Narratives of Healing: Helen's Story
My youngest son, Benjamin, died by suicide in 2010, which catapulted me a million miles away into a strange new existence. Benjamin was a 21-year-old junior in college, and truly we never saw this coming. Through these seven years since Benjamin died, I’ve had first hand personal experience with complex grief accompanied at various times by anxiety, depression, isolation, mental health issues, panic attacks, and an inconsistent flip-flop road forward. There is no linear progression from agony to okay-ness. It is messy trial and error, “trying” to find what may offer some relief, insight, or direction out of the overwhelming negative pool of emotions and trauma.
I’m sharing a synopsis of my healing path forward through the various therapies I have tried because I believe in therapy and want to promote exploring as many therapy options as possible to find those that are helpful. There is simply no one thing that “fixes” complex grief. I have landed now in the world of equine therapy and want to highlight and share what that is for me, and how I personally enjoy my horse each day to provide some emotional recovery and wellbeing, connection, companionship, peace, and healing. I have found that bringing a horse into my suicide survivor lane helps to “speak” about the “unspeakable” and the “unimaginable.”
Since Benjamin’s death my healing therapy path has included talk therapy for two years, adding our new pup Lindy to our home, obtaining a Little Free Library to “care for” in Benjamin’s memory, acupuncture for 18 months following talk therapy, massages when I could, and then antidepressants all in combination with a major retreat from life. I believe in each of these forms of healing therapy and I know that each person must find their formula or combination of therapies for their own unique healing. Another step I took to provide emotional relief was reducing my work schedule, then further reducing my work schedule and finally concluding my 33 year library career.
Now I am 61 years old and using equine assisted therapy daily with my horse, Mara B. I want to share the benefits of animal and specifically equine assisted therapy with others. My horse time with Mara B is active, outdoors, and physically demanding. Developing a close bond with Mara and my daily horse time routine has brought me strength and healing.
The concept of ‘One’ has been a healing principle that I was introduced to by my therapist, Tom, who specializes in the area of “complicated grief.” As a suicide survivor, I was/am in the difficult realm of overwhelmingly complex emotional and spiritual traumatic grief and was a psychological mess. I needed his help. This concept of One, suggested by Tom, was the foundation of my initial healing path.
After I had worked with Tom for some time, he proposed that I think about “adding ONE thing” to my life. This floored me; I had no idea how I would have room for or be capable of adding anything. My head was so busy spinning in negative emotions. To even consider adding a new thing seemed impossible at the time.
It took me weeks to work on this assignment, yet now I see how it pulled me away from all the non-stop negative thoughts swirling around in my mind. When I considered what I could maybe add, I was out of the swirl for a moment and that moment became a brief respite. After a few weeks, I settled on attending a gentle yoga class one hour a week. I could go there, do the class and not have to talk. I could drive home after the class and be done. Starting with one hour a week was all I could possibly do, but it was my start.
That one hour a week “add” became my start on this healing path. One, all I ask of myself is to try one thing or one percent more or one more time. This formula is also what I use with my Mara B horse time and our journey together, ‘one more…..’
So begins our relationship which truly took a year of hard work, tears and patience to develop. In retrospect, I now see that the work and effort to make Mara “my” horse was diverting my mind from the constant negative swirl in my head after Benjamin’s death. I had to focus so hard, both mentally and physically, while I was with her. I sobbed all the way home from the barn that first year. I still simply had only so much capacity to “keep it together” on the outside before the inside pain fell out.
So, slowly, we started to figure out our relationship, get to know each other, and become a team. Mara was slowly pulling me forward. I had horse issues to think about now.
I have had a great deal of supportive help since Benjamin’s death. Help from family, friends, therapists, books, my pup and Mara B, nature, silence, travel adventures, and retreating. The individuals who religiously have stayed in touch and called, emailed, sent cards and remembered important dates, anniversaries, and each holiday that we were limping through are true heroes and amazing people to have in my life.
