Walking with Grief

Hi Again, it has been a while since I have written a blog post. I have missed you all.

I am now ready to begin to tell my story. The story about how I survived. People asked me when I was in acute grief-how are you doing this? And honestly I couldn’t tell you then, I must have had a look like a deer in the headlights as these words tumbled out of my mouth, “I don’t know, I am just doing what I have to do.” But now after 5 years and almost 5 months, (yes I track the time-that distinctly post loss time-it’s a thing we do and can’t help do, life changed forever and the timeline of my life became: pre-accident/post accident). So now after these 5 years and 5 months, I can begin to tell you how I survived. And in doing so, I hope it may help you with whatever loss you are carrying.

One of the things I did was walk. And not just any walk and not in the beginning either.

I went on a very long walk.

I walked part of the El Camino in France and Spain. What is the Camino? The Camino is a sacred pilgrimage route that has been walked for 1000’s of years. It is an ancient path that follows the milky way. It is magical, amazing and very challenging in all ways-physically, mentally, emotionally and spiritually.

Walking part of the El Camino was one of the best things I have ever done for one of the worst things that ever happened to me.

That worst thing is what I often refer to as the “trauma drama.” In August of 2012 my partner Michael fell off his mountain bike on a beautiful late summer day and crashed into solid rock. He broke his neck and severed his spinal cord resulting in quadriplegia; he was paralyzed from the chest down. At that moment my life began to turn upside down and life as we knew it was changed forever.

Take a deep breath here if you like…I will too.

Breathing is another thing that helped me in my early days of grief.

Breathe in for 3 seconds…

Pause for one second…

Breathe out for 3 seconds…

Hold your breath at the bottom of that exhale. Repeat as needed, whenever you need to.

Reminders to breathe intentionally are so needed in grief.

Back to my blog: I had never heard of the El Camino until a friend of mine, Naomi Ehrich, was offering a trip called Walking Prayer: Magic, Miracles, and Mystery on the Camino.

I was immediately called to walking and making this trip a reality.

This was back in 2015 at a time when my funds were low because I had been dealing with my partner hanging onto his life in the hospital while also trying to run my private practice as a therapist.

So I started a Plumfund to walk with my grief and to also walk for my partner who could no longer walk. As soon as I posted the fundraising page money started pouring in. My community wanted to support me in doing this pilgrimage. And I remember my tears of gratitude flowing as I started to see the money and the messages of support coming in to make this trip a reality.

Walking the El Camino is no easy feat.

And speaking of feet, it is not easy on your feet at all. To do the entire thing would take about a month. That is, if you start where many people start-just outside the border of Spain in a small town in France called St Jean Pied a Port. Starting here is like being dropped into medical trauma or intense loss, for this is the day that you walk up a mountain for about 7 hours! I cannot imagine starting there, and yet many people do.

Starting up a mountain…sudden loss is like that. You must suddenly start climbing up the mountain with no map, hardly a trail and only a few provisions. At least on the Camino there was a path and there were beautiful and welcoming yellows arrows as if to say-“this way my friend.” In grief we are not so lucky to have such road signs.

Sudden acute loss is often described like being dropped into the middle of the wilderness without a map, or a trail and possibly only a few supplies. You simply must learn to survive on your own. The world in which you knew and understood suddenly makes no sense at all. This metaphor of being dropped into the wilderness, I think I first heard that from author Megan Devine, but I cannot find her quote now. Another phenomenon that happened for me post-accident is that I read anything I could get my hands on about grief and how to understand it. I have become what I like to call the grief freak, but in a good way. 

So, I chose to go on this trip that was co-led by a friend of mine. We started walking in France so that we could walk a few days before the steep mountain incline of up and up and up. We walked only 110 miles…only, 110 miles. We walked for about 10 days with a lovely day off in the city of Pamplona where we could wander on our own and get bodywork if we wanted. We were pampered in Pamplona, it was divine.

This trip was just what I needed. And what I needed was this…the entire day devoted to walking with intention, to be alone with my thoughts. For me, I was walking with my grief. I was telling my story with every footstep to the earth below that was supporting me. The Camino is full of magic, and mystery and a history of many people walking for many different reasons. The people I met along the way were walking mostly for some huge transition in their life. One man was walking to figure out what was next after having a debilitating stroke, another man was walking with a post-relationship break up.

