooden bridge, collecting herself before taking her first step. By her side was Major, a retired police horse that had worked in Lower Manhattan on September 11, 2001, and in crowd control at Yankee Stadium.
She tugged on the lead rope she held, expecting the husky horse to follow her over the bridge in one of the dirt paddocks at the Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue farm in Riverhead. But he didn’t move.
Ms. Cooper, of New Suffolk, had crossed the bridge moments before on her own. Physically speaking, it didn’t lead anywhere, other than a few feet in front of her. Before crossing, she was asked to envision what the bridge looked like. In her mind, it was made of slippery, uneven, moss-covered stones, requiring a careful and deliberate yet confident approach.
“Come on, Major,” Ms. Cooper said, encouraging the horse again before boldly picking out her first step, and then the next. This time, he followed her.
“Do you know what just happened?”
The question was posed by Angela Byrns, a licensed clinical social worker with East End Hospice. She had watched Ms. Cooper and Major cross the bridge, alongside several other women who were at the farm that day as part of the hospice’s equine bereavement program.
Ms. Byrns explained to Ms. Cooper that the confidence and leadership she had just displayed in guiding Major over the bridge was precisely what she needed to do for her three children, ages 11, 13 and 15.
The process of navigating the bridge was symbolic of the grief they’ve grappled with since Ms. Cooper’s husband, Jason Cooper, died unexpectedly in June at the age of 47 after falling from a ladder. The children, Ms. Byrns said, needed to see their mother take the leadership role in the grieving process to set the example to follow.
Ms. Byrns, who is also the children’s bereavement coordinator for East End Hospice, said that children, especially teens, often will delay their own grief for up to two years because they are waiting to see how their parent is coping.
“Every time, it’s been something,” Ms. Cooper said last Wednesday, speaking about the program and what it has revealed to her, while at the farm for another session. Ms. Cooper and seven other women had just finished another exercise, called “The Present Moment.” They stood in the paddock in a semi-circle near another horse, a chestnut gelding named Sinatra. They were asked to pick out an object in the dirt and focus on it while remaining still.
They stood, looking down and with hands clasped in front of them as if in prayer, were asked to focus on their chosen object but also to remain present and aware of the horse. Silence descended, broken only by the soft patter of rain and occasional puffs of air from Sinatra’s nose. A few times, he pawed impatiently at the mud. In other moments, he lowered his head and remained still, mirroring the body language of the humans surrounding him.
The equine bereavement program was started last year, a joint effort by Ms. Byrns and Marisa Striano, the owner of Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue. The program is open to the community, free of charge, as are all of East End Hospice’s programs. Ms. Byrns had heard about Spirit’s Promise from a friend, who told her about the therapy programs Ms. Striano offered for cancer patients. After a few one-day therapy sessions last year, as well as a program for teens, East End Hospice offered its first six-week bereavement program at the farm in March, and wrapped up its second six-week session last week. Another six-week session is set to begin on November 13, and Ms. Byrns said there will be a separate one-time holiday session in early December, with a date yet to be decided.
Eight women were part of the most recent group, which started in September. They have all experienced loss and are in various stages of dealing with their grief. Two women lost a son, two lost a husband, and four lost a parent or parents for whom they were the primary caregiver. They range in age from 40s to 70s.
The sessions begin with a group therapy meeting inside an indoor space at the farm, followed by work with the animals, and a final debriefing where they discuss what they learned and what the exercises taught them that day. On this particular Wednesday in October, as the women emerged from their meeting space to come outside and begin the therapy session, a large flock of starlings flew overhead. Ms. Byrns smiled as she looked up at the birds, swiftly disappearing across the gray sky. “Something like that always happens,” she said.
The group met up with several of the barn workers and caretakers, including Ms. Striano. While Ms. Byrns is a calm and steady presence, with a soft, soothing voice and an aura of empathy, Ms. Striano is a perfect counterpoint—boisterous yet soulful, joking at times about the behavior of the horses, miniature ponies, goats and donkeys who mix and mingle on her farm. Her curly, strawberry blond hair was tucked under a white lace cap, pulled together by a bright yellow faux sunflower clip, a burst of color on a damp, gray day.
Ms. Striano spoke warmly and lovingly about her animals, rattling off their names, personality quirks and histories—all experienced abuse, loss or abandonment, to some degree. Together with those animals, Ms. Striano and Ms. Byrns have created what the women said is a safe space to experience their emotions, deal with their grief, and talk openly about the loved ones they lost.
“It’s the first time I could talk about my loss in a comfortable setting,” said Ms. Cooper. “Working with the horses is amazing. They’re so big, it sort of forces you to be in the moment.”
Ms. Cooper said she recently brought her children to the farm, and they loved it as well. Ms. Byrns said that animalsparticularly horses—are valuable tools in a bereavement program, because they force people to “be in the moment,” a valuable lesson because people who are grieving tend to focus on the past or are overcome with anxiety about the future. “When you’re with a 1,500-pound animal, there’s no other option than being in the present,” she said.
Ms. Byrns said the program has exceeded her expectations, and the feedback she’s received has been overwhelmingly positive.
“Whatever we’re doing, the beauty of it is experiencing it in the moment,” she said. “Certain things will strike people, and different realizations come about. If they were in regular therapy, they wouldn’t have that realization, or it would come at a later time.”
The women in the program expressed similar sentiments about what it has done for them, and about their feelings for Ms. Byrns, Ms. Striano and the rest of the women who work at the farm and help facilitate the sessions, calling them empathetic, saying the barn was a safe space where they felt comfortable to explore their emotions.