Going round in circles or moving forward in grief

A walking analogy

Yesterday I went on another walk as part of my 40 mile challenge remembering Pax.

I had a route planned along a canal followed by a long path that would take me eventually to the beautiful National Trust gardens in Biddulph. 10 miles.

John dropped me off at the Red Bull pub. I haven’t walked this route in years. I started out walking in the wrong direction. My map app didn’t seem to make much sense. So I turned around and walked the other way.

I came across this beautiful little memorial garden on the grassy bank next to the canal. Small items, some flowers and even a bag of tealights make this a poignant place for remembrance for family members and friends.

Miniature informal ‘garden of remembrance’

I kept walking. By now I had realised I wasn’t on the correct canal, but couldn’t see the turn off where the two canals meet – that’s the Trent and Mersey where I was, and the Macclesfield Canal, which was my destination. Then I thought I’d found it because there was a turn. I walked on.

I’d gone about 1 1/2 miles so far, happily plodding along in the sunshine. It’s so green – the trees and bushes are in full leaf. There is an overflowing abundance of every shade of green. Amazing. However this meant that everything looked just the same, no matter which direction I turned.

And so if it wasn’t for the little memorial garden, I might not have even realised I had just walked a loop and was virtually back where I started!

I was astonished to see it again. How was it possible to get lost on a canal – I don’t know, but I had managed it. (Anybody reading this who is coming on the Living with Loss Pilgrimage next month in June might start to be concerned about my map-reading skills…)

I was baffled until I noticed the bridge overhead. Climbing up the steep stone steps, I discovered the Macclesfield canal. And finally, I was on the way and able to make progress.

I finally found the turn! Markers where the canals meet

It was a lovely day, and despite my initial errors, I did eventually make it to Biddulph Grange where I stretched out on the grass to enjoy the flowers and a well-earned cup of tea.

The loop – how did I miss that turn the first time?

Round in circles?

Sometimes the grief journey can feel like it goes round in circles. You think you’re making progress, that you’re coping with your heartache and learning to manage without your loved one, when all of a sudden, it seems like you’re back at the beginning.

Perhaps there’s been a trigger. A significant date. The storyline on a TV programme. An insensitive comment by a friend. A dream. Or perhaps just in the slow plodding along of every day living, trying to make sense of life without the presence of someone you care about, you don’t feel like you are getting anywhere.

This can be quite discouraging. I had a conversation the other day with someone who lamented that they could not imagine living the next few decades. They had figured out their potential lifespan, and could not fathom how they would survive all of those years without this very special person who had died. It was disheartening. Were they stuck in an endless loop of acute grief?

I went through this myself, so I can relate. There are a few things that have helped me – perhaps if you’re reading this and you’re feeling something similar, there’s something here that will be useful for you too.

Looking back and seeing how far you’ve come

I’ve noticed many changes amongst people I support in my “Living with Loss” work. The floods of tears that used to be part of every conversation are less frequent. Some have taken up new hobbies, voluntary work or other activities. They generally show more concern for other people’s welfare than in the earlier days of their grief, when their own sorrows were so consuming. (We have to put on our own oxygen mask first on a plane, and so when we’re in acute grief, sometimes all we can do is try to cope with ourselves. Later on there is more emotional energy or ‘bandwidth’ to think about other people.)

Not everyone realises the progress they have made, but it is worthwhile thinking about.

What has changed since the first weeks following your bereavement? What have you been able to do in the intervening time? For some of us, within the first couple of years, getting up and getting dressed might have been a massive achievement, but chances are you have done much more.

Try to spend a few minutes thinking back to the things you have done for others. Anybody – family, friends, strangers. Have you made anybody’s day better? Did you give away some clothes to charity? Did you hold the door open in a shop for a mother with a buggy to enter? Did you give your seat to an elderly person? Did you say something encouraging or offer a listening ear to a friend who was having a tough time? Did you cook a meal for family members, despite having no appetite yourself?

I’m pretty sure you can answer “yes” to the question “have you made anybody’s day better” at least once – and probably many more times – since your bereavement.

All of that is progress.

And there is probably lots of other progress you have made too.

Spend a few minutes thinking about this. It is encouraging.

You’re not on an endless loop. You are moving forward.

You can’t live decades in advance

The other issue with worrying about the future is that it doesn’t work. We can’t imagine how we will feel in 10 years time. We can’t picture coping with our grief in 20 years time. It’s too big. There are too many unknowns.

But we can live today.

That’s why I like walking so much and also return to it in so many blog posts.

One step after the other.

That’s how we walk a distance.

That’s how we live a life.

Can you live today? When you’re thirsty, can you get yourself a drink? When you’re hungry, will you manage to eat? Can you press ‘send’ after writing an email? Can you breathe? Deep breath in, deep breath out. Yes, you can.

And that’s how we survive the worst things that life can throw at us: The death of a loved one and everything that might happen as a result.

One step at a time.

Life and living

My walk yesterday had a fixed destination. That’s not the case with grief, and it’s where the analogy ends.

We don’t arrive at a beautiful, pain-free existence. We love our loved ones, and we will always miss them.

We can still live, however. Whether it’s by encouraging ourselves to keep going, one day at a time, or by encouraging ourselves how far we’ve come. We do move forward.

Moving forward doesn’t mean leaving our loved ones behind. It means carrying them with us in memory. Memories and special places can even become markers on our life’s journey – just as the little memorial garden was for me on this walk.

The Macclesfield canal, enroute to Congleton. I walk on the towpaths which is usually a foolproof method for not getting lost. Today was an exception
On the grass at Biddulph Grange, looking up. The yellow rhododendrons gave off the most amazing scent, like jasmine.

Come to a Living with Loss retreat! Bookings are open for our next retreats at Penhurst Retreat Centre (Sussex) and Lee Abbey (Devon)

Grief doesn’t have an end destination, but we can still live. We can encourage ourselves to keep going, one day at a time, or encourage ourselves by how far we’ve come. We can and do move forward, carrying with us the precious memories of our loved ones.

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