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 hitchhiked from Manchester to London to 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 driver disregarded “hitchhikers etiquette” and picked me up before my turn (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 offered a ride).
Other times I did longer trips. I hitchhiked with friends through France and Italy. I recall long sunny days and warm evenings, snacking on bunches of plump black grapes from the vineyards by the roadside. 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 or it could take five hours. You watched each car as it whizzed by, eagerly watching to see if the vehicle would slow down just a little bit as it passed you. This might mean that it was about to stop. And then you let out a sigh and a quiet 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, a car, a van.
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.
“If I wait long enough, a ride will come to speed me on my way.” But grief can be another story…
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 are tough right now, if I wait it out long enough, a ride will come.” Something would change. There would be relief. I’d get on my way. I’ll be speeding along the road of life. Things are just going to get better soon, really soon.
And I think for many difficulties in life this can be true. Endure for the moment, it will soon pass. Sit down on the dentist’s chair, it will only be 20 minutes, she’ll give 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 real soon. Rescue. A change of circumstances is perhaps just a moment away.
However, it is not quite the same with grief. Yes, it’s moment by moment, but there is no fast moving rescue, by vehicle or otherwise.
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.
I found I had no choice but to walk the grief journey step by step. It was slow and it was hard. Thankfully, eventually I did get through the raw agony of grief and arrive at a less intense place, but it wasn’t quick getting there.
There are no quick fixes for the pain of grief. No fast-moving rescue vehicle.
When we’ve been bereaved, we have to slog out the journey. We have to walk on that road of grief, on our own steam, step by step.
It might not feel like it, but as we walk, we gain endurance. Hopefully, we figure out how to cope with the journey. We walk along, treasuring our memories.
And slowly, we adjust to this journey. It’s probably not as difficult after a couple of years, though we still encounter rough 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 life, the shadows of grief, and our journey on it.
Our individual journey is unique in some ways, but we do cross paths with others. Sometimes they cheer us on. Sometimes we cheer them. And sometimes we just accompany each other in silent companionship.
There is perhaps encouragement in the fact that this ‘grief road’ is a journey that most people have to travel on, probably multiple times in their lives, 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. As a natural process, it is survivable.
And how do we walk this road? One step at a time. Not waiting for the arrival of a magical rescue vehicle to whisk us away from the pain – 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.
You can do it.