Unedited column Run&Bee published in Hindustan Times on 5th October 2019. Shibani Gulati & Dr Divya Parashar have extensively contributed to this piece.

Week 67: Running helps cope with the loss of a loved one

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The only thing that is inevitable in this life is death. It is not a question about ‘if’ but ‘when’. All the people we know, will move on. We end up responding differently to our loss.

Dr Divya Parashar, a clinical and rehabilitation psychologist who runs as well, agrees. “Losing a loved one is one of the most distressing experiences people face. Most people go through a period of grief and bereavement, where they feel sorrow, numbness, guilt and even anger, which eventually fades over time and they accept the loss and move forward.”

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Grief is a beast - Shibani Gulati

Even if you see it coming in the distance, it is a giant wave that crashes with unexpected strength. It tosses you around until you accept the loss of control, letting the wave wash over you until it eventually passes. But, despite feeling unbearable at times, I’ve learned that grief is survivable.

On a sunny Monday, I received a call that my dad didnt wake up from his sleep.Losing my dad in such a traumatic way evoked feelings of shock, despair, numbness, confusion, inadequacy, and sadness. His loss left me feeling lonely and completely cut-off from the real world.

I remember these raw and vulnerable feelings vividly from losing my mother the same way in 2013. After the initial shock, the funeral, and the stress I realized I was shattered from her death. I was left feeling alone, angry and even guilty for her loss. I had no idea how to cope and could not imagine moving forward. It was the most confusing and difficult time of my life.

I had no time to grief as i had to take care of my dad then. I would cry for hours alone but kept a brave appearance for my dad. I was consumed by the daily affairs of life that I didnt understand the meaning of loss. Life , work, my dad's health , and external environment hardwired me.

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i was experiencing the worst after my dad's passing. one morning after a month, i woke up one morning with two overwhelming needs : I needed to process my grief alone and I needed to run.

When I started running, the tears began immediately. I had been holding them in for a month in an attempt to be strong for my brother ,but I desperately needed a moment to be weak.

For entire distance, I ran with all my heart, crying frequently as the swells of grief splashed over me one by one.

I finished with a heavy sob hiding away from my running group. Despite my devastation, I felt comforted by my own physical exertion. I had an overwhelming sense that my dad was there with me, holding my hand as I ran smiling at the sky through my tears. I felt better, relieved, grateful, like I had temporarily purged some of the heartache from my body.

Though running has helped me tremendously in dealing with grief, it is by no means a one-size-fits-all treatment .

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“You’re both really powerful and really vulnerable at the same time when you’re running, just physically,” says Sepideh Saremi, a licensed psychotherapist who believes so strongly in the power of the sport that she incorporates it into therapy sessions at Los Angeles-based Run Walk Talk. “There is an intensity when you’re running that makes other types of intensity more tolerable or less intense, in contrast to what’s happening in your body.”

Running has become a time when I can feel my dad’s presence instead of isolating myself in his absence. It’s an active, moving meditation during which I can release emotions that have nowhere else to go. Sweat and tears aren’t the same, but there is something cleansing about releasing both—especially together.

Over the miles I’ve run since losing my dad, I’ve gained a sense of empowerment at a time that has otherwise made me feel so powerless.In the hindsight, running was the reason which made me strong post my mother death all these years.Its just that i couldnt understand it.

With the sudden death of my mother in law a fortnight ago, the grief has hit us with the force of a truck. It is powerful, all-encompassing, and both physically and emotionally excruciating, especially for my husband.

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For those who can run and choose to use it as a coping mechanism, Saremi sees a striking symbolism in forward momentum. “When you’re in grief like that, it’s like being in tar. It feels so bad,” she says. “I think running is the opposite of being stuck. It gives you hope that even though you can’t do anything to bring that person back, you’re still alive, and your life can go on.”

As we got back to running this morning, i have realised that maybe I can’t run away from the grief. But, thankfully, I can run with it.

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When grief becomes complicated - Dr Divya Parashar

For some of us, the struggle lasts a bit longer. Dr Parashar adds, “distress lasting more than 12 months for adults and 6 months for children is diagnosed as Persistent Complex Bereavement Disorder with symptoms of persistent longing and preoccupation for the deceased; intense sorrow and emotional pain to the loss; bitterness or anger; self-blame; a desire to die to be with the deceased; difficulty trusting others; diminished sense of one’s identity; and withdrawal from life activities.” The distress is significant and must be addressed with professional help if unresolved.

“And in the end, running is after all about forward moving momentum, putting one step ahead of the other, of feeling the breath in your lungs, of a new day rising, symbolic of life itself. The focus shifts from what’s lost to what’s left to be savoured, despite the aching heart,” says Dr Parashar.

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