After I read Wild by Cheryl Strayed a couple of years ago, I was convinced that the only way I would be able to express and process my grief was by walking the Pacific Crest Trail. There is no easy way to access the Pacific West Trail when you live in Manchester, so my next alternative was to walk across the UK.
I eagerly texted my friend:
Would you walk across the UK with me?
I thought about how Cheryl Strayed had camped and carried everything on her back and thought that perhaps that wasn’t for me, so I googled some fancy hotels that I could access along the way.
My friend texted back:
I’ve got no annual leave left this year.
I only had two days left myself, so that meant that I probably couldn’t walk the length of the UK, but I could do a walk in the Peak District? Though I also can’t drive so it would probably be easier to do an hour-long walk around Chorlton Water Park.
I can’t say that the walk was transformational enough to write a novel about. I still walk around the Water Park when I feel sad, and I love the rhythm of it and the way that if I walk for long enough, my thoughts become significantly more coherent and life feels easier. I have to admit, there are very few hardships when you walk somewhere that’s twenty minutes from your house – although one time my phone did run out and it was dark and I did get lost (still not novel worthy material).
I enjoyed my walking, but I was concerned that I wouldn’t be able to process the loss of my Mum if I didn’t do a giant walk like the book had suggested. I felt as though my lack of a big gesture meant that I somehow wasn’t doing a very good job.
At the time I was doing a lot of writing. The month my Mum passed away I wrote page after page of prose in a book that I thought was a murder-mystery about an ice sculptor but was actually full of my sadness at losing my Mum. Recently, I’ve written stories where she’ll unexpectedly pop up in one form or another. I don’t realise at the time, but on reading them back I can see my own journey – my confusion about my feelings and how I’ve processed them.
It might not be as heroic as hiking (and I want to point out that I’m writing this blog post from my bed), but there’s a definite journey, and something glorious about embedding my Mum into my writing. I feel as though the emotion I can’t understand or process in the day-to-day ends up in scenarios that make sense to me. My Mum was a writer too – so there’s something comforting in the practice.
Although that works for me – writing might not be right for everyone either. When I lost my lovely friend Peter earlier this year, I expected that he would appear in my writing in a similar way to my Mum – but in fact, I express my grief for Peter completely differently. I’ve bought a lot of fancy art over the last year. Every time that I do something that is generous, I feel as though he’s right there beside me. I try and say yes a little bit more. My grief for Mum is expressed through writing, my grief for Peter is unexpectedly expressed through joyful moments.
It’s interesting, the ways that grief can be expressed. Some counsellors might ask you to write a letter to a loved one in order to process your own emotions. One once asked me to talk to a chair in the corner of a room. It felt disingenuine to try and access my emotions in such a blunt way. Other people might use music as a way to remember someone, which is a really special way to spend time.
You can choose to express your grief in a way that suits you best. There’s no right or wrong. It doesn’t have to be a big gesture or something life changing. It can be choosing to buy a dramatic painting in a Tapas bar because it connects you with a memory. It can be buying a cake alongside your cup of tea because you know your Mum would have done the same. It’s in the micro and the macro moments, and there’s something quite beautiful about that.
I thought it would be worth putting together a list of things that have helped on my journey – a lot of them aren’t actually about grief but more about ways of living and I’ve found them really helpful. They’re about learning to live big and small, and the ways that we hold and process emotions.
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
Reasons to Stay Alive by Matt Haig
Goodbye, Things: On Minimalist Living by Fumio Sasaki