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Here’s the way I found support in my journey through grief

Updated:2024-05-30 10:46    Views:134

Running along the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon was one of the best places for author Emily Halnon to process her grief after the loss of her mother to cancer. Running along the Pacific Crest Trail in Oregon was one of the best places for author Emily Halnon to process her grief after the loss of her mother to cancer. Emily Halnon

Editor’s note: Runner and writer Emily Halnon’s new book, “To the Gorge: Running, Grief, and Resilience & 460 Miles on the Pacific Crest Trail,” was released on May 7. 

CNN  — 

When my mom died, I spent a lot of time trying to stuff away my grief. Like, cramming another pile of bills into the junk drawer, so no one could see the mess inside.

I went to a friend’s house for dinner a month after her funeral. I hovered on the outskirts of the evening. Snippets of conversation floated around me, but my brain was foggy with grief. I couldn’t quite grasp onto anything through the haze.

My gaze caught on a framed photo of my friend and her mom, snapped in front of a rose bush in Eugene, Oregon, their arms pulled tight around the other.

The memoir "To the Gorge" explores how doing a big run gave Halnon space to let her guard down as she grieved over her mother. The memoir "To the Gorge" explores how doing a big run gave Halnon space to let her guard down as she grieved over her mother. Pegasus Books

The picture reminded me of the last time my mom visited me in Oregon. She posted Facebook updates from all three of the airports between Vermont and Eugene. A photo of a book cracked open on her lap in Salt Lake City, a coffee cup next to her. “Three hours and 17 minutes until I see my girl.”

When I picked her up, she bounced through the terminal to get to me. We spent the weekend running along the Willamette River, visiting covered bridges in the foothills of the Cascades, finding the best pastries in a 50-mile radius. She raced a half-marathon. She was 64. I thought we had decades left together. A thousand more miles to run.

The memories unleashed a rush of grief. I walked to the bathroom at my friend’s house as fast as I could, trying to conceal why I needed an escape route. My throat tightened. My eyes grew glassy with tears.

I slid into the bathroom, sat on the lid of the toilet and shoved a handful of toilet paper into my eyes. An ache gnawed at my heart. I pictured my friend and her mom. I thought about all the years and visits and miles I had lost with my mom. I swallowed back a sob, aware of the thin door between me and a room full of laughing people.

It was a familiar move. One I pulled at work, at the climbing gym, in the line at the brewery on the north side of town. I tried to hide my grief, so others didn’t have to see it. I bit my lip and pinched my eyes when I felt a wave of tears coming on. I pretended I was OK when I was anything but. I learned to almost never provide an honest answer to the question, “How are you doing?”

My grief made people uneasy

My mom had been sick with a rare uterine cancer for 13 months before she died. I’d already been the Sad Girl for too long. I felt the ways it was uncomfortable for people to be too close to my hardest emotions. And the ways society wanted me to grieve in isolation and to accelerate my journey through loss.

I’d faced many uncomfortable silences and quick goodbyes when someone wanted their own escape route away from me. I’d had friendships fade over the last 14 months and watched coworkers avoid my cubicle when I got back from any trip to Vermont.

A relationship ended when my then-boyfriend didn’t want anything to do with my emotional reality.

“I just don’t think you’re being positive enough,” he said after my mom was diagnosed with an aggressive, late-stage cancer. I’d just learned my mother would probably die within a year. Positivity felt like it was on another planet.

Sad and worried woman sitting on the floor. Sad and worried woman sitting on the floor. Getty Images

When my mom died in January 2020, I felt moved to do something to celebrate her life and her bold and brave spirit. She’d run her first marathon at 50. She learned how to swim when she turned 60, so she could do her first triathlon. She jumped out of a plane that same year to celebrate her birthday. And she lived through her 13 months of cancer with extraordinary courage and joy.

My mother felt the weight of cancer, but she insisted on continuing to live in her wholehearted way. She walked the dirt roads around her house in Vermont nearly every day she was sick, even through the harsh side effects of chemotherapy. She’d text me and tell me about the friends who joined her and how blue the sky was over the rolling hills.