They were walking to make some kind of sense of what life had given them.

For me one of my mantras over the years that has helped me a lot were these 3 simple words: love what is. So simple, but so hard. For how do you love unexpected disability-how do I love quadriplegia?

So I walked with this question.

I walked and made up for all the lack of walks that so many people encouraged me to take in those early days of life upside down. They say to walk 30 minutes a day when you are grieving.

If you are grieving a big loss, walking is both necessary and impossible.

It is necessary because walking is so good for your physical body. It is impossible because your physical body will most likely feel like it is full of rocks making it very challenging to move period. In my case since I was both working and dealing with my partner being in the ICU for 45 days; I simply had no time to devote to walking 30 minutes a day.

If you are in early grief, (and I learned from Megan Devine in her book It’s Okay That You’re Not Okay, that “early” is anywhere from the the first few days to the first 2-3 years), I give you permission to walk if you can and if you can’t that is just fine.

Grief has no timeline and it is different for every person. And if you are new to this wilderness of grief just getting up and doing your day is no small feat. Walk if you can and if you can’t, that is totally okay. Walk as much or as little as you can, heck, walking to your mailbox is a great start, or walking around your block, or even up the stairs, or back and forth in your living room.

Remember my blog post about how to have a grief retreat in the middle of a posh resort? Well, the first day I arrived, I decided to go for a short walk before grabbing a bus or taxi to the big grocery store to get food for my little kitchenette. I grabbed my jacket and my wallet and started walking along the beautiful Mazatlan beach. As I started walking, connecting into the rhythm of my feet and my breath, taking in the setting sun, I was lost in my thoughts about making sense of my reality now that life was upside down. I walked for a very long time, until my logical brain spoke up to me and said- “Girl, this isn’t safe anymore-you are a single woman walking alone and the sun has set and it is about to get dark!” So I decided to find out where I was. I found an approachable older man and asked him. It turns out that my small walk had turned into a long one and I had nearly walked my way to the grocery store! I was surprised I had walked this far and looking back it was only 2 and 1/2 miles. After walking part of the Camino, 2 and a half miles is hardly a long walk!

But what had happened that afternoon, was that I simply wanted to keep walking and walking and walking. It was helping me process life upside down. And the physical act of walking made me feel better, more peaceful, and more able to approach my current reality.

I am reminded of one of my favorite healing modalities: EMDR or Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing. It is both something I have done to heal my own trauma and I am also trained in this modality and use it with my clients. EMDR was created by Francine Shapiro who went for a walk in the park one day and she noticed her eyes going back and forth, from the right to the left, along the path. She noticed that these eye movements helped to decrease her negative emotions associated with traumatic memories that she had been thinking about while walking. She began to do research on this bilateral eye movement and today this modality uses more than eye movements. (I will say more in a future blog about EMDR). I believe one of the reasons walking is so healing is that it is the bilateral movement or the right and left motion of the feet and legs. Walking is rhythmic, meditative and healing movement. 

So it is no surprise that the El Camino found me years later. I heard the call to go, I knew based on what happened to me on that beach in Mexico, that walking all day was just what I needed.

Grief needs to move. Grief needs to move both internally and externally. Grief needs movement in order for it to be easier. Grief never ends and in my opinion there is no closure. But you can feel lighter and it can begin to feel a bit easier. Step by step the path lightened my load. This reminds me that I also intentionally placed stones that I gathered from the accident site in Lyons, Colorado, and I placed them along the Camino to let it hold the heaviness so that I wouldn’t have to hold it all. I literally was lighter after my Camino walk!

When you live with intense loss you grieve everyday in either small or big ways. And the key for me is to keep the grief process moving.

The walking pilgrimage gave me time for my grief and time for myself to think about the accident and all the changes in our life.

