Not listening to the voice of despair: keep going and don’t quit (The Way, Part 8)

A walk along the Cromford Canal in Derbyshire. We might have justifiable worries about the path ahead but it might not be as bad as we anticipate.

Sometime back I tried a new walk in a different part of Derbyshire to my usual routes. This was on the Cromford Canal. There isn’t much left of this waterway, first built in 1794, but there’s a towpath running for 5 miles from Cromford to Ambergate. Much of the trip is through a nature reserve. It’s fairly quiet and straightforward route, so I set off in the drizzling rain with the intention and goal of walking the full stretch.

Just to explain: This post is an updated version of something I first wrote 3 years ago. At that time, it was barely 9 months after I’d had two major surgeries (knee replacement and kidney for cancer) that had knocked me for a loop. It was a long haul to rebuild my strength and 5 miles at that point was quite ambitious for me.

The walk

It was a Monday morning, and in contrast with Sunday’s cheerful crowds milling about, family groups chatting, eating ice-


cream and enjoying the sunshine, this day it was virtually deserted except for the occasional determined dog-walker. The drizzle alternated with proper rain and occasional glimmers of sunshine.

The greenery at the water’s edge was lush. There were ducks and coots on the water, and lots of birds in the trees above. Very pleasant.

Less than two miles along the path, I met a man coming from the opposite direction. His dog scampered about while he paused to chat. He wanted to warn me that up ahead a large oak tree had come down and was blocking the path .

“You might want to turn back, it’s up to you, but I had a real problem getting over it and you may not want to go any further…”

I thanked him and continued, a bit worried about what was ahead. I pictured a large trunk straddling the path, and tried to imagine how I would clamber over it – my new knee is doing well, but my back isn’t, and I was never a climber at the best of times. So I did ponder whether I should turn back. It was raining off and on, and I wasn’t even halfway to my destination. But I’d come all this way, and I was in no hurry, and I do like to walk a new path. So I decided to keep going.

After about five or ten minutes, I came upon about 30 people, again walking in the opposite direction. The path was narrow so I stepped back to let them pass. I think they were a “walking for health” group. The leader and first two walkers stopped to tell me about the fallen oak tree.

“Don’t worry too much,” they told me, “we’ve moved some of the branches so you should be able to get through.”

Slowly the group filed past me on the narrow towpath, avoiding the nettles and brambles on the edges. In addition to dozens of “good mornings”, quite a few more of the group wanted to be sure I knew about the tree. Finally they were all gone, and I continued. I was somewhat encouraged by their words that the tree wasn’t going to be too difficult an obstacle.

Finally, there it was. Unlike what I had pictured, there was no big trunk to climb over. The previous group of walkers had improved the situation as they’d said, and it was quite easy to push through the branches.


I was glad I hadn’t listened to the well-meaning warnings of the first walker. Imagine if I’d turned back. I’d have missed the pleasantness of the rest of the day, just because I couldn’t bring myself to face the unseen obstacle ahead.

The happy ending is that I managed to complete the five miles, despite what became quite heavy rain, found a lovely pub in Ambergate where I enjoyed my lunch and then took a train back to where I started.

The loneliness and obstacles of the path ahead

I’m relating this rather this non-dramatic tale because of something that happened at a recent Living with Loss retreat. Often at the retreats I divide the group into subgroups according to the type of loss so that we can talk about some of the more practical issues, and this was a small meeting with widows. It wasn’t to talk about their husbands or their past lives, but the path they are on now and how to continue.

To lose a life partner is to lose so very much. There is companionship and there are emotions, but also very real practical implications. How do you cook for one when you’ve cooked for two for twenty, thirty, forty years? Do you even bother? Or what if they were the one who did the cooking? No matter how you answer those questions, the fact is that you will now be eating alone.

Alone. Loneliness. It is heartbreaking. There are so many people in this world who are lonely, and the person who has lost their partner suffers a particular loneliness.

And it’s not only those who have lost a partner. The death of anyone who has had a big part in our life leaves a massive gap. Losing a child can be losing a close friend. Losing a parent or close friend can also greatly affect our daily lives.

The practical implications brought about by their absence adds another layer to our grief. No wonder that we might find ourselves struggling to see the way forward.

And this reminds me of the first walker I met on the canal path. He was kind and well-meaning, and the reality was that an obstacle lay in my path; nevertheless, his words were discouraging. “Don’t go on…”

Maybe these are the words we hear in the darkness of our own loneliness, our own inner voice, as we genuinely fear for the future. How will we manage the path ahead? How will we continue to the end of our journey without our accustomed companion? How are we going to get over the obstacles that life inevitably puts on our way?

In those darker moments we might wonder, should we even keep trying?

Yes! Carry on! We might be surprised who we will meet on the way. Maybe someone will shift the branches that obstruct the path, just in time. Maybe it won’t be so hard after all. Maybe we’ll even make some new friends enroute.

I have to admire the ladies in the small group that I facilitated. They talked and shared their own experiences good and bad, and then different individuals seemed to light up a little as they started to get ideas for some solutions for their own situations.

Of course, those solutions would not be as good as the real thing – the return of their loved one. That is an outcome that can never happen. But the path ahead was being made brighter, as good as it could be. I guess we were rather like the “walking for health” group. Through meeting even briefly, through companionship, through sharing from the heart, the future looked just a bit more manageable.

Sometimes that’s what we need the most. A bit of hope. That we won’t always feel so bad. That we will manage the path ahead.

Not listening to the voice that says, “you can’t make it”

Stories about ‘walks’ and “The Way” are always imperfect analogies of grief, but nevertheless they do give some food for thought. My walk didn’t end up in disaster. I managed the obstacles, which turned out not to be as difficult as I had imagined. I’m so glad I didn’t listen to the voice of despair, and that’s the point of this article:

Don’t listen to any inner voice of despair telling you, “you can’t make it”. You can make it. The journey of grief may take you on a lonely and difficult path, but hold onto hope. The path does not stay the same throughout the journey. There will be times ahead when your strength returns, and who knows what companionship you might find on your journey. Just keep going, step by step.

Here’s a big virtual hug for all those who are dearly missing someone who was integral to their life – a partner, a child, a parent, a sister or brother, a close friend.

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Don’t listen to any inner voice of despair telling you, “you can’t make it”. You can make it. The journey of grief may take you on a lonely and difficult path, but hold onto hope. The path does not stay the same throughout the journey. There will be times ahead when your strength returns, and who knows what companionship you might find on your journey. Just keep going, step by step.


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