Walking Through Grief
We were exhausted and emotional when we crossed the finishing line. I couldn’t believe I had just walked nearly 13 miles. I sat, ate cake and genuinely smiled. My husband would have been so proud of me. I was proud of me!
In this post we’re looking at how walking even a short distance can be a powerful tool for coping with grief. Loss is very personal and the effects we talk about here are what has generally been experienced. We all grieve in our own ways.
We’ll look at research and techniques; and some personal stories as well.
The Grief Experience
The loss of a loved one brings huge challenges that no book, article or film can ever fully show.
My husband died in June 2023. I can say there is the initial shock and denial as you process what’s just happened. That person is suddenly not there. It wipes you out. You might have been caring for them, or visiting them. It might have been sudden and unexpected. After caring 24 hours a day I found I had excess energy initially. I walked up and down wearing a hole in the carpet, repeating: ‘This isn’t right!’
We all deal with loss in our own way. You might mentally and emotionally collapse, or feel numb; and then there’s all the finances and funeral to sort. After that you might feel abandoned as other people offer less time with you.
A scientific review in 2019 found amongst other things that the death of a spouse is one of the most stressful life events, with high levels of distress, anxiety, yearning and sadness – very similar to symptoms of a Major Depressive Disorder.
Cruse gives some common effects of grief on our mental health, like feeling lonely, anxious, sad and hopeless.
You can also feel guilty, bitter and angry, numb and have difficulties socialising.
Cancer care givers seem to suffer the most prolonged distress.
However it has happened, it’s the biggest change you will face, something you will never ‘get over’. There is a big hole that most of us will eventually build around, adapt to. How you do that varies as we all need different things in our lives, and one of those could be exercising and walking.
The Healing Power of Walking
A research review done by the University of Edinburgh in 2017 found that walking helps with weight loss, improves the heart and circulation health, reduces blood pressure, and can increase inflammation. It said moderate walking may stimulate the immune system, help against osteoporosis and lower back pain. It’s low impact so less sore muscles and injuries.
Mentally, walking can improve perceived quality of life – setting and achieving goals like time and distance. It reduces stress, and helps depression and anxiety. It’s been found to be as effective as Cognitive Behavioural Therapy and antidepressants.
Having worked in mental health some clients felt better able to let go of their feelings when walking – in isolation, at the top of a hill, in the middle of a field. Crying, screaming, shouting. And I have walked quiet hills and busy town streets, crying and talking to my husband, returning home feeling more at peace in mind and spirit.
And then there’s the benefits of not being in a bus or car – walking slows you down and you see things you’ve not seen before; like the wonky gatepost at number 5, and the tree that looks like an old man. It gives you a different perspective on life, and the space to solve problems.
I have walked in all kinds of environments, all of which are beneficial, but nature is the gold star. The fresh air, the sights, sounds, smell, the feel of being with rooted things; with birds, animals and insects. It’s indescribably stress reducing, which brings us to…
The Spiritual Connection
Walking can bring a sense of connection, not just to nature, but also to a higher power. We’ve already looked at how it helps you notice what’s around you, and it can also deepen your relationship with your surroundings.
It can bring peace of mind and increased inner strength, so it can be both calming and energising.
In my own walking I have very much felt a part of something bigger. Walking along a beach as the sun rose, feeling the sky awaken. Or walking from Pen-Y-Ghent in North Yorkshire in the dark with the hulk of a hill beside us. Surprisingly it was a very positive experience. We were completely immersed in our surroundings, listening to the rustle of small animals in the heath, the fresh smell of the evening air, all with the feeling that we walked near a benevolent sleeping giant. It was like feeling the spirit of nature.
A study in 2012 about quality of life found that people who are more spiritual and physically active believe that it results in a better quality of life for them. It wasn’t just the physical benefits, but their perceived connection with the divine.
Mindful Walking for Grief
A 2016 study found that mindful walking helped reduce depression, anxiety, stress and brooding – you might be familiar with these as they are symptoms of grief.
Mindful walking is about being aware of the sensations in your body as you move, like how your muscles move and feel. It’s also about being aware of your surroundings and using your senses for more than just avoiding hazards.
It brings us into the moment, and can help us process difficult feelings and problems away from our usual life.
How to do Mindful Walking
- Find a safe place you can walk. Stand still and just be aware of how you feel physically and emotionally.
- Take a few deep breaths – remember to breathe out as much as you breathe in.