It gave me time to just show up and have that one simple task-walk. Walk with intention, walk in silence and just be with my grief. The trip also gave me the opportunity to tell my story and have it be held and heard by the group. This wasn’t just a simple walk the Camino trek, rather, this trip was held by someone who knows from her own personal experience that walking the Camino can be an amazing transformative experience. Rachael Sanborn has walked the Camino many times and she devotes herself and her business, Red Monkey Dance, to leading small transformative groups on the El Camino. In her trips Rachael combines her love of the Camino, her knowledge of French and Spanish culture, and her 20 years of experience of hiking and pilgrimage as a spiritual practice.

As the group leader Rachael is skilled at taking care of all the minutia so that we can simply drop into our internal process more.  So she knew the best places to stay, the best places to eat and even the best shoe shops. You know, all the essentials-food, sleep and shoes! I was held by her knowledge and I never had to worry about trip details. All I had to do was show up and walk. All I had to do was move my body forward and pay attention to my inner world.

When you are in an intentional grief retreat you need to have someone tending to you. Martin Prechtel who writes about grief in his book called The Smell of Rain on Dust states: “…take someone with you whom you trust to watch over you, someone who will not try to ‘cure’ you, for grief is not an illness, not something to ‘get out of your system.’ Bring someone who simply and solidly will assist you in only the most tangible ways: sleeping, eating, resting, staying warm, or cool as the case dictates.”  When you are in grief you may need to be reminded to drink water, eat, and even sleep. Your job as a griever is to tend to the inner emotions that come like waves; constant, relentless, repetitive, and sometimes the waves are stronger than others. While walking you learn to ride these inner waves.

So, I felt transformed by walking the El Camino. I felt better able to engage with my life and all that it entails-balancing my caregiving role with that of my business of helping others grieve well. I fell in love with my life again, even my life upside down.

I also fell in love with the Camino-the culture of the people that hosted us, the people of the Basque country, the food, the languages and culture. I fell in love with the beauty of the landscape-the Pyranees, and the amazing trees and rocks along the way.

I fell in love with the Camino in such a way that I knew I would be back someday. In October of 2017 Rachael and I paired up to offer a Walking Prayer For Those Living With Loss. I was thrilled to be walking and guiding participants along the Camino in the same way that I was held when I first walked in honor of my grief. The trip went so well we have decided to offer it again in late October – November  of 2018.  (Official dates coming very soon!) If you feel called to take this trip with us please go to Rachael’s website for more information. www.redmonkeydance.com 

Rachael and I are in preparation mode now for holding a transformative group for those living with loss. Rachael covers a lot of details on her website such as, how many miles do you walk during the day, am I fit enough to do this, what to bring, etc. So please go there for the answers to those questions.

In terms of your grief process and what to expect from the group trip, we have a few considerations. Because this is a small group, from 8-10 people, which includes Rachael and myself, the group is intimate and you will be sharing parts of your process with each other. We ask that you have the capacity and maturity to be able to be a part of an intimate group process. While we ask that you train and be physically capable to walk for 10 miles a day, we also ask that you be prepared emotionally and mentally for the possible rigorous personal and interpersonal dynamics that may arise in the group. There is a balance on the trip between your personal process, letting the Camino itself guide you and letting yourself be open and guided by the group process. If you have further questions, I would be happy to have a conversation about whether or not this grief pilgrimage is right for you.

By now I hope you feel inspired in some way to be with your heavy load of grief. We cannot carry this alone. So I hope you have a few ideas about what you need to do in order to keep your grief moving.

Remember to breathe a lot.

Remember that I gave you permission to walk and if you can’t because you feel the heaviness of grief on you, that it is fine too. Just feel that heaviness and see if that begins to create an inner shift in your perception. Remember grief needs to keep moving both internally and externally.

May you feel inspired to simply get up now and walk across the room you are sitting in or may you begin to set some time aside to do a longer intentional walk. Whatever walk you decide to do, give yourself your undivided attention, slow down and feel your feet connecting with the ground below you, breathe in and out and remind yourself that walking in this new wilderness of grief is possible by simply placing one foot in front of the other. And if you need a guide in the wilderness, I am here to help you and I would be honored to walk with you.

Blessings to you along this journey, this daunting journey of living life upside down.

Leave a Comment