Running can do many things. It can make us fitter, help us feel more awake and can boost our mental health. And, as Liz Champion has found, going for a run can make difficult feelings like grief easier to process.
Trigger warning: contains discussion of bereavement/child loss
The day after losing my friend Hannah to cancer, I laced up my trainers and went for a run. I headed into the countryside, putting one foot in front of the other, thinking only of her. She was 41 and died after a late diagnosis of cancer, just seven weeks after having her second child.
I was heartbroken. We had been friends since we were children and shared so many laughs and happy times. It devastated me that she wouldn’t see her children grow up. And I was angry that she had lost her life so cruelly. But the pain of running seemed nothing to the pain of losing Hannah.
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The first run was hard. I was gasping for breath. It felt like every muscle in my body was screaming at me to stop. But I kept going. There was something about the rhythm of the running movement that made me feel calmer and more in control. I realised that running regularly was the only way I could cope with her loss. It didn’t matter how fast or how far I ran, I just had to run.
On most of my runs, I thought of my friend, her family, and the unbearable sadness of losing her. On other runs, I was so busy thinking about the pain and concentrating on where I was planting my feet that I didn’t think of anything. I was in the moment, focused on what was happening around me. It was these mindful runs that were most relaxing.
I still felt unbearably sad. I was crying a lot and struggling to find the joy in everyday life, but my anger and shock had subsided. Through running, I had found a way to manage my grief.
Learning to cope with grief
The overwhelming sadness that I was experiencing is just one of the many symptoms of grief. Others include shock and numbness, tiredness or exhaustion, anger and guilt. Bereavement counsellor Marie Varney says people experience the symptoms cognitively, emotionally and physically. Although grief is the natural response to losing someone you care about, it can be difficult to cope with on your own.
For anyone struggling with the symptoms, talking to a health professional or counsellor, or attending a bereavement support group can help. Charities such as Cruse Bereavement Support have walk and talk groups and some running groups for people suffering from grief.
“There are many reasons why people can find running helpful in coping with grief feelings,” says Varney. “We know running releases brain chemicals such as endorphins, which helps lift our mood.”
Grief can be a physical experience, like running
For me, running to cope with grief wasn’t just about the mood-boosting chemicals and natural high experienced after exercise (although that helped). Running provided comfort on a much deeper level.
“Some people find that the physical exertion required in running helps them to focus on their bodies, which gives the mind a rest from thinking,” says Varney. “For others, it may be that having lots of time on a long run allows them to think about and process their grief. There is no one size fits all when it comes to grief.”
She explains the dual process model of grief where we fluctuate between a loss-oriented state, which involves the feelings of grief, and a restoration-oriented state, which involves distraction from and avoidance of grief. This might be engaging in new activities or developing new interests, such as running. Another model of grief, called Pillars of Strength, advises establishing a regime to help regulate our bodies.
“Grief is most definitely an embodied experience,” Varney says. “Exercise, and especially a rhythmic exercise such as running, can help to calm and soothe the nervous system, which is likely to be in a higher state of alert following the loss of a loved one.”
Running has a calming effect, whether it’s a jog or a race
This sense of calm is something that Katrina Fry, 35, describes when she started running after the death of her baby daughter. “It was a lifeline that I didn’t think I would find,” she says. “It calmed me, cleared my mind.”
Her daughter, Poppy, was just two days old when she died. “I’ve never found a way to describe the pain of your baby dying in your arms,” Fry says. “I don’t think I even want to. I don’t want anyone to feel the way I felt.”
Six weeks after losing Poppy, Fry and her husband started running. “We needed something to focus on to get us through the very dark days of losing our baby,” she says. Before this, she had only ever run school cross-country and was always the one at the back of the pack. “Running was not a fun pastime of mine. But after losing a child, you feel you could go through anything, and nothing can compare to it.”
They entered the Great South Run, a 10-mile race in Portsmouth, to raise money for Sands, a charity helping families who have experienced stillbirth or neonatal death.
Finding a purpose to carry on
“Training for the race gave me purpose. It gave me reason to get up and get out,” she says. “Without it, I had nothing.”
The more she trained, the more she started to enjoy it. There was something about being outside, breathing in the fresh air and feeling the sun on her skin, that made Katrina think she could find happiness again.
“Some runs I would smile, others I would cry so hard I would have to stop to find breath, but even then, it felt like I needed it. Each run opened my mind and cleared it.”
There was also a sense of achievement that came from training and knowing that she was doing something for Poppy. This was all the motivation she needed to keep running through such a painful time.
Together with her husband, she completed the race and raised £3,000 for charity. “Race day was overwhelming,” she says. When she crossed the finish line, there were tears, not only at the sadness of losing her daughter, but also of pride.
“We had done what we set out to do – something positive in our daughter’s memory. But I knew my running journey wasn’t over. I had found something that gave me a reason. I wasn’t going to stop.”
If you are struggling to cope with grief, contact The Grief Network or the mental health charity Mind.
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