A person on a healing path can feel very lonely, isolated, and confused. I have embraced a new phrase I have encountered, “Learning in Public,” that fits the path I have been traveling. I am learning as I go along day to day, and my learning often takes place in public, which is not easy. As a new suicide survivor, I felt “different,” not sure what I would be getting from others and not sure what I could handle or not handle in any given moment. A coping mechanism I adopted was to become quite silent and Tom, my therapist, offered phrases that I could use when I needed them. But at the crucial moment, I could not remember anything, so I would panic even more because I forgot what I should say. “I’m on the edge” became a favorite response to “Hi, how are you?” actually, because the “I’m good” or “I’m fine” answer made me scream inside. My silence was the most powerful way to communicate back and express what a crazy question that was to even ask me. I mean, let’s be real and authentic.
Learning to ASK for help is very difficult, highlighting why we need assistance.
ROUTINE CONTRIBUTES TO MY HEALING
Depression, anxiety, grief and trauma are heavy and weigh a person down so you feel like you are moving through quicksand. It may appear that the way ahead is clear and that it should be easy to make forward progress, however nothing is the same after a traumatic death and forward motion is difficult for survivors. I know this from personal experience.
Having been broken and feeling very vulnerable, abandoned, and confused by Benjamin’s death, I had to practice over and over surrendering to the possibility that maybe I could eventually breathe again. Healing for me has been trying, often just by the seat of my pants, to get a handle on my trauma, loneliness, and overwhelming state of confusion. Dealing with Benjamin’s death had shattered all of the routines I was accustomed to. I had to start over.
Before I decided to buy my own horse, I was meeting with an amazing and intuitive therapist who helped me clearly see that I had buried myself under grief, then heaped on shame and added in guilt and I simply could not find my way out from under the weight of it all without slowly and painstakingly unraveling the confusion. I had to work very hard to put aside the nonstop negative thoughts and conditions that consumed me. As the years and months have passed, I now realize that Mara’s physical presence and the commitment of caring for her has been a powerful aspect of moving to a better place.
My daily horse time provided structure and routine that helped me slowly start letting go of those heavy negative threads that held me down. I could spend my horse hours away from the confusion and negative thoughts. Just long enough to find a respite — a respite that I still seek and value and one that has provided me some strength, courage, and a positive healing activity. My time with Mara requires that I use mental and emotional energy and being around the barn provides something I love and something I’m good at: being half of the Mara B and Me team. Mara B time provides my own form of equine therapy which definitely is empowering.
I have a story, and as my heart and voice became stronger, I felt drawn to share my personal experiences since Benjamin’s death with those who may be interested. I want to express how real the trauma, anxiety, and depression are and how difficult it truly is to “move forward” and “move on” to manage the grief and pain of a suicide death. So now I promote equine therapy experiences through my Mara Moments Blog posts since connections with horses are powerful and fulfilling and I like to share them with others. I started Mara Moments blog in 2016 and later added an Instagram account and a Facebook Page.
Trauma has put me on this path and now I desire to be a voice and an advocate for others who suffer in silence. I had years of my own silence but now, for some reason, I’ve gained an interest in speaking about my personal journey of trying to heal, trying to move forward, and of trying to enjoy more of daily life.
October 2017 brought with it the seventh anniversary of Benjamin’s death. I want to share seven concepts with readers who ride along on Mara Moments and who are interested in my unique healing path.
1. The “share your story” theme has evolved internationally as a way of helping others to know that they are not alone, to offer ideas, and to provide words of support, which is the main motivation for me to share my healing path via the Mara Moments blog. From Prince Harry speaking about mental health issues to the #metoo hashtag, I find positive support from voices of others who share their truth and experiences. I hope my posts that share my experiences will lighten that burden for some others. If we are going to make the world better, kinder, safer, and more inclusive, we need to be better at listening to what hurts. Hurts are like a hidden disability.
