By: Rebecca Tucker, Grief Counselor
The summer heat is knocking on our doors with a strong reminder that yet another season is upon us. It also serves as a reminder that another season has come and gone without our loved ones.
The summer always brings up memories of summer camp in the mountains of North Carolina, a treasured yearly tradition that taught me so many life lessons, allowed space for my personal growth and eventually became a place of employment in my college years. One of the skills and activities I learned while there was backpacking. The idea of setting off on a trail with everything you need strapped to your back was daunting. I had no idea what I was getting myself into and I was terrified. After a few trips through various trails and terrains, I came to an understanding of what this time meant to me and how it shaped my vision of the future.
As I have been working in grief, I keep coming back to the analogy of the grief journey being so much like backpacking. In the beginning, it’s as if someone drops you off at the trailhead, throws a gigantic backpack at your feet and tells you “good luck” as they speed back down the mountain and you’re left with nothing but a cloud of dust and a very heavy looking backpack.
The sun is beginning to set, it’s getting cold, and suddenly you realize you’re alone in this moment - just you and this backpack; just you and your grief. Sure, you may have gone backpacking before, maybe even frequently, but this is a brand new trail and a brand new pack.
Even if we have experienced grief and loss before, we have never lost this person to death. This backpack is our grief. It holds a lot of tools we might need for this journey. But we’ve never held this backpack before, never seen it, probably never even wanted to see it. We are now faced with the choice of starting our hike with this backpack or staying right where we are. We can’t go back down because that road doesn’t exist anymore. We often make the harder choice of strapping on the backpack and starting our trek up the mountain.
In the beginning, the backpack is so heavy we don’t have the muscles to hold it up. But we continue because we simply can’t stay put, no matter how much easier it seems. As we continue our journey, we realize the mountain is full of roots, uneven terrain, and maybe even some spiderwebs that seem to get all over our face leaving us frustrated, tired, and gross.
Our grief has a tendency of exhausting us in ways we never imagined; phone calls, thank you notes, probate and other endless tasks. But again, we drag ourselves up the mountain, lamenting the fact that we have to lug around the backpack, and that our grief just won’t go away. But a point comes where we have to look into the backpack and see just what’s in there. Why do we even need this pack in the first place? We’re hoping for a map, a cell phone, a set of car keys that might take us out of here and place us right back where we were, before we had to deal with any of this “grief stuff.”
Alas, there is no such tool in there, but we do find other things that might be useful on this journey. We have a map, but it is full of twists and turns, sharp curves, massive elevation changes, and even some circles. There is also nourishment, shelter, maybe even some fun things, like a deck of cards or music. It seems counterintuitive to have things so joyful, but there’s room for all these things in our grief.
As time progresses and our journey continues, we start to realize that our muscles are growing stronger, and we can carry this backpack with a little more ease. The backpack is still there; we can’t be on the mountain without it. But we become comfortable with it, like a trusted hiking companion.
When we stumble over those inevitable roots, which could be those pictures that pop up on our phone or the smell of the perfume they used to wear, we are reminded how big and bulky this backpack is, and we lament again. We come back to those feelings of frustration that we’re even having to carry this thing! The difference is now our muscles are stronger, and our knowledge of grief is such that we know better each day how to be in our grief. We open up the backpack and pull out the tools we need. Maybe the tools in your grief look like talking to a friend, going for a vacation, or simply enjoying a delicious meal.
We put the pack back on and keep trudging ahead. There are days where the weather is bad and we simply must stop, take shelter, and wait for it to pass. Those may be the big ones, tough days like birthdays and death anniversaries that are going to keep coming no matter what. The odd thing is, we know we can’t stop the rain, can’t stop the calendar from turning the page to a new day without our loved one, but with each passing day, each step we take on the mountain, we are becoming less afraid of what lies ahead. We may even encounter some people on the trail, fellow grief companions. They have an idea of what you’re going through, because they too have their own bulky backpack. Perhaps you walk together for a while, to not have to feel so alone out here on this trail. You know you can’t take their backpack and they can’t take yours, but how comforting it can be to know that someone understands your blisters, bruises, and battle scars from this hike.
What’s inside your backpack that has helped so far? Maybe you aren’t ready to take a peek inside yet, and that’s ok. Maybe you’ve made it pretty far up the mountain and you can look back, feeling a sense of pride and accomplishment on the journey thus far, knowing there is still more trail ahead. No matter where you are on your journey, may you find ease in carrying your pack and ease on this trail of grief.
For information on grief counseling and support, call us anytime at 833.839.1113 or send us a message at www.viahp.org/contact-form. You are not alone. We listen. We support. We care.