- Start walking slowly. Concentrate on your movements when walking – how do your feet feel? Your legs? Your back?
- Be aware of the sights, sounds, smells and sensations but don’t dwell on them. Concentrate on walking and breathing.
- Stop, and again take some deep breaths. Don’t worry if your thoughts wandered, it will get better with practise.
Here’s a link to a walking meditation: https://soundcloud.com/bupahealth/mindful-walking-meditation-30-second-intervals You can play it on your mobile with headphones initially.
Overcoming the Inertia and Isolation of Grief
It’s common to feel drained of energy and not want to do anything after your loved one’s loss. All of the things that have happened – the care, love and attention you gave, the suddenness of what happened, and the flurry of arrangements you have to do after – can take its toll, especially if you don’t want to bother anyone else with your troubles.
It might seem strange that exercise can help this inertia, but walking can give you energy which brings positivity to do other things, even small stuff like washing the pots, tidying up, maybe ringing a friend to talk. The power of movement is motivating.
Support is important to overcome feeling isolated. Studies found that support from friends and family helps some people feel they have a better quality of life.
You don’t have to feel lonely. Sometimes it’s easier to ask someone to do something with you, rather than just them visit. Walking with friends or even people you don’t know gives purpose to the interaction. You might have a goal with the walking – a distance or a place to reach – and you can help each other achieve it. It’s not just about them offering you support and encouragement, you can do that for them too.
Goals are a good thing in general when you’re grieving. They help you get up in the morning. With walking, your goal might be something far reaching than making a certain distance. It could be that you do it for someone else, or a cause that’s important to you.
I was ripped apart when Richard died. He had cancer for two and a half years. We had time to do things, not everything we wanted to do, but he wanted to raise money for Teenage Cancer Trust and did that through his Motorcycle Church Challenge.
Two weeks after he died, I became terribly restless, needing to do something (other than look at papers and funeral arrangements). I started walking with the dogs again which helped give me space and I found I was more able to sort out my thoughts as I walked.
I had an urge to put on some sturdy boots and just walk – I didn’t know where to. When I put my thoughts together, I decided that I would take this energy and put it to good use. I would do a walk, in memory of Richard for his charity.
In September 2023 I did the first Church Walk Challenge with two friends and Richard’s dog. We walked nearly 13 miles to 5 local churches and raised nearly £1k for charity. I will always remember the day, not just for the kindness of people giving, but also for the achievement and comradeship.
Walking with my friends was uplifting and motivating – they got me through the part where you just want to sit down and not get up (that’s about halfway)!
Another lady who lost lost her husband a few years ago told me: ‘Grief changes us and with it the entire course of our lives. Nothing is the same anymore, you have to find yourself again and you resist it because the loss is too heavy. Small steps help you feel your way back into life. Walking in the forest with my dogs has always helped me. Nature is a great healer!’
Practical Tips for Getting Started
- Set yourself realistic goals. You might not be as fit as you think, so start slow and small.
- Wear suitable footwear and clothing. If you’re in the UK it can rain any time.
- If you are going a distance, take a map, drinks and food, and a fully charged mobile.
- If you are on your own, let someone know your route and what time you’re expected back.
- Find a walking partner, or join a walking club if you want company. There are clubs all over the UK, and some hospices run walking groups.
- Bring walking into your daily routine. Walk to pick up prescriptions or go to appointments instead of using the car/bus. Walk around the park at lunch.
- Download the FREE Walk Journal page, a motivating way of keeping track of distance and how you are feeling.
Walking to Find Healing and Hope in Grief
We’ve looked at the impact loss of a loved one can have in mental, emotional and physical health: how it can bring feelings similar to depression. Walking helps grief not just through its physical health benefits. It also can bring feelings of energy and peace, and can increase well-being, particularly when walking with other people.
Life is very hard: you are going through changes you didn’t want. Walking can help you find some healing and hope, one small step at a time. My love to you. You are stronger than you believe.
It would be lovely to see pictures from your walks in the comments!
- The Psychobiology of Bereavement and Health: A Conceptual Review From the Perspective of Social Signal Transduction Theory of Depression https://www.frontiersin.org/articles/10.3389/fpsyt.2020.565239/full
- Efficacy-mediated effects of spirituality and physical activity on quality of life: A path analysis. https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC3406955/
- Mindfulness and mood stimulate each other in an upward spiral: a mindful walking intervention using experience sampling https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/27642373/