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.