Mental health experts and grief counselors have long advised that grief is an emotional phenomenon with several stages. The classic and operative model is one proposed by Elizabeth Kubler-Ross that states there are 5 stages of grief.
Denial: Helps us survive the loss.
Anger: Really feeling and fighting against the loss.
Bargaining: Trying to regain in some way (or somehow) what you’ve lost.
Depression: Withdrawal or great loss settling in your soul.
Acceptance: Ability to move on in life.
Grief is both real and imagined.
We tend to think of grief in terms of losing a loved one. Yet people can grieve over many circumstances, both real and imagined. That is not a cynical statement. Real grief and imagined grief are one and the same, but with different processes of recovery necessary to return to wholeness.
We may be experiencing a real loss in our lives, such as death of a parent, a child or a friend, and yet grief plays (or even relies) on the imagination of an individual to perceive what has happened in our lives. Our imaginations are necessary tools to help us process our losses.
Running and riding is known, for example, to help many people combat the effects of depression, which may be one of the most difficult stages of grief for many people to handle. Depression manifests itself in many different ways. It is also unique for every person, yet there are patterns or categories upon which we depend to help us understand the mental and physical states we categorize as depression.
For example, depression can create both physical and emotional lethargy. It can cause us to overeat in compensation, taking in comfort food and resulting in weight gains that depress us even further.
So you can see why the complexity of grief is so crucial to understand. And why having a coping strategy can be critical to emerging from grief with a healthy respect for the loss you’ve experienced, or are experiencing.
Notice that mention of the word “respect.” The most important thing you can do while going through grief is to remember to respect yourself and others. That can be enormously hard to do. Many people experience guilt over the loss of a loved one, especially in tragic circumstances, such as when illness or disease causes death. It is easy to place the blame on ourselves for losses in our lives. But that doesn’t really change the circumstance, or what we have to face. Nor does it genuinely help us understand what is happening in our lives.
Blaming God or other forces
Some people get so angry they even blame God for the loss in their lives. That crisis in faith can be a grieving process all its own. When you feel as if the very pillar of your belief system has let you down, you feel all alone. Abandoned. Lost. Devastated.
Interestingly the Bible is full of stories about people going through these very same emotions. The pinnacle is the story of Jesus Christ in the Garden of Gethsemane, praying so hard that blood literally oozes from his pores. Now that’s feeling it. Even if you are not a Christian, most people can relate to the idea of fear in the face of death. It is a natural human response. You can grieve your own life before it is taken. You can grieve the life you’ve left behind, or the things you did not do, or say, or believe. Grieve sits waiting for our response to all these emotions. It can be overwhelming.
Imagining the worst, or the best
The imagination can be a terrifying foe or a blessed friend. We feel sometimes that stress and loss are bleeding us dry, emotionally at least. But imagination can also come to the rescue, lifting our spirits and our minds to places where grief does not so easily rule our sensibilities. So how do we get to that better imagination, rather than allowing the worst of our thoughts to own us?
That is where the grief meets an interesting juncture with activities that help us mentally process events in our lives. When grieving, it is most important to get up and take some control in your life. That is when it can be a lifesaver to get out and run or ride.
If you cannot initially bear to run or ride through your grief, then get out and walk for starters. Just move. Once you’ve done that, you might pull down your bike or manage to jog a few blocks. You might be crying as you go, but you must go. That is the path to healthy grieving. If you live in a wheelchair, then wheel yourself around the block. If you’re stuck in bed because you’ve been in an accident, then move any part of your body possible. The morning after the bike accident that broke my clavicle and could well have taken my life, I grabbed my camera and limped a mile down a hill and back, taking photos of anything that captured my attention along the way. I let grief over the injury pour out through movement and creativity. That is active recovery. I could not run or ride, but that first walk was a step back toward doing so.
The most simple truth is that moving our bodies can be a path to recovery from any setback in life. A path for coping. Movement stimulates the mind as well as our body to engage in some type of exercise, in some kind of movement. So if you’ve lost a job, or are working hard to find one, caring for a parent or worrying over the life of a child, get moving. Keep moving. Ride and run your way through grief and you’ll will be headed toward a solution. Creativity and imagination will come into your mind, and help you.
