In my younger years, I used to hitchhike quite a bit. It was much safer in those days (1970s). Though I did have a few close calls, mostly I disregarded the risks, as is typical of youth. (And I would add here that I definitely do not recommend hitchhiking in this day and age.)
I remember one summer that I ran away from home – yes I was quite a troubled teenager! – to hitchhike from Manchester to London and attend my first pop festival – the Windsor Free Festival of 1972. (If you were around in that era and want a blast from the past, here’s a link .) I was in such a poor physical state by the end of the Festival, wrapped in a rough blanket and really the worse for wear, that a lorry disregarded “hitchhikers etiquette” and picked me up (which means we were standing in a line at the entrance of the motorway, and the person furthest along was supposed to be the next one picked).
Other times I did longer trips. I hitchhiked with friends through France and Italy, where we picked bunches of grapes from the vineyards in October and it was truly a memorable experience.
Whether alone or with someone else, hitchhiking required patience. You could stand at the roadside with thumb outstretched – or palm extended downwards in Europe – and stand and stand. It could take five minutes, it could take five hours. You watched each car as it whizzed by, eagerly observing if the vehicle would slow down just a little bit as it passed you, which might mean that it was about to stop. And then you let out a sigh and a quiet (or loud!) remonstrance as the car with clearly plenty of space for passengers picked up speed again and went on its way without you.
But eventually, someone would stop. I cannot remember an occasion when I did not eventually catch a ride. It could be a lorry (truck), a car, a van.
Just in a moment, everything changed. No longer standing in the hot sun, or rain, or damp cold, but sitting in a moving vehicle, chatting with the driver and finding out where he was going and what he was doing. And then after a a few moments of initial polite conversation, the talking lapsed. You sat back, relaxed, and let the miles of road pass swiftly by.
Even when it felt like a ride would never come and that a vehicle would never stop, eventually one did. The troubles of the moment passed. You were on your way. What a feeling of relief – that despite all doubts, rescue had finally arrived. On the way. Speeding along. Miles passing. Circumstances changing. On the way to your destination.
Throughout my life, when I hit difficult times, I would think back to these experiences of hitchhiking and draw some comfort. It was an analogy that seemed to work. Though things were tough right now, if I waited it out long enough, a ride would come. Something would change. There would be relief. I’d get on my way.
And I think for many difficulties in life this can be true. Endure for the moment, it will pass. Sit down on the dentist’s chair (ugh, I just lost a tooth and that’s where I’m heading in a few days) but it will only be 20 minutes, he’ll give me a painkilling shot, and soon it will be over. Whatever the life experience, if it’s tough, then tough it out, live in the moment, and it will pass. Rescue will arrive.
However, it is not quite the same with grief. Yes, it’s moment by moment, but there is no fast moving vehicular rescue.
After I lost Catherine, in those first terrible years I was always waiting for that ride to come. I waited for something that would pull me out of the raw agony of grief, that would speed me along life’s road. Rescue would arrive, I’d find relief, I’d be on my way.
But the ride could not come. Only one rescue vehicle could do it – my “ride” was Catherine reappearing, alive and well – and that was impossible.
When we’re grieving and we’re waiting for a magical moment of getting past our grief, we are waiting for something impossible because death in this world is permanent.
There’s no vehicle that comes along with a smiling driver saying, “your waiting is over. You can hop in and everything is going to be fine.” And then we’re speeding along the road of life again with never a care.
No, it’s not fine and the person we are grieving is not coming back. There are no quick fixes, no instant relief.
Instead, we have to slog it out. We have to walk on that road of grief, on our own steam. And as we walk, we gain endurance. Hopefully, we figure out how to manage the journey. We gain some resilience. We walk along, treasuring our memories.
And slowly, we adjust to the journey. It’s probably not so difficult after a year or two, though we still have sore patches. And as we travel down the road, much more gradually because we’re on foot, then we see a lot more, experience a lot more, appreciate a lot more. We become someone a bit different to the person who started the journey.
There are no shortcuts in grief. No easy rides to the end of the road. There is just the road of grief, and our journey on it. Our travels. The people we meet along the way.
And there is perhaps encouragement in the fact that this is a life’s journey that most people have to travel on, probably multiple times, and they too make it through the worst parts. “Grief is the price you pay for love”, it is said. The more we love in our life, the more we will grieve. Grief is as natural as love, and it is survivable.
And how do we walk? One step at a time. Not waiting for the arrival of a magical rescue vehicle – as much as we might wish it – but one step at a time.
That’s how we live with loss and how we cope with grief. A day at a time, or even a moment. A conversation here, a book there, a craft activity here, a memorial activity there.
If your emotional or psychological muscles feel weak from grief, take a breath, consider how far you’ve come already, and take another step.
One step more. Go on, you can do it.