“What we once enjoyed and deeply loved we can never lose, for all that we love deeply become a part of us.” Helen Keller
2018 was a challenging year. I lost my father the fall of 2017; in 2018 I had to find a better way to work through the mourning process. This was particularly important because I had been a primary caretaker to my father. I dealt with closing out his bank accounts, cleaning out his apartment along with my sister and brother, and all the administrative issues that go along with someone passing. I tended to focus on getting all the legal, practical issues taken care of while neglecting my personal health and wellbeing.
Many of us have lost parents. It impacts each of us in different way and mourning is a unique, individual journey. But we all mourn when someone close to us dies, whether or not we recognize it. Mourning can seem out of step with our regular daily routine, and a new way of living. I had set aside very little time to mourn until my body finally pushed back.
In January 2018, while at a conference in Florida, I ended up stuck in a hotel room with a bad case of the flu. I was thousands of miles away from home. Thanks to a dear friend and colleague, who stepped in to speak for me, and the support I got from my friends attending the conference, I was taken care of and eventually got myself home. However, I realized I wasn’t paying much attention to how my body and mind needed space to acknowledge that I would never again speak with my father.
I had to acknowledge there were times I had been shutting down, crying on our backroom sofa, not really being present in conversations. Lying in a hotel bed and having time to think, I realized I needed to take a different path, find a way to work through the emotions I was pushing aside and acknowledge I needed to mourn. That path became a walking practice. I decided to commit to walking an average of 5 miles a day through the end of 2018.
At first, the walking was a way to work through the saddest days. If I found myself going into a darker place, I would get up and walk. It didn’t have to be a lot. Maybe 500 steps at a time, 1,000 steps at another time until it added up to my 5 miles. Sometimes it was more that 5 miles, others days it was less. But I walked. I would walk around my house when the weather too bad. Sometimes it was just about walking around our driveway and being mindful of each step. And sometimes it was walking down to the lake in our neighborhood to see the sky reflected in the water or listen to wind in the trees, to remind myself that even in the winter months, there is a beauty and comfort in opening up to what nature has to teach us.
As spring arrived, my walking time started to become a practice by intentionally remembering happy memories with my father: him teaching me how to swim through the ocean waves on hot summer day; the time we jumped in the car to hunt down the end of a beautiful rainbow and ended in us getting ice-cream; waking up from surgery and seeing him sitting beside me in a chair; going to concerts and museums together in Philadelphia. There are many good memories. I used the act of walking as a way to remember and hold close what was best about our relationship.
Later in 2018, it was easier to acknowledge some of the challenges we had over the years in a different light. I had the benefit of having worked through a lot of these issues in my 30s, so this was not as painful as it could have been. However, it was important to remember all of our relationship, the good and the challenging, without being judgmental. The act of walking through and with these memories gave me new prospective.
There are still and will always be times of sadness about never discussing science or great music with my father, sharing what’s going on with my work, but I no longer mourn. As I continue my commitment to walking, I make sure I spend a few minutes of each walk remembering a good memory and am grateful for all that my relationship with my father has given me. In the little sliver of time we were together on this earth, we got to love each other and enjoy together so many wonderful gifts of shared time, thoughts, and dreams. Not a perfect relationship, but human relationship that has shaped who I am.
Walking 5 miles was my therapy, memory jogger, mental and physical health protector, and my personal way of giving myself dedicated time to mourn and heal. This may not work for everyone. But I encourage you to explore your own path if you are mourning a loss.
And always remember, you are not alone. You can reach out to family, friends, and professionals, if needed. It is human to mourn, not a weakness. It can be difficult, at times, sometimes harder than expected. What’s important is that your mourning journey be meaningful to you and where you are physically, mentally and spiritually in the face of losing someone close to you. Going through the process of mourning is a part of your well-being. Knowing there are people to walk with you, when needed, through that journey, can help get you over the barriers and move you to a place of healing and understanding, even when that first step feels like walking forward through the darkness.