“It’s what keeps me going,” she said.

Running in my mother’s honor

I decided to run the 460-mile section of the Pacific Crest Trail that crosses Oregon —and to try and do it faster than any human before me. My mom was every reason I was a runner because I watched her run that first marathon and felt wildly inspired to do one myself. I got hooked on exploring my limits through running and kept going.

Doing a big run in her honor felt like an obvious path to take through the upheaval of her death. But when I started training for it, I wondered if it was a terrible idea to attempt such a huge run while trudging through the heaviest grief.

On one of my first days of training, I went through the motions to get ready. Every move was weighed down by grief. I laced my shoes like my fingers were dragging through molasses. I walked out the door like I was wading through mud, questioning my decision.

Closeup of a female hand writing on an blank notebook with a pen. Closeup of a female hand writing on an blank notebook with a pen. Anastasiya Bardaev/Adobe Stock

I headed to the wooded hills behind my house. When I stepped onto the soft dirt that weaves through the pine trees, I exhaled. My breath flowed through me like a river, finally escaping the logjam that’d kept it wound tight inside me.

The soft dirt cradled my footsteps as I ran. A breeze rustled pine needles and wrapped around me. I remembered bringing my mom to this trail and felt a hot tear roll down my cheek and fall to the earth below. The fierce longing for her was lockstep with me on the trail.

As I ran, I thought about that first marathon I did with my mom.

I had gone out way too fast and hit a wall of fatigue about halfway through the race, where I felt like I couldn’t keep going. As I struggled, I saw my mom bounce past around mile 14 — and I was amazed that her stride was strong and confident.

I called to her, “Mommmmm!” like I was 5 years old again and wailing for my mother. But the race was too crowded for her to hear me.

I cried again, “Mommmm!”

I made no attempt to hide how I was feeling in that moment. Very few people do, while running a marathon, or any long distance on the roads or trails. If you stand on the sides of a marathon course, you’ll see the rawest human emotions on display.

It’s one of the things I love most about running.

No hiding your grief when running

Like, in a 100-mile race, you’re pretty much guaranteed to hit a low. Almost no one makes it to the finish line without getting slapped with something rough: debilitating self-doubt, obliterated muscles, a sour stomach, crushing overwhelm.

And when that happens, we don’t run to the bathroom to hide our feelings behind a closed door. We confront those lows in front of our fellow runners, our friends, the volunteers, the spectators.

When I bonked at mile 40 of my first 100-mile run, I told members of my crew, “I’m having a hard time right now,” and they didn’t flinch in the face of my struggle. They helped me into a camp chair, brought me slices of quesadilla and stayed by my side. They held space for me to work through my low.

When we stand on the start line of a marathon or a 100-mile race, we embrace the vulnerability that goes with the distance. We know it might get hard. We know we might turn into a running billboard, advertising our toughest moments. And we run straight into that reality. We promise the humans standing alongside us that we’ll bear witness to what they endure and not turn away from them.

holiday grief STOCK RESTRICTED Paolo Cordoni/iStockphoto/Getty Images

There are so few spaces that invite that kind of emotional honesty — and create space for it.

Pressure not to feel grief

I got five days of bereavement at work. In this culture, there’s an expiration date on our time as the Sad Girl, in the company of anyone but our closest friends and family. There’s pressure to travel quickly from the center of Griefville to the streets of perfectly OK. Even though I am not.

On the trail, I am free to feel my feelings. When I step into the woods, I’m like a snake shedding my skin, leaving a more tender part of me exposed. I can let my guard down and allow my rawest emotions to bubble to the surface.

I was worried the Pacific Crest Trail run would be too much. But as I kept training, I discovered that running was one of the best places to process my grief. I could move through my sorrow, instead of swallowing it back and trapping it inside me. Running gave me something I desperately needed after losing my mom. Something that’s way harder to find than it should be.

Running gave me a place where I didn’t have to stuff anything away, where I could let my love for my mother and my grief over losing her far too soon unfold with the miles and take up as much space as the ground beneath my feet and the wide, open sky above.

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