What is life after the death of a significant loved one? Over the past year, I’ve asked myself this at least once a day.
Six months after the death of my husband Gary, our daughter Jenn came for a visit. The day after she returned home, I found she’d left the Bill Bryson book, “A Walk in the Woods” on the guestroom nightstand. I picked it up and read the back dust cover, intrigued by the author’s quest to hike the Appalachian Trail.
I was at loose ends with the new reality widowhood had dealt me—unanchored with no discernible path forward. Clutching the book to my heart, I had a revelation—I could gear up and hike the Appalachian Trail! This would be the key to purging my sadness over Gary’s death and spark the journey to recovering my power.
I envisioned myself striding through the forest, staff held high, wearing sturdy boots that encouraged long Amazon-woman strides, breathing in a new life along with the heady mountain air. A smile graced my lips, my gaze drifted heavenward as the light of a thousand angels washed over me and filled me with joy.
Okay, okay, I admit I was not in my right mind.
Over the course of my career as a financial advisor, I’ve encountered dozens of widows. I believed I was empathetic to their plight. Each was confused and sad most of the time, barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Until Gary died, I had no idea—I repeat, no idea—what that actually meant in practice.
Now I do.
For nearly half a day, I remained infatuated with the idea of hiking the Appalachian Trail. It felt empowering to imagine stepping out of my comfort zone, putting myself into the middle of nature—which is not one of my favorite places—and having no choice but to commune with it.
Never mind that I’m surrounded by a loving family and a community of friends who are supporting me emotionally through this time. The fact is I was stuck in a tarpit. I didn’t want to depend upon others to help pull me out.
I’ve always been a goal-oriented person. With Gary gone, I needed to set goals to move forward and become fully functioning once again. And that had to happen ASAP! But I didn’t have the faintest idea how to begin. I was incapable of designing a blueprint for what that life should look like.
Hiking the Appalachian Trail might be the key.
I was excited!
My usual counsel to new widows is to avoid making any major decisions for the first year or two. I’ve seen dreadful mistakes, like finding a substitute mate who eventually steals money and goes on the lam, or moving closer to adult children who don’t want them nearby.
Yet here I was after six months of widowhood believing that hiking the Appalachian Trail was a good idea. Why should I sit here amidst the muck of despair and deep sadness when I could break out, have an adventure and learn a thing or two about myself along the way?
As I read Bryson’s book, I quickly realized this hike was far from my romantic notions, far from allowing me to have moments of life changing experiences which were not also life threatening. I had to admit that I truly hate camping, having never once had a pleasurable experience.
And backpacking? Gary and I went on our first and last backpacking trip with friends early in our marriage—to a mountain above Palm Springs. We were dedicated cigarette smokers at the time and woefully out of shape. After we struggled up endless, winding trails to finally throw our packs off at the summit, the only thing that allowed us to continue breathing were the generous shots of whiskey poured by our friends.
Over the past year, I’ve resentfully learned that as painful and awful this grief process is, sitting with it has turned into an unexpected adventure, one that is slowly allowing me to discover myself. It is not fun by any means. It’s as uncomfortable as I imagine being drafted into hell. Several pages into Bryson’s book, I realized that backpacking through the Appalachian Trail would be worse—lugging a heavy pack, disgusting bugs, blood-sucking mosquitos and ticks, terrifying bears, hazardous terrain, trying not to barf while eating Top Ramen every night.
Throughout each of my days since Gary died, I’ve been able to live in a comfortable home with running water, central heat, electricity, homecooked meals, flushable toilets and toilet paper. Every night, I’m able to put on pajamas, curl up in my luxurious Flo-Bed and snuggle under a pile of blankets. My sadness is regularly put on hold by family and friends who keep me distracted and entertained.
I was disappointed to come to the conclusion that hiking the Appalachian Trail will not help me. It would probably kill me. I don’t wish to die in such a fashion, not to mention my kids aren’t ready to be orphans.
If you haven’t suffered the loss of a significant loved one, I envy you. If you have a relative or friend who is going through this kind of grief and you think they’re crazy, trust me—they are. I humbly ask you to be there for them without judgement. Those of us who are grieving judge ourselves harshly. We think we should be better, but we’re not. Be there for them—regularly reaching out with a phone call, text, a meal, a walk or an invitation to coffee or lunch. Such things will go a long way to help them heal from deep wounds.
Try to be there for the long haul. It takes more than a year to heal from this type of pain. Take comfort in knowing that when you have this same experience—and you will—these people, people like me, will be there for you in ways others cannot.