After my 16-year-old son Justin died, I learned that some journeys can only be made on foot, and grieving is one of them. You can’t fly across it to avoid touching down in the pain. You can’t cruise through it by car and watch the landscape through a half-open window. You can’t swim through the stormy tide of emotions because you’ll most surely drown if you don’t keep yourself grounded in practical reality.
Grieving is a step-by-step journey. Some stretches of the road are rougher than others. But every step is important. Every step has its gifts.
One of the things that helped me stay grounded in my journey was my walking routine. I lived at the top of Schooley’s Mountain in the foothills of the Poconos — not a very big mountain, but challenging to walk. Picking out a three- to four-mile stretch to hike each day brought me a great deal of healing.
When I was feeling gloomy and depressed, spending time in the beauty of nature seemed to brighten my mood. The physical exertion recharged my batteries. If my mind was racing with anxiety, moving my body always seemed to calm me down and put things in perspective. Walking became a kind of moving meditation, and I sometimes experienced moments of great clarity and insight while sprinting up a steep hill or sauntering along a forest trail.
Sometimes I couldn’t wait to get home to write down an idea that came to me while walking. It happened often enough that I started carrying paper and pen in my fanny pack so I could capture the thoughts as they flowed.
It has often been said that the sky is darkest just before dawn, and it was sometimes during my walks that dawn broke for me. Just when I thought I’d hit rock bottom, I’d lace up my walking shoes and hit the trails, only to encounter a moment of amazing transcendence along the way.
During a particularly dark patch, just after returning from a trip to visit my dad as he battled the colon cancer that ultimately took his life, I was feeling overwhelmed with my troubles and broken by failure. My son had recently died, I was dead broke, my home was in foreclosure and I was struggling to find my way through the grief and worry that were piling up in my life.
One morning I woke up determined to take my power back. I had just seen the movie, Forest Gump, in which the title character dealt with his broken heart by running across the United States. Inspired, I headed out for another walk on Schooley’s Mountain.
The sun was already hot and it felt good as I approached the lake. A beautiful red cardinal was perched on a fence post near my path as if to greet me. I immediately thought of Justin, as I always do when I see a cardinal or a butterfly, and I said a mental hello.
As I started across the wooden bridge that crosses the lake, I saw something that filled me with wonder and curiosity. The surface of the water was covered with something white. Looking closer, I realized that there were thousands of tiny white feathers softly poised on the surface of the lake!
I remembered how Forrest Gump had begun with the image of a free-floating feather. At the end of the movie, the title character Forrest explained its significance. His mama had always said life was a little like a feather — we’re meant to float freely and trust the wind to take us toward our destiny. Surrendering for a moment to the idea of letting go and floating like a feather, I felt lighter on my path.
Then I remembered another beloved book, Illusions, by Richard Bach — Justin had enjoyed reading it shortly before he died. There was a white feather on the cover of the book.
I later realized that molting geese were probably responsible for the feathery spectacle I witnessed on the lake, but in that moment I took it as a sign meant just for me.
As I continued on my walk that day, I was struck by the incredible beauty of the surrounding forest and hills. Although nothing could change the fact that I still missed my son intensely, and in spite of all my troubles, it dawned on me that my life was really quite rich exactly as it was.
There weren’t any real limitations except for those I created in my mind. I had enough food and a soft place to sleep, and had never been without those things. I had perfect health, sound mind and body, and family and friends who cared about me and would never let me go homeless.
The word “resurrection” came to mind. This is what the word means, I thought! It’s awakening to a new reality that was really there all along. Being reborn into a greater awareness of life from the womb of devastation and loss — or what seemed like it. Alchemy in the crucible of pain.
I was reminded of one of my favorite lines from Illusions:
“The mark of your ignorance is the depth of your belief in injustice and tragedy.
What the caterpillar calls the end of the world, The Master calls a butterfly.”
Things were looking up, I thought. Or maybe it was just me.
©2009 Julie Lange, author of Life Between Falls: A Travelogue Through Grief and the Unexpected
Julie Lange is the author of Life Between Falls: A Travelogue Through Grief and the Unexpected, which tells the story of her healing journey after the accidental death of her 16-year old son Justin in 1993 while using nitrous oxide with friends. She lives in Hackettstown, New Jersey, with her husband Lou and works for an environmental nonprofit.