Exploring the difference between grief and sadness


It probably won’t surprise you but since saying goodbye to my horses, Jack and Bramble, at the beginning of this month, I have been giving a lot of thought to grief. I have read multiple articles and quotes about it, as, well as pondering over my own relationship with grief and how that has changed over the years. In fact, this particular experience has been very different to how it has previously been for me, and I will come back to that later on in this blog.


What is grief?


Linda Kohonov explains grief as being the feeling we get when a significant loss has occurred, often beyond our control. It is often the passing of a loved one, human or pet, that most of us associate with feelings of grief. However, grief can also be felt when we lose a job, a relationship comes to an end, we have an accident, or we become ill, for example. Something we value has come to an end, a life, a relationship, our good health or a way of being or living.

Grief is a very personal process, what is true for you may not be true for someone else. While some will need time and space away from their everyday life to work through their grief, others may take solace in continuing in their normal daily routine. The way we process grief can also change over time, as in my own experience.

Quite often how we grieve is a result of how we were taught to deal with loss during our early years. It can be quite normal for someone who was taught not to show “negative” emotions, stiff upper lip style, to either shut feelings of grief down or show grief in an outwardly uncontrollable manner. The former response is certainly what I have done in the past, partly due to the fact that when I was a child I was not given the opportunity to say goodbye to my pony when his time came. Instead, I was sent off to stay with my grandparents and when I returned he was simply no longer there and his passing was not discussed or dwelled on. This was one of my first experiences with loss and, as a result I learnt to deny my grief, which became a pattern in my life. It wasn’t until I went to Arizona for the EASE Programme (an Equine Facilitated Learning programme similar to the NOW Programme) that I learnt how to process my grief. Here is an account that I recently shared in my newsletter which describes how I became aware of a new way of processing grief:


On the third night of my stay, the horse in the corral outside my bedroom window escaped, and in trying to get into the enclosure of another horse fell and killed himself! He was one of Linda Kohanov’s treasured and much written about horses and everyone was struck with grief.

What was different about the way the week evolved (from what I’d ever experienced in my life before) was that time was given and space made for us all to engage with our grieving process. Linda herself went to her home and did not return to join the programme until the end of the week. She then shared a beautiful tribute to her horse and information about a memorial service.

As a group we were encouraged to journal about the loss of our own loved horses. This was an amazing process for me. I was able to grieve for a pony I had lost in my childhood and to whom I was not able to say goodbye. But, in that safe space in Arizona, finally I was able to grieve that loss.


The fact that the tragic death of Linda’s horse brought up feelings of grief for my own pony is also an important point to mention. I have worked with clients who came to me after a very recent loss, in order to work through the feelings of grief, only to find that when we start the work together, a different loss, often from years before, comes up. This is usually a loss that, for whatever reason, they weren’t able to work through at the time. Much like that of my childhood pony.

In working through my sadness in the lead up to saying goodbye to Jack and Bramble, and the grief afterwards, what has been different to how I would previously deal with the grieving process is that I have allowed myself to feel the feelings rather than shut them down. In the lead up to the day that was booked for them to be put to sleep, I was waking up each morning with the tightest knot in my chest, but instead of analysing it or trying to distract myself from it I allowed myself to feel it. And in doing this, I was able to honour it and work through it, rather than feel like I was constantly trying to keep a lid on a pressure cooker – which is often what happens when we try to deny our feelings.


What is the difference between grief and sadness?


While these two emotions may seem to go hand in hand and can be felt simultaneously, Linda Kohanov writes that there is a real difference between them in that sadness generally occurs when we know that the end or loss of something is imminent, and that grief is when the loss or death occurs and we have no choice in the matter.  As I had chosen the date and time for Jack and Bramble to be put to sleep I was then left with a period of sadness at the thought of losing them and what I was going to miss when they were no longer a daily part of my life. In many ways I found this enabled me to process the actual grief itself more easily.

One way that helped me to work through these emotions was by considering what must be released and what must be rejuvenated. What had to be released was all of the things that I would miss – looking out of my office window and seeing them in the field for example. I would then sit with this sadness of their physical presence no longer being there and allow myself to honour those feelings. On the flip side, what could be rejuvenated for me was the fact that they would no longer be in pain, and I wouldn’t have to live with the worry about how they might struggle during the harsh winter months.


“The only cure for grief is to grieve”    Earl Grollman


Having someone to hold space for us while we are grieving can help us to accept what we are feeling. However, in order to truly be able to do this for others, whether in a professional or less formal capacity, we must be able to process our own emotions. It’s why many people find the presence of an animal (particularly horses) during difficult feelings or emotions to be a big comfort. This is because they are not trying to keep a lid on their own uncomfortable feelings. Whilst Jack insisted on making me laugh, trying to drink my tea and lick out my cereal bowl, I know that Bramble in particular was able to hold space for sadness during our final days together. In her presence I didn’t have to think about whether I was crying or not, she just gave me the space to feel whatever I needed to.

Before I went to Arizona I don’t remember having anyone who I could truly talk with about my emotions of grief. During and after my training I sought the help of therapists and coaches and still do when I feel it necessary. After time I was able to talk more openly with my close family. However, whereas my partner Andy and daughter Ness are now usually the ones to hold the space for me they were so close to Jack and Bramble that, in this situation, I sought the support of a couple of very close friends.


“Grief is like the ocean; it comes in waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim.”   Vicki Harrison


If you would like to know more about the way in which I have learned to process my grief whilst incorporating Linda Kohanov’s teachings and Emotional Message Chart and through my life’s experience then please do get in touch.



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