Wednesday, May 12, 2010

On Running and Grief

Yesterday I went for a run at Lady Bird Lake, or, as it is known to native Austonians, Townlake. I spent the morning creating my blog, then got ready for my run. By that point it was 11:30 or so. I planned to run 4-5 miles; this shouldn't have been too hard given that I was up to 6-7 mile runs before I moved. I didn't anticipate how much the heat and sun would affect me, though, and I was only able to run 4 miles, and had to walk a few times at that. That did, however, give me chance to stop and read a big display about the famous bats that live under the Congress Ave. bridge for the greater part of the year. I ran under the bridge and could hear -- and smell! -- the bats. Only after that did I stop to read the display, which informed me that there are approximately 750,000 bats that dwell under the bridge! But I digress....for some reason (perhaps sun-induced deliriousness), I had a lot of thoughts run through my mind while running and wanted to share some of them.

There is a saying common among law students that advises, "Law school is a marathon, not a sprint." So true, and so it goes with grieving. Just like a marathon, you can't expect to make it through without some planning and some "training." For my grief work, I have to anticipate days that will be hard -- anniversaries, holidays, football season, etc. -- and plan for how I am going to spend my time and handle the emotions that will come up. So far, friends and family have been great about this. I spent the one month anniversary of Brian's death by having lunch with Jeremy, Brian's brother. We were both able to talk about where we were and to cry together. That evening I went to a comedy club with Erin and Chad (yes, Austin Erin) to keep my mind off things. I spent Valentine's Day weekend with my parents and in-laws in Muscatine, and I visited Greenwood Cemetary. I know the next thing to plan for is Memorial Day, so I will be thinking about that.

Just like training runs, talking through things and expressing feelings is an essential part of grieving (at least for me anyway, and the conventional wisdom is that this is better than keeping things bottled up). Just like training runs, I sometimes dread this because it is hard, I don't have the time, or I'd rather be doing something more fun. This is how I felt about my sessions with the grief counselor, visits to the cemetary, and designing a headstone. In some ways, I feel that way about this blog. But, just like training runs, I have to put in the time and work to see any results. And, just like after a hard training run, it starts out hard but in the end, I feel proud to have completed the task and liberated -- that it is not hanging over me, that I did something daunting. I usually even feel good at the end. The funny thing about facing my emotions, talking about difficult things, screaming until my throat is hoarse, or crying until I can't breathe is this -- afterwards, I usually feel much better. Maybe not right away -- the aches and pains have to subside -- but it is good for my soul. My grief counselor said every tear is therapy and gets me further down the road of grief.

Of course, there are times I just don't think I can bear it. It gets overwhelming, even terrifying. I must admit, there have been many times where I have just wandered around the house, sobbing and crying out, "What am I going to do?!" I'm not proud of this, but it's happened a number of times. And I keep telling myself something I read early on in one of my grief books -- "Just get through today." Only, I sometimes have to modify it, "Just make it through this minute." Again, this compares to running in an eerie way. There are times during a long run -- and this is especially true in the last 5 or so miles of a marathon -- where I pick a target in the distance and think, "I just have to run to that tree/stop sign/lightpost/water station." Then, when I get there -- which I always do! -- I choose the next goal. It is too overwhelming and discouraging to think of running 5 more miles after you hit the wall, but I've been able to do just that by breaking it into short-term goals. I don't know where I am on the grief marathon, but that doesn't matter -- I can't think of the finish line. That's too far ahead. I just have to focus on one day, one week, or one event at a time. On hard days, I go by the minute or hour. And so far, I've made it through every time. As an aside, this coping strategy was really reinforced when my dear friend Joy took me to see a lecture from Alison Levene, a woman who has trekked to both the north and south poles, and who is currently attempting to scale Everest (her first attempt had to be called short just a few hundred yards from the summit due to an incoming storm). One of the things she spoke about is how difficult it is to advance in the extremely thin air and that she would also choose landmarks very near to her team to keep her going. That night, listening to her speak, the connection between her journeys, my grieving, and running all came into light and I was truly moved and inspired. (BTW, you can follow Alison's current Everest expedition on her blog:

Getting back to my sun-induced occured to me that one other corollary between running and grieving is that everyone can -- no, should -- go at his or her own pace and it really doesn't matter what that pace is, or even if it changes, as long as one keeps moving forward. It occured to me after the third time I had to walk yesterday that my body was ready for the conditions -- I wasn't ready for the heat (admittedly, part of that was my fault for not being properly hydrated). I had to listen to my body on that run, just like a grieving person must listen to her soul. Just as my body wasn't ready to run 4 miles in the Austin sun, there are certain things I am not ready to face yet. I was not ready to go through Brian's things, so in preparation for my housesitter moving in, I simply boxed them up to do that later. I am not ready to go back to "normal" life, and it is important that I listened to that. I know there are more phases of grief ahead, and that at times I am staying busy doing fun things to avoid facing those. And I think that is okay. I can slow down, even take a short break, from grieving, as long as I stay on the path. Everyone has to do this at her own pace.

The other thing that hit me is how much the environment and one's surrounds affect the pace and the run. I hope that Austin, though it might be bad for my running, will be good for my progress on the path of healing.


  1. this is a great post Wendy! just one moment at a time....i need to tell myself that when i think things are tough! :) So glad you are enjoying your time

  2. What a perfect comparison & good way to approach it! I'm gonna keep this in mind [knock on wood], come my next long obstacle in life. And, wow, I have a lot of admiration for grief counselors - it takes a special person to be able to do that. I'm GLAD you seeked third-party help! To each their own in the grieving process & I think you're doing great listening to your body, heart & mind...keep it up! :)