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Lessons in Grief from a Hiker

Few of us will have remained untouched by loss by our midlife years. For this blog post on grief, I turned to my friend, Forest Therapy Guide, Jill Emmelhainz. Jill and her family suffered the unimaginable loss of their teenage son, James. Since then, Jill has written candidly about grief both as a form of therapy for herself, and to help others walking the same trail.

This 5 point guide to dealing with turbulent times is taken from Jill's blog, The Big Epic, where she documents her adventures on the hiking trails of North America and writes about the healing power of nature. 

Are you a roller coaster lover? Or are you like me—terrified of those torture devices? It doesn’t matter which kind of roller coaster it is, from kiddie ride to mega-coaster, I hate them all the same!

Along the Appalachian Trail in Northern Virginia, there is a 13.5 mile section called the Roller Coaster. This series of a dozen short steep hills comes with a “warning” sign at each end. We reached this area a few weeks into our first backpacking trip on the AT. It was intimidating, but we survived.

In the past few weeks, I have been on a different type of Roller Coaster. There has been an unending path of steep emotional ups and downs: bittersweet memories while sorting family photos, my parents first anniversary after my dad died last year, approaching the 10th anniversary of our son’s death (how in the world has it been that long?!), the upcoming first anniversary of my dad’s death, my dad’s birthday, my birthday that I share with my son…plus family gatherings, a daughter graduating from Pharmacy school, a son graduating with a bachelor’s degree, both kids and their spouses moving to new locations, a cross-country road trip and more. So many mixed up emotions hitting me all at once!

I know I’m not the only one walking a challenging path right now. Daughter and I conquered the AT Roller Coaster. Here are some lessons we learned that can help me (and you?!) more easily navigate other times of turmoil in our lives…

RECOGNIZE WHAT IS HAPPENING: It is much easier to handle difficult times when we anticipate the struggles. We can give ourselves grace, not expecting too much of ourselves in the midst of steep ups and downs. At the same time, we can make preparations to (somewhat) ease the challenges of grief and stress.

The warning signs in the guidebooks and on the AT itself were daunting. But these warnings helped set our expectations. In reality, it wasn’t as bad as we feared.

LIGHTEN the LOAD: When chaos hits, it’s time to take a look at what we are carrying and lighten the load wherever possible. Eliminating unnecessary things allows us to have more energy to deal with the burden(s) we can’t avoid carrying. Which things can be rearranged in our schedules? Which chores and responsibilities can be left for later or delegated to others? This is a never-ending quest in backpacking—determining actual *NEEDS* versus heavy *shoulds* or little luxuries that quickly add up to draining burdens.

SET YOUR OWN PACE: Don’t compare yourself to others walking a similar path. Don’t let others dictate what (they think) you should do. Some folks best deal with challenges by keeping busy, not wallowing in messy emotions. Others need to step back and plan for times to rest, allowing themselves space to ponder what is happening. In the case of the AT Roller Coaster, we chose to stop in the middle at a pretty campsite and get good rest to finish the ups and downs the next day.

LOOK AT THE BIG PICTURE: In the middle of the Roller Coaster it sometimes feels like things are out of our control and the upheaval will never end. It helps to step back and realize this turbulence is temporary…it will not last forever. And even in the chaos, we can find moments of beauty and rest. It was helpful when we were weary of endless ups and downs to stop at an overlook for a few minutes. Rest, a beautiful view, and some nutritious snacks gave us energy to continue down the trail. 

LET OTHERS HELP: When we feel overwhelmed, there are often people around us who want to encourage us. We have to be willing to talk with them and accept their offers of assistance. Stubborn independence makes our own burdens heavier and prevents others from experiencing the joy of helping someone else. Often little things become huge encouragements! A simple granola bar offered by a one day hiker, a brief conversation with some young kids walking with their dad, and the juicy sweetness of fresh fruit handed to us gave us energy to keep going until we finished the Roller Coaster. (Thanks, Trail Angels!)

I still hate roller coasters, but looking back at our successful hike through the Roller Coaster on the Appalachian Trail reminds me that I can also successfully navigate the turbulent ups and downs of grief and stress I’m experiencing right now. I’m off to listen to some soothing music while re-reading a favorite book. I can face these challenges again tomorrow…

(You can read more about my “adventures” with grief HERE and HERE.)

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