Running Alongside Grief
Words by Warrick Wood, PhD
Photography by Emily Maye
As a quiet introvert who fell in love with sport early in life, I’ve always been fascinated by the mind. This curiosity directed my educational choices, and I’m now fortunate to work in academia and elite sport in the area of sport psychology. The more I learn, the more that curiosity grows. A few years ago, as part of my role I attended a three-day mindfulness retreat. During a reflection exercise, I sat there convinced that I hadn’t gone through anything really hard before. Tough, perhaps; meaningful to me, definitely; but truly hard? Not really.
I shared with a colleague that, although years of running meant I was relatively comfortable with physical discomfort, I was worried how I would cope with significant emotional pain. To be honest, I still don’t know. Three years later, I’m in the midst of a grief that has expedited my own relationship with, and empathy for, true pain and suffering. Before continuing on, it’s important to warn you that as much as I wish things were different, this isn’t a happy story: it involves cancer, grief, and unbearable loss.
Just prior to my son Frankie’s third birthday we noticed his balance was a little off. Over the course of a week involving scans, procedures, and a lifetime’s worth of tears, we found out that he had developed one of the worst types of tumors in one of the most important parts of the brain. Brain cancer… What!? Surgery was not an option. Our lives, just days earlier filled with hope, joy, and innocence, changed forever. Our wonderful little boy passed away peacefully at home five months later; 121 days of beautiful memories and unfathomable pain. I’d love to tell you about how brave Frankie was, how he maintained his sense of joy while he fought every single day, and tell you about all of the things that he taught us; while that’s all true, it’s not the point of this piece…
Grief is so hard for those in it. It is relentless and both emotionally and physically exhausting. Nothing feels right: staying at home is hard, going to work is worse. Life is condensed into the present and the past as thinking about the future is unbearable. The new long-term goal is to just get through the day. Quiet nights bring a sense of loneliness and it becomes easy to stay up late binging old sitcoms or listening to podcasts about… well, grief. While grief is so painful for those living it, I want to acknowledge that for our friends and family, training partners and club mates, it’s no walk in the park either. Supporting someone through grief is challenging, anxiety provoking, and uncomfortable. “Should I call? What if they answer? What would I say? Shit, what if they cry? Maybe I’ll give them space, but will they think I’ve forgotten? Fuck”.
Running has been an important part of my life for a long time. I’ve made some great friends and ticked off some cool goals along the way. More recently though, running has been helpful in different ways as I try to move forward while at the same time ensuring that I am honoring Frankie’s memory. I’m lucky to be part of a supportive and loving running community down here in New Zealand, and my friends and club mates do a great job of making me feel as comfortable as possible, even though I’m often concerned that my presence could lead to some discomfort for them.
As a member of a running community, or just a community at large, there will be times when you have to interact with individuals who are grieving. It’s part of life. Although everyone experiencing grief will have their own preferences for support and engaging with others, I want to share some general thoughts, reflections, and pieces of advice for consideration that may help you as you navigate the niggly, yet important, role of supporting someone, perhaps a fellow runner, who has recently lost someone close to them.
It’s a basic need to feel connected to others and, while grieving in particular, a sense of empathy is important in nurturing that connection – this is where simply acknowledging their grief can be helpful. Try “I’m so sorry for what has happened, I don’t know what you need, but whatever it is, I’m here”. Or simply “that must be so hard.” Although it’s tempting to connect with the person through sharing tough things that have happened to you, this is rarely well-received, unless you know the person well and have experienced similar circumstances. As a case in point, after Frankie passed away, if a piece of advice started with “when my grandfather died [in old age of natural causes]…”, the conversation typically ended quickly.
Don't try to fix it or expect it to be better
It’s a logical and normal reaction to want to make it better for your friend or running mate; however, it is important to resist the urge to problem-solve. This can be challenging: advice may be helpful at some point (and if they ask for it) but, particularly early on, just be with them; that is what they need. It’s going to be awkward and that’s okay. Part of your job, (hopefully, without sounding too much like a shrink) is to hold that awkward space and maybe even silence, free of judgment, to let them be sad or feel whatever it is that they are feeling. Believe me, just being there with your presence provides comfort to them.
