Grief can be a long, hard and ugly business. Whatever caused the grief, whether the passing of a loved one or the loss of something in your life beyond your control, it can take an enormous toll on your emotional, psychological and physical health. People talk about grief coming in stages or being characterised by different types of emotions but one thing for sure is that even if you reach that magical acceptance stage at some point, you can still revisit the old stages (denial, anger, bargaining and depression) or you can invent completely new ones (such as guilt or regret).
You may be surprised by people’s reactions to your grief, some people may pressure you to move on before you are ready, you may find yourself comforting others because of how uncomfortable they become or you could even find yourself shocked at some of the weird and wonderful things that come out of people’s mouths. You can expect anything and everything. One thing I didn’t expect to come from grief would be for me to find a love of running.
My journey with the beast
My journey officially started on 2 September 2016, when I lost my late husband Kerry to a rare cancer. Unofficially, it had started years before while I watched the person I love slowly succumb to a terminal illness. Kerry was 36 years old and had been living with cancer for just over 9 years when he died. Before cancer Kerry was a very active guy – he was interested in parkour, he liked martial arts, he would sometimes do a handstand and then just walk around on his hands for a while for no reason and at times he would randomly start dancing in the middle of the street with new dance moves he had just invented.
Over the 9 years I cared for Kerry and supported him while he lived with cancer I watched it slowly strip away his ability to be active and live independently. Two years before he died he started having to use a wheelchair intermittently, then completely and due to the type of cancer he had, had been unable to be physically active for years. One thing I noticed that we started doing in conversations and in our thought processes was mentally breaking down his body into parts. Never before have I had a conversation with someone about their ribs, their left hip, their lungs or their brain but this deconstruction of anatomy in language was almost mimicking the destructive effects that the cancer was having on his body.
Towards the end of his life when he had to spend more time in bed at home or at hospital he also started to miss the simple pleasure of being outdoors – the feeling of wind or sun on his skin, listening to the sound of birds or the smells of different native flora. Taking him for short walks in his wheelchair was an inferior substitute.
One thing I had also noticed was that I had stopped being physically active too and a big part of this was guilt. It felt wrong to tell someone who had loved being active so much that I was off to the gym when he could no longer walk. It also felt wrong to leave him and take time for myself when I didn’t know how much time we had left together. As a result, by the time he passed I was very unfit and I had gained a lot of weight. When the haze of the funeral and the first few weeks after he died had passed, I was encouraged to start a couch to 5km running program with a friend and that was the start of something beautiful blossoming from grief.
My start in running
My start in running was not pretty nor glamorous and I remember it taking months before I thought I could see some tangible physical improvement. At the start it was more of a slow shuffle than it was a proper run and the first few attempts I didn’t know if my legs or lungs were going to hold up for the entire session. Mentally, I told myself all sorts of garbage like ‘I’m not a natural runner’, ‘I don’t have a runner’s build’ and ‘this might be damaging my joints’. All I did at the time was keep putting one foot in front of the other mechanically and gritted my teeth through it.
There were so many reasons why running was just what I needed to guide me so that I could experience my grief in a healthy way:
What I didn’t realise was this mechanical and repetitive exercise motion was extremely calming. It allowed me to clear my head of all of the overcrowding of processing that happens with grief and it gave me some time to create some breathing space (even if that breathing sounded like Darth Vader).
It gave me a routine again. For years I had cared for someone that had needed 24 hour a day care. They had an established routine for medication administration, food, massage, etc. When Kerry died that routine suddenly died with him and I had nothing to replace it with. Every day had slowly bled into the next, my sleep had been effected and I didn’t have much purpose at the time. Running provided me a new routine. I knew that I would be running 3-4 times per week. I knew that I needed to walk or cross train on the ‘off’ running days. This pattern was extremely helpful.
It gave me a reason to sort my diet out. If I ate like garbage, I ran like garbage and I wanted to improve.
It helped me sleep. One of the bigger issues I had moving through the initial stages of grief were the effects it had on my sleeping patterns. When I started my running routine I did so in the evening which depleted my energy reserves, allowing me to easily sleep and get good quality sleep.
It gave me alone time where I could listen to the music I wanted, cry if I wanted and just try to process everything that had happened over the last few years of my life in quiet contemplation.
It gave me the ability to practice mindfulness and to remember to live in the moment more in my everyday life. When I am running am I concerned about the speed I am going or whether I am performing better than my last run? Nope, I am looking at flowers, noticing animals and appreciating the wonderful company of any person that is running with me. I am appreciating the privilege that I have of being able to run (no matter what my perception of my performance is) and take that time to nourish my body with movement.
It allowed me to reconnect my mind and body and stopped that fragmented thinking about different physical parts of my body like they were separate entities, as we had done with Kerry’s body. I was once again a holistic whole.
Most important of all though was the connection that running gave me to Kerry’s spirit. I felt as though, because I always run outdoors I experience the elements that he loved and had missed so much when he was in hospital. I felt that, by running and pushing myself physically I was honouring his love of being active and strong. I also felt that, by going out each day and trying to be the best version of me that I could possibly be I was honouring his memory and showing the greatest sign of respect I could.
I also discovered that I could contribute to cancer charities by using running as a fundraising vessel which meant a lot to me. Suddenly, training for events like Relay for Life (benefiting the Cancer Council) or the HBF Run for a Reason was a big priority and made me feel like I was giving back to the community and other families who were going through the hell we had gone through.
Grieving? Find your flow
If you are actively grieving one thing you will know is there is no ‘getting over it’, you will however, learn to manage your emotions stemming from that loss with time. Part of what could be helpful when you are ready is finding something that gives you good ‘flow’, that is, something that makes you so wrapped up in the activity you lose track of time. For me this was running, for you this may be something entirely different. What we know from scientific research is that physical activity releases chemicals that can help us manage difficult emotions and pain, so getting out there and finding the physical activity you love could be extremely beneficial to how you process your grief.
I’ve learned that you may find that the thing that gave you flow before now seems completely unappealing to you; you may go back to this activity in time or you may find something completely different and both paths are equally valid.
What lessons have I learned?
I can say with confidence that what I learned through my journey with grief is that life is far too short to waste it cooped up indoors, being stuck in the past, being upset about things in your life that you have the power to change or by allowing the grief over the loved one you’ve lost to stop you living the life that you are meant to. I have learned that while grief can be all consuming it does not feel that way forever and it can be managed.
Most of all I have learned that grief is a universal experience and although we all experience it differently, speaking about your journey openly can give you opportunities to connect with others in a meaningful way. If you have a similar experience where you have used running or another physical activity to help you mange grief feel free to post your experience or things you’ve learned in the comments below.
Importantly, if anything in this blog post has triggered difficult emotions for you then there are free counselling services available:
Lifeline Australia – 13 11 14 or www.lifeline.org.au;
Mensline Australia – 1300 78 99 78 or www.mensline.org.au ;
Kids Help Line – 1800 55 1800 or www.kidshelp.com.au;
Black Dog Institute – mycompass.org.au; and
Beyond Blue - 1300 22 4636 or https://www.beyondblue.org.au/.
Take care of yourself everyone! - Nic