Perhaps you’ve experienced that moment during a run or ride when thoughts suddenly start entering you mind. Creative thoughts. Problem solving. Solutions! It happens at different times in the effort for everyone, but the ideas do come…
Many times gaining those thoughts is the very reason people love (need?) to run and ride. That feeling of self-discovery goes along with the happy fatigue brought on by genuine effort. To enervate ourselves we must sometimes exhaust ourselves.
That critical element of creativity and imagination is stimulated in our brains when we run or ride. That form of imagination can also be critical to dealing with grief.
Do not think it trivial. I once worked for a company in Chicago that hired me to open a new sales territory in the suburbs. Their offices were in the John Hancock building, a 1.5 hour commute from my house in the suburbs on a good day, and that’s by train and bus. The plan they laid out was that I was to be trained for two weeks in the Chicago office and then work out of my home in the suburbs while they set up a suburban office in a couple months. Well, that two weeks turned into a month, then three months, and six. All the time, I was commuting downtown. Some days I’d work on sales calls in the suburbs, but in order to process any business or attend meetings meant another trip downtown, which took 3 hours out of my day. It was hard to find time to exercise. Well, depression set in. The train ride became a slog. There seemed to be no relief in sight.
So I walked from the train station rather than take the bus. My big reward (I say this comically) was walking past the Victoria’s Secret windows in the last block before the Hancock building. I’d wave and laugh a bit bitterly, under my breath, saying “Hi girls!” before heading inside to a job where I knew they’d lied to me.
Having little other time in the day to maintain fitness, I also developed a short strength routine I could do in 10 minutes before getting dressed in the morning. 30 pushups. Lunges. Things like that. Anything I could do to take control of my mind and body before another day commuting.
Frankly I was grieving that aspect of myself that really values quality of life, and time to exercise. I was doing anything I could to maintain and recapture that hope.
The job mercifully ended after 8 months. They’d realized their mistake and inability to set up the suburban office.
Ironically, I was the one left to grieve over the job loss, because it felt like a failure on my part even though they had lied about their promises for the position. So it took months to work through that form of grief as well. There were some long, bitter runs, I will admit, cursing those who’d wronged me. It’s a process, grieving. Sometimes anger is part of that process. But here’s some advice: Good old forgiveness works much better, both for the near and long term. Trust me on that one.
Injured body, injured spirit
On a completely personal front, I also grieved a few years later when I tore an ACL in my left knee. It was a devastating moment, feeling that knee buckle. Then came weeks of hobbled walking, and months until surgery. Then there was rehab, one painful day at a time.
Gone it seemed were the days of playing indoor soccer, my sport of joy at the time. And basketball. For a long time, ballistic sports were out of the question. Yet soon enough, a year into recovery, I did come back. At first with a brace, but always with daily regimens of strength work that frankly changed my world. Old injuries faded away. New ones were prevented.
I went back to playing soccer for 2 years. Then came another setback, beyond imagination at the time. During an outdoor soccer game on a wet field, a player rammed my knee and the ACL popped again. It apparently happens to approximately 30% of all ACL repairs.
Grieving for Jake
To fix my knee, the orthopedic surgeon had used a cadaver that I called “Jake”. But in the end (no pun intended) the cadaver part did not hold. The better way to do ACL surgery is to cut a part of the patellar tendon and stick that in the knee. Real live parts simply hold up better than dead parts, for the most part. By choosing the cadaver option I likely killed the chances for a long term ACL fix. Now that’s real irony.
I knew it didn’t make sense to go through all that surgery and rehab all over again. So I was grieving from the moment I walked off that field. I cried the whole drive back home that day, sobbing as if an old friend had passed away. In a way, it had. That old friend was me. The younger me that had made the same athletic cuts on countless fields and courts all those years with nary and injury. Well, that old me was clearly gone. The new old me had arrived. Which meant changes.