Some (well-intentioned) things that have rubbed me the wrong way in the past (and things to avoid) are: “Gosh, you’re still feeling that way, have you seen someone about it?” or, to a lesser extent, “I hope you feel better tomorrow”. Every day is hard, and it’s supposed to be. Spoiler alert, tomorrow won’t be any better. The desire, or projection, for me to have a more positive experience causes a negative one, but when you accept my grief, and associated feelings, it gives me permission to feel what I need to as I go through this journey, because I feel accepted and understood. I’m afraid this will still likely be uncomfortable for you – try to settle in.
“I don’t know what to say” and a hug is perfectly adequate
I get it. How could you possibly know what to say – I sure as hell wouldn’t! I normally respond to the aforementioned with “neither do I” however, importantly, have a sense that the person at least appreciates the magnitude of it. Then, I (and sometimes we) wipe away the tears and we crush whatever run is on the day’s program. Be genuine and speak from the heart. This helps to nurture or maintain a sense of connection, which can be neglected in so many ways whilst grieving.
Address the elephant – ask your friend if they would like to talk about ‘their person’
I love talking about Frankie so much that I’m constantly coming up with unique segues to sneak him into conversations. This typically results in me feeling guilty and selfish for subjecting someone who was likely otherwise having a lovely day to a ‘cancer chat’. Though, for a few brief moments, I get to talk proudly about Frankie and it brings just a little comfort, and I’m deeply appreciative when people let me do that. With that said, some grieving individuals find it too painful to talk, and it’s important to respect that. I always find it thoughtful when someone asks “do you want to talk about him?” and, just for the record, my answer every single time is, “yeah, I do.”
Don’t worry, you won’t make them upset and remind them of what has happened
They are sad all of the time. Chances are they are already thinking about it, trying not to cry, and hoping that you’ll give them permission to talk about something that is more important to them than the weather or what’s going on at work. I find much greater solace in riffing about the challenges of running negative splits once someone offers me the chance to talk about, for instance, how much I miss Frankie or how my daughter, Scarlett, is doing. If I don’t get that chance, it can be hard to get my mind into whatever it is that I’m doing.
It may, or may not, involve holding the same pace that you are accustomed to seeing them run or ride, but the important thing is that they keep moving – it might be a sadistic track session, but it could also be a walk on the beach or an easy jog on the trails. Most of us are aware of the broad benefits to exercise – benefits that are perhaps even more important to prioritize when grieving, but also likely to be lost, or at least limited, during such times. Without pressuring, continue to invite them along, even if they don’t reply or come along initially. You might say something like “hey dude, no need to reply, but we’re heading into the forest tomorrow at 8am at the usual spot for an easy 60mins. We’ll grab a coffee after, we’d love to see ya x.” Letting them know that they’re missed can be hugely welcome, even if they’re not ready to join just yet.
Frankie had a diffuse tumor, which meant that it had poorly defined boundaries and once established it quickly permeated otherwise healthy parts of his brain. For my wife, Michelle, and I, the associated grief has been similar. Everything has changed for us. Everything. Work, hobbies, relationships – nothing is unaffected, and this is a truly cruel and, perhaps, underappreciated aspect of grief. Dealing with the loss of Frankie is so hard, and in contrast to the ‘time heals’ mantra, in many ways, things are getting harder and more complex. I miss him more every day. I’m constantly anxious that Scarlett feels lonely, all while falling behind on career goals and feeling disconnected from friends and colleagues. I trust that things will evolve over time though, and I share this to highlight the far-reaching implications of grief and to remind you to think about your friend’s needs and, in addition to deeply missing their loved one, how their life may be more broadly affected.
I’ve been on many group runs since Frankie passed away. What I’ve found in my experience is that whether you’re an old friend or a complete stranger, you can’t fix things, nor can you fuck them up, but you can help. Currently, every run is hard for me, and it will be that way for a long time. However, because of the kind support from others, during some runs I’ve felt present, understood, cared-for, and part of something. Those moments, however fleeting, are truly wonderful.
Warrick and his family have started a charity called ‘Frankie to the Rescue’ to support families experiencing similar circumstances. They provide gifts and activity packs for children as well as parents’ packs, with a focus on those receiving palliative care. For more information or to make a donation, please visit https://givealittle.co.nz/cause/frankie-to-the-rescue