2. Hearing from numerous readers who express their gratitude for my words and thoughts is helpful and supportive for me. This encourages me to continue reaching out to others in this small way. I am continually motivated by the thought, “What if someone would have helped Benjamin?”
3. The continuing number of tragic suicide deaths in the news and those who now face the future as suicide survivors motivate me to continue talking about this complex mental health crisis and to ask others to be aware of the difficulties many people endure. A special focus for me is to change the language around the use of “committed” with a suicide death. To use that term perpetuates the negative stigma of a death by suicide and makes it sound like a crime. I always say “Benjamin died by suicide,” which is accurate without inserting a negative connotation when one is not needed. Please join me in making this important communication change and to educate others.
4. Animal assisted therapies are gaining more headlines, recognition, and appreciation. Specifically, the use of equine therapy continues to expand and from my own positive experience, I want to be a voice for the benefits it can provide and to advocate for the value of this form of therapy. Through my posts, I want to share my equine experiences and provide support for people who do not have easy access to horses or who do not know about equine therapy.
5. Retreat, rest, calm, quiet, nature, solitude, and healthy therapies continue to be critical for me each day. These are themes I try to emphasize for others to consider and embrace. Healing is slow work, and I promote slowing down to allow the healing process to progress at each person’s own pace and capabilities. Pressure from others to just “fix it” or “move on” is not helpful.
6. Routine, even what may sometimes look like a boring routine, has been helpful and healing for me. Walking, reading, and grooming are daily repetitive routines that may seem simple, yet in practice they bring me comfort. Being physically active and outside in nature, spending my days around animals and animal lovers is healing and helpful. With my blog, my intention is to share a moment of that routine as a type of peaceful, supportive friendship and is my lowkey creative and simple way of sharing the routines that are so helpful for me.
7. Shift to rebuilding – Year seven and I’m just trying my hand at “rebuilding” (for which there is no set formula). I share the concept of rebuilding because folks need to know that there is no predetermined time limit on how long it takes to rebuild your future after a great loss. Give yourself time and please give others all the time they need to heal or find their way forward from trauma, grief, and sadness.
What I have in my life today is wonderful, but without Benjamin, I can also feel that I am not truly whole. Other people who carry their own private weight of loss or trauma, are in poor health, or are saddled with heavy burdens probably understand what I feel when I refer to the loss of the “whole.” Due to the loss and emotional trauma I have suffered, my view of life has become more focused and intense, and I am more easily and frequently impacted by the pain and suffering that’s all around us.
Suicide continues to be front and center in the news and is devastating to families. Depression and loneliness are very real and the effect of this trauma is long lasting. When you have suffered such a blow, it is hard to display a phony smile when the devastation of your reality is visible on your face.
Mister Rogers was always everyone’s friend and helper and he certainly has been mine. He understood loneliness. In thinking of what my Mara Moments blog could be, I thought and hoped that Mara could be a friend/companion to others too — a friend to share nature, horse sense, and equine assisted therapy. A Mara Moment arriving in your inbox from a sweet horse, a bit of comfort from a friend, a ping against loneliness maybe. I have learned that often the most meaningful things we do for others are simple, thoughtful actions; gestures accompanied by simple words of understanding.
Through Mara Moments I share my healing journey with my horse, Mara B, highlighting our daily interactions and promoting equine therapy. My blog and Instagram page chronicle my path forward after the death of my son, Benjamin. I share the silent solitude and beauty of nature on the trails and our daily experiences. I share Mara as a companion for others to promote emotional wellbeing and to promote suicide prevention. Please look and consider becoming a follower and join us each day as we share our encounters with special barn pals, animals, and events. I look forward to sharing Mara Moments with you.
Written by Helen Crary Stassen
If you would like to learn more about Mara B, equine therapy, and Helen's suicide prevention advocacy, please visit one the pages below.