Dealing with Grief – How Running Helped Me Heal
It may not be unusual to end a run in tears. But to start one all choked up? Maybe less so.
Monday, August 21st, 2017. Distance: 2.1 kilometers. Time: 20 minutes 13 seconds.
After a sprained ankle had left me on crutches in June, it was on this Monday morning I had decided to lace up after work for the first time since the injury. Cautiously excited to see how my ankle would hold up, I get a call from mom.
“It’s your father,” she says. “He’s got cancer.”
Within seconds, that one phone call upended my whole life. But my decision held With every step I felt a sharp sting. Partly my ankle, mostly the distress, even anger. Having just seen dad a month earlier, he was enviably fit for his age (84), walking up six flights of stairs every day.
I took the first possible flights home to Finland from Germany where I was living at the time. Upon arrival, I hugged him, feeling just the bones in his back. His movements were slow and wobbly due to the swelling at his feet. He couldn’t finish one sentence without gasping for air.
“See you in October,” I said as I left two days later. He smiled at the prospect of our next encounter. Three weeks later, on September 15th, 2017, he passed away.
Dear diary, today I took a step forward
30th August. Distance: 2.6km. Time: 23:41. First run since seeing dad, back on my usual route by the Pegnitz river in Nuremberg. A minor improvement since August 21st. This is how I’ll go onward: one step at a time.
5th September. Distance: 2.9km. Time: 23:51. With each step, my ankle reminds me to take it painfully slow. This will be a long process.
6th September. Dad was set to start chemo, but the doctor said it’d be redundant, confirming the cancer is terminal. He would get radiation therapy for the pain – and a bed at the hospice. I didn’t run today.
7th September. Distance: 3.4km. Time: 27:28. I set a goalpost in the distance, a tree maybe, and make my way towards it. Then I set the next one. I do the same thing at work, ticking one to-do at a time, feeling useful.
8th September. I’m learning self-compassion and giving my body what it needs. Today it’s Magnum Double Coconut ice cream and yoga with Adriene. Her virtual presence is soothing, reminding me to find what feels good in the moment.
11th September. Dad is getting worse. I take my discomfort and pain to the yoga mat again. I book flights to Finland for September 15th.
12th September. Distance: 4.5km. Time: 35:58. I run the same route every time. Familiarity brings me comfort. Predictability gives me hope.
14th September. Dad was taken to the hospital in an ambulance. He’s been home this entire time. I do yoga and meditate, reminding myself that I’m resilient. Just like he has been. I’m flying to Finland tomorrow.
15th September. Dad passed away today, peacefully and without pain. My flight is in the afternoon, a few hours too late. I leave work and the sun comes out for the first time in days. My boss calls me when I’m packing. My colleague calls when I’m at the airport. My dear friend reaches me during my layover in Amsterdam. I’m sad, but so fortunate to know people who care.
17th September. Distance: 4.3km. Time 36:18. Running in my home town back in Finland, I pass the house where our family used to live in the 80s. The autumn air is brisk, clean. I take a deep breath, first one on this new path of dealing with grief.
19th September. Distance: 5.4km. Time: 42:50. Mom and I started planning the funeral. My run takes me past a row of pastel-colored houses with the scent of burning wood in the air. I run through a forest, stopping at a lake which I frequented growing up. All is silent.
25th September. Distance: 3.7km. Time 28:05. My trainers are nearing the end of their lifecycle, the only pair I’ve worn since learning to enjoy running two years earlier. The prospect of another loss makes me sad. I realize how ridiculous it is.
30th September. Dad was buried today. The leaves are falling, lining the streets with vivid shades of orange and yellow, reminding me how beautiful it can be to let things go. “See you in October.”
When grief hits, find your flow and hold on to habits
Our bodies hold on to all the stress and trauma we experience, and movement is key to healing. Not running away from discomfort, but moving forward with it.
Loss leaves you fuzzy. I diligently penned down my feelings as they emerged, without judgment, helping me accept their complexity.
Two books that brought comfort: When Breath Becomes Air by Paul Kalanithi and Option B by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant.
This is where I struggle(d) the most. But I also learned a valuable lesson on being there for my friends during their hardships. My closest friends actively reached out, offering their support. My husband was with me every step of the way. Colleagues shared condolences, my team gave me time.
5. Practicing gratitude
For years, nearly every evening I’ve been writing down three things that went well that day. One day in September 2017 the list looked like this: 1) Am alive. 2) Ate a nice pastry. 3) Can sleep in my own bed tonight. All positive things to appreciate.
Though everyone’s grief is unique, it never happens in a vacuum. It happens alongside other pursuits, your professional life, and gets mixed with other emotions.
And you never know how and when. But one thing is for sure: You absolutely will be able to move forward.
Having exhausted all avenues to seek a form of resolution, I had to face the uncomfortable reality that my life was about to change forever. Had it just been me, it would have been slightly "easier" to deal with, but with two young children, the grief was almost too much to comprehend.
I had always used running as an outlet, yet in the past if my mind was consumed with an issue or challenge, I found it almost impossible to even take a step forward. This changed completely as I sought running as a sense of "achievement" or progress moving forward from where I found myself. My mind and emotions were exhausted every day, yet my physical self was sitting idle. I reached a point where running and by running I mean endless kilometers where endured in order to "catch-up" with the fatigue that had captured my emotional state of being. No distance was enough, multiple runs in a day were not too much to consider and so running gave me the sense of belief in regaining my former self and indeed my sense of being...
Of course in difficult times, our closest family and friends become the rock that supports our efforts to stand up straight again and be counted...
Just like any run, some are simply bliss, while others (often in the company of no one) are a personal struggle and mental challenge that toughens our inner belief that we are able to achieve far more than we realise...
Life and its circumstances may change, just like when we set off for a run, we simply need to acknowledge this and adapt to the road that lies ahead...
Thanks for a great article