I wasn’t surprised to learn that my grief therapist is also a distance runner. Grief and running actually have a lot in common. To move past the pain of loss, you need to grieve fully. To become a stronger runner, you have to keep running.
I got a therapist because as Alzheimer’s became a bigger part of my life and my mom became a smaller part of my life, I noticed I was spending more and more time with grief.
Grief joins me on days when I least expect it. She joins me at the grocery store in the frozen yogurt section and I am reminded of evenings laughing with mom. Grief knocks me down when I’m playing with my kids in the yard and suddenly I realize they will never know mom healthy. Grief is a shadowy companion that swings in like a pendulum, taking me from a place of peace to a dark lonely hole.
I used to try to shush grief away. I would tell grief that my children are healthy, my husband is kind, and that feeling sad is useless. I tried to tell grief that feeling pain means letting the Alzheimer’s win and I would not let it. I pushed grief down into my stomach, hoping I could digest it and make room to fill up with joy and hope. But it never worked. Grief sits like a pit and makes me feel sick and alone.
In therapy, grief and I sit down on the couch and talk about my mom — the disease, the cruelty of it — all of the things I miss and mourn. When I leave the session, I feel lighter and freer — grief has left me for now. When it returns, I am expecting it and I speak to grief the way my therapist teaches me, with patience. Let’s sit awhile.
Poet Nayyirah Waheed said, “Grieve. So that you can be free to feel something else.” So, now I feel her. On the days grief is winning, I sit and I miss my mom in huge swells. On the nights that grief visits, I imagine sitting on the beach with mom — sun on her face, telling story after story with a loud, confident voice. I cry in short bursts until the grief passes through me, or in long, ugly sessions when the grief seems to settle on my chest.
When I decided grief is like running, I decided to try and “be a runner again.”
Running, like grieving, needs to be met with stamina and resolve.
When you are running, there will be miles when parts of your body start to hurt (like the mornings when you wake up sad), but you cannot come to a stop (you have a job, you have kids, you must help out with mom), so you keep running. You run through the sore muscles (you celebrate Mother’s Day anyway). You run through the cramp (mom doesn’t know you today) and you keep running. The next mile feels better (my children are remarkable) and before you know it, you can run longer (I toured a nursing home today; I did it. I must, so I did.).
When you are running you cannot skip the hard miles (so many depend on you). You cannot run around the parts that hurt (grief will find you anywhere) — you must run through it. In it. At it. There will be runs that are better than others, but each damn step, you are stronger.
The sweat, the blisters — all of it visible signs that I am feeling. I am running (I am grieving).
It is on runs that I craft emails to my mom’s caregivers in my head. It is on runs that I practice conversations with my dad about “next levels” of care. On runs, I work on the language to explain her behavior to my young children. On runs, I imagine conversations with my mom — my healthy mom, who is trapped with a mind that has betrayed her. I seek her guidance on runs. There is no distinguishing the tears from the sweat — and as I gain miles, I leave feelings of insecurity, anxiety, and sadness on the roadside.
This summer I ran three 5Ks, a 10K, and two half marathons. I’m nowhere near the front, but my therapist (who I now call “Coach” in my calendar) reminds me that’s not why I am running. It’s not about the time. It’s not about winning the race or winning a fight with Alzheimer’s — it’s about my run. My miles. My strength. My mom.
Alzheimer’s will take my mom. I will grieve for her forever. But, I will grieve in stride. I will put shoe to pavement and feel each ping of loss in my heart and in my legs.