Earlier this summer, I spent 5 days backcountry camping throughout the Porcupine Mountains in the Upper Peninsula. Over those 5 days, as I struggled with the weight of my pack, the pains, the moments of joy, and the elements, I realized how similar a trek in the wilderness is to the grief journey. Along the way, I wrote this post.
Grief is a lot like a backcountry trek. The weight of the pack, like grief, becomes deeply ingrained in you. Whether you are aware of it or not, it becomes a part of you.
In the beginning, the weight feels unbearable. You ask yourself how you can possibly make it past the first day. How you can possibly lift the weight by yourself. You sit and stare in disbelief. Frozen in shock, you initially refuse to carry the weight. You tell yourself you can't. But eventually you realize you have no choice. So you pick up your weight and take a single step. And then another. And another. It is heavy. You feel the pain with every inch forward. But you keep moving until you have survived your first day and are able to rest.
The next day, as you put the pack back on, you immediately notice the discomfort - the soreness and bruises from the weight - a reminder of the previous day’s struggle. You feel it in every single new step. Eventually, you settle into the pain and are able to move through it. Eventually, it becomes a part of you. You carry it and you feel its presence, but you also start to notice other things besides the pain. Eventually you start to notice the joy.
As time goes on, you still feel the pain, you still know it’s there, but it’s less acute, less piercing. If you’re lucky, you have people that can help lighten the load and carry the weight with you. But for the most part, you know you have to rely on yourself to keep moving. You know the weight is yours to carry.
The heaviness of the weight takes its toll on you physically. You are no longer as bright and shiny as when you started. You are more worn. But soon you will start to embrace this full and messy and imperfect version of yourself. Your life will become bigger as you learn to feel it all. You recognize the beauty in places you never would have been able to before. You begin to find light in the darkness.
Sometimes your path is through miles of muddy shit. You slip. You lose your balance. You fall. But you keep going. Sometimes barriers have blocked your path. You must lift your weight and climb over them. The terrain becomes rocky and you must learn how to navigate your unsteadiness. You wander off your path and get lost. You fall again. You rest. You keep going. You try and stay present through this new and foreign terrain because you begin to learn that inevitably there are respites of beauty that make the struggle bearable; that allow you to keep going, in spite of the pain. You begin to embrace the beauty.
At first the weight is a burden. You long for the familiar past and yearn for some different future, where the weight doesn’t feel so heavy. Because the weight will exhaust you - in ways you never thought you could be exhausted. You will ache, physically and emotionally, because of it. And you will thirst for lighter days. But you will learn to find different ways to cope with the pain of the weight, so as not to be crushed by it.
You will face many uphill battles and the weight will feel impossible to carry. Don’t think about the entire uphill journey. Don’t focus on the top of the mountain. Focus on the first step. Focus on putting one foot in front of the other. When necessary, slow down. Take a break. Pause. Remind yourself of what there is to look forward to, even if it feels unreachable.
Eventually the weight becomes second nature. You learn to balance with it. You learn to carry it through the ups and downs of the terrain. As time goes on, you don’t become weaker, as you first suspected. No, the extra weight makes you stronger, more capable. You become more resourceful, relying on yourself and the elements around you.
In the end, you’re not the same person who started the trek. Not better. But different. Changed. And as much as you might want to at times, you can never go back to the previous version of yourself. Embrace this new, stronger, messier, more human version of yourself. Connect with others who have walked a similar path, and who have carried their own weight. Find those who see your weary eyes and are able to recognize your bright soul.
I’m on my final leg of this journey. I’m dirty. I’m exhausted. I’m sore. I feel beat up and raw. I also feel powerful and proud. I found a strength and openness I didn’t acknowledge before that I will carry with gratitude as I head towards home. Tomorrow.
Tomorrow I will be home.
I’ve spent 10,000 miles lost in my thoughts and emotions. I’ve been pushed and challenged. I’ve relied on myself and on others. I’ve felt connected and I’ve felt lost. I’ve searched for everything and searched for nothing. I’ve experienced weakness and I’ve experienced incredible strength.
My life is a pendulum of conflicting emotions. Most days, all at once.
Now, I both yearn for and dread going home. I crave comfort, but also know the only comfort I really want is no longer there. My bed and clean clothes will only provide me temporary relief for my tired and hurting body. I worry the strength I found on the road will disappear the second I walk through my door. I worry I will stop connecting. I worry I will hide in my grief and loneliness.
I am filled with anxiety and uncertainty. Uncertainty about myself, about my future, about my relationships. About it all. Everything I left behind still remains, waiting for me, unchanged. But I’ve changed. I am no longer the person I used to be. That person disappeared on January 22nd. I still don’t know who this new person is. I still don’t recognize her.
But tomorrow - tomorrow I head home. Tomorrow I will begin to find out...
I’m trying to slow down. To embrace this journey. To embrace the fact that this isn’t a trip for me to see the country and tour the sites. It’s a trip for me to be alone with my thoughts and emotions. To be alone with my grief.
It’s strange showing up in a new place and not having a plan. To not have already mapped out every single thing I wanted to do and see, fearful to miss out because of lack of research.