I accepted that reality. Because beyond that, anything else was just feeling sorry for myself, and I knew that wasn’t right. Not when the world gives people so many other challenges, and much worse circumstance.
But the grief over that “final injury” to my former self was real, just the same.
The Big Picture looms
It turned out there would be plenty other things to grieve. Larger matters than whether I could play soccer or not.
My mother contracted cancer and died in 2005, the very same year my wife was diagnosed with ovarian cancer and was headed into what is now going on 8 years of treatments.
She has survived through grit and determination, through countless chemotherapies and surgeries, and I grieve with her for the sacrifices she has had to make to stay alive.
All Things Must Pass
On the ride home from church with my wife this morning, we were listening to our favorite radio station, WXRT Chicago with Terri Hemmert. (That’s her in a picture with us, circa 1984). Each Sunday Terri broadcasts a show called “Breakfast With the Beatles” and this morning the George Harrison song All Things Must Pass was playing as we drove home from church while the morning sunlight turned the road ahead to a silver strip of light.
Harrison began to sing:
“Sunrise doesn’t last all morning
A cloudburst doesn’t last all day
Seems my love is up, and has left you with no warning
But it’s not always going to be this grey
All things must pass, all things must pass away
Sunset doesn’t last all evening
A mind can blow those clouds away
After this my love is up and must be leaving
But’s it’s not always going to be this way…”
Singing the grief away
Many speculate that George was singing about the breakup of the Beatles, a process that would essentially last the remainder of his life, punctuated by the murder of John Lennon that put a finality to any hopes of a reunion.
But George, just like Paul and Ringo, kept moving through life, recording music. In George’s case he joined with lifetime friend Bob Dylan, new friend Tom Petty, ELO’s Jeff Lynne and popular music hero Roy Orbison along with drummer Jim Keltney to form the Traveling Wilburys.
What an example for all of us. Through creative outlets musicians like George Harrison––and the other Beatles for that matter––each found a way to work through the grief of breaking up the biggest rock band the world has never known. Or perhaps will ever know.
Changing your world a step and pedal at a time
Not many of us have the opportunity to be part of such a world-changing music group. But we are, each of us, part of potentially world-changing sports that can and do bring change and hope to the lives of so many. We can even use our running and riding to help others through fund raising and/or benefit runs and rides (link to Team In Training) that deliver money and services to needful people. Many people healthily and actively process grief in these ways.
The most underrated aspect of running and riding may be that these activities, tied as they are to profound human qualities of discipline, dedication, perseverance and yes, promotion of creativity and imagination, are a movement worthy of respect. Self respect and otherwise.
The lesson for all of us facing grief is to keep moving. Run while you cry, or stop and cry your heart out if you must.
I remember doing just that about one month before my mother died. I was on a run listening to my iPod when a recording of Elgar’s Nimrod came through the earphones. The music filled my head with such beauty and sadness that I stopped in midstride and knelt on the ground, weeping. I knew what was to come. I just did not want to accept it. My grief possessed me for a moment, but that music, and that run, allowed me to move forward. It was a most moving experience.
I ran forward into the future. Sometimes it’s all you can do. Running and riding can give you the strength to face all kinds of strife. It is at once our refuge and our release.
It is perhaps no coincidence that I took up cycling just before my wife contracted ovarian cancer. Two weeks before her diagnosis my friend Monte Wehrkamp gave me a Livestrong bracelet to wear. I never knew it would come to represent the struggle we were about to face, and continue to face each minute of our lives.
It has been a long ride thus far. 20,000 miles since the day we heard the doctor say to my wife and I, “It’s cancer.” I’ve written about the process of dealing with a cancer diagnosis. This article earned the Yahoo! Contributors Network 2008 People’s Media award for best writing of the year.
Running and riding through grief is a prescription for sanity that I can heartily recommend. The pain may come along with you, but the act of moving, of finding creativity and imagination are vital steps that can indeed sustain you through dark and difficult times. That is what running and riding provide, among many things.
See you on the run or ride.