My researching drove Brad crazy. For months before a trip, I would spend countless hours in books and on the internet, mapping out the perfect vacation: a balanced mix of “must sees,” off the beaten path finds, and downtime for relaxing and spontaneous exploration. Hours planning the kind of trip that felt magically unplanned. Planning brought me joy. The excitement and build up leading up to the trip were almost as much fun as the trip itself. Brad wanted me to be more “go with the flow” and just show up. To let our trip unfold naturally. I used to swear that our vacations were always so wonderful because I planned. And I knew Brad enough to know how to plan for him too: the perfect outdoor cafe that’s not overrun by tourists; the main attraction’s less visited and often forgotten sister site; sex breaks.
I’m actually doing this road trip how Brad would have wanted - unplanned. Not as a way to honor Brad (although I wish I could say that were the case). But because I was too busy with my grief and sorrow to plan. Because I just didn’t care to plan. Because some mornings telling myself to get up and put one foot in front of the other, to walk out the door, is exhausting enough.
As I am sitting here at 9:15 in the morning, my hair wet from my shower, sipping coffee on a patio, and writing, I realize this is exactly the type of slow morning Brad would have craved. I would have been eager to get out the door by 8 - to check out the perfectly adorable coffee shop around the corner before a full day of exploration. I would have been antsy and eager, fearful we were wasting the day. Fearful of missing out.
I am trying to embrace this new me. Or at least this temporary me. Eventually I’ll get dressed and head out, unsure of where I’m headed. I will try and ignore the pit in my stomach that regularly inhabits my body these days. Try and ignore the fear of exploring a new place without a plan. I will try and find joy in my day.
But for now, I am going to sit here a little longer, sip my coffee, and watch the day unfold around me. Not just for Brad, but for me.
If you’ve been following along here or listening to the podcast, you know that Brad and I planned to go on an epic cross country trip together. Before we could leave, we were waiting for the scan that showed his treatment was working. That showed stability. The scan that said he would live a little longer. The scan that never came.
We thought we could make it. Thought he would make it. We put a deposit down on an RV, aptly named “The Gemini.” We talked about painting it and adding the Defending Your Life logo on the side. We planned our route. We would circle the country and visit places he’s lived. Converse with old friends. Make new friends. We wanted to podcast and document the journey. Show us living courageously while talking with other people on how they, too, live courageously. I would drive and he would write. We would listen to music and have adventures and live our life as fully as possible. We had a plan.
I now have to make new plans. The reality is, this road trip was just one of many plans we counted on that will never come to life. One of thousands of dreams and ideas and ambitions we discussed. It is part of a future that no longer exists. My future now looks wildly different. My future is unrecognizable.
After Brad passed away, I knew I still had to take this road trip. Not the exact trip we planned (buying an RV now seems outrageously irresponsible), but something that could partially mimic it. I’m not entirely sure why I feel the need to embark on this solo journey. Maybe because I just want to escape and run away. Maybe because I feel I owe it to Brad. Maybe because I just can’t accept the fact that I am supposed to make new plans and instead would rather cling to my old plans, our plans. Maybe I just need to share - and write - our story. Maybe I just need to honor Brad. I don’t know. Maybe it’s all of these reasons and a 100 others I don’t fully realize.
But in 10 days I am getting on the road. Leaving on the first day of spring.
Brad loved significant dates. He loved the equinox. The idea of a refresh. A new season. He proposed to me on the first day of fall. We got married a year later on that same date. Our anniversary date was rotating with the fall equinox, changing slightly each year, depending on the sun. “It’s gross how romantic it is,” Brad used to tell people.
So now on the spring equinox, I’ll be embarking on this new season of my life (it's gross how cliche it is). Generally, I feel lost in my life. Lost at home. Unsure of what to do and where to go. I’m hoping escaping for a bit will give some clarity, some sense of my next steps. If nothing else, it will give me an adventure. If there is one thing Brad and I loved together, it was an adventure.
And because you can’t just have a soul searching road trip without some bigger purpose (thank you Brad for your influence to always go beyond yourself and think bigger), in addition to writing, I am hoping to continue podcasting for Defending Your Life in a variety of ways.
First, I want to have conversations with other people like me. Conversations with both cancer survivors and other widows (I have the unfortunate distinction of being a member of both clubs). The topic of each conversation will be how you live courageously in the face of cancer and/or loss and how do you find joy during your darkest moments. Two concepts I am currently struggling with. How do you go through this and make it out on the other side??
I’d also love to keep podcasting about Brad, his influence, and his life. Talk to friends and family (both those I know and others I don’t). I want all the Brad stories. Even better if those stories come with a couch I can crash on.
And finally there will probably be some “I’m all alone in the desert, what the fuck was I thinking?” solo podcasts. Because let’s face it, I am utterly unprepared (both emotionally and physically) to go on the road for the next two months and the combination of insanity, unpreparedness, and grief has got to lead to some stellar podcast content.
At the end of the day, I really see this trip as a search for joy and meaning - two things Brad and I proudly lived our lives by. And ever since Brad died, I feel like I’ve lost both. I'm hoping to stumble upon them somewhere along the way.