How to Summit Grieving’s Everyday Mountains

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by Joe Mudd on January 20, 2011

The blog Zen Habits is one of the most popular on the Internet. The following post is an adaptation of a post called A Guide to Reaching Life’s Summits. I thought many of the points and tips in the Zen Habits post apply to the grieving parent’s journey up the mountain of pain we all face each day. The italicized block quotes are from the Zen Habits article, and my grieving parent version is below it.

Pack light.

I wish I took this more seriously. Every unnecessary piece of gear complicates things and detracts from the experience. Aside from the bare necessities, things do not make life better. They often cause more stress and keep you from what’s most important. The lighter your pack the better. Life is too short to be burdened with excessive possessions, emotional baggage or regrets. Positive thoughts, relationships and experiences weigh nothing at all. Pile them on and leave the rest behind. They’ll lift you to the top.

Grieving parents are left with emotional bags to carry on their journey up the grief mountain. So many “should have done this – if only I’d have done that” kind of questions we have. Why did this happen and why didn’t we see it coming and stop it? These emotions don’t help. They create stress. You have to let them go. The truth is we don’t control this life on earth. The ultimate outcome is not in your hands. You have to forgive yourself before you can heal. Lighten up.

Take one step at a time.

Any major accomplishment can be broken down into a series of single steps. My pattern for the mountain was 15 steps up, 15 breaths of rest. I did that for 7 hours. If I would have only focused on the very top, frustration would have overcome me. If your summit is too intimidating, break it into smaller steps. Focus on those one by one. Eventually one step will be the one that puts you on top.

In our computer-based rush around world, we expect results to happen fast – often in just an instant. This is not a trip to the corner store. It’s a journey. A long arduous climb up a mountain. It will take years, and we’ll probably never get to the top of the mountain. Give yourself permission to grieve, to be sad, to accept life has changed and can’t be changed back. One day at a time. One hour at a time.

Don’t go at it alone.

When climbing, a partner is a must. For safety, support, camaraderie, motivation and simply to share the journey. You’d be silly (and putting yourself in great danger) to go up alone. Life is meant to be experienced with others. It makes the valleys shallower and the peaks higher. Relationships magnify experiences and help you do things that prove impossible alone. Don’t leave home without your support team.

Find some help. You need someone to talk to. We’ve found The Compassionate Friends to be a great resource. TCF is made up of other bereaved parents. They’re on the same journey. Some of them have been climbing this mountain for decades. Others are just starting out. They know how you feel and what you’re going through.  Hospice is another good organization that helps the grieving parent. Maybe you have a good church and can get help there. Maybe you need one-on-one care and need to find a professional. Just don’t try to go it alone.

Listen to the experts.

Halfway up, a passing guide told us if we couldn’t get to the top by 12:30 at the latest, then to turn back. Chances of late day thunderstorms were too great. As amateurs we would have had no idea. While we all ought to experience our own paths, it’s foolish not to learn from and observe the guidance of experts. Choose your life models wisely and keep them close by on your journey.

Once again TCF is a good resource. There are also many helpful books.

Slow down.

As Yvon Chouinard of Patagonia says, “It’s about how you got there. Not what you’ve accomplished.” Despite what colleagues and competitors may tell you, there is no rush. Rushing on the mountain risks slipping, not acclimating to thinning air, exhaustion and possibly death. In life the biggest risk is that you miss the wonders of everyday experiences in your pursuit to the top. The top is secondary to the process.

The grieving parents world is a swirling fog of confusion and pain. Slow down. Breath. Take time for quite time. Time to just think and center yourself. A time to find yourself again. This is a marathon not a 40 yard dash. Slow and steady is the best pace.

Look back and take in the view.

There’s never any guarantee that you’ll get to the top, but you always have the ability to stop, take in a deep breath, smile and enjoy the view-whether it’s miles of wilderness or two feet of fog. It’s all wonderful. Every moment of life is a new view to appreciate.

It helps to look back. Remember when the pain was so fresh and new? How you couldn’t get through a day without crying several times? – maybe constantly? Remember how you couldn’t laugh anymore? Then gradually the tears fell less and laughter came back. Maybe you felt guilty. But life does come back. It’s different now, and not better. But gradually it gets better. Look back occasionally and notice.

Save some energy for the trip down.

We thought the summit was “just over that peak” half a dozen times before it actually was. Conserve energy. Things will inevitably take longer than expected. Don’t be discouraged. Budget your capital, energy and drive appropriately. Rarely is anything in life an all out sprint. Treat it like a marathon. You may need your reserves when you least expect it.

It’s said, “A man must know his limits.” Grieving parents have to know their limits too. We all grieve differently. You have to find your way through this.

Maybe big family gatherings are too much for you at first. Skip a few. Maybe you no longer feel like doing all the Christmas decorating that you did when your child was still here. So don’t do it. Some people we know take trips at Christmas now.

You won’t “get over it” but you will learn to cope. Just remember you can’t do it all at once. Give yourself time. Take small steps.

Getting to the top is optional. Getting down is mandatory.

These are Ed Viesturs’ famous words; the first U.S. man to summit all 14 peaks above 8,000 meters with no bottled oxygen. The summit will be there tomorrow and likely so will yours. If more planning, a stronger team or more support is required, then save the summit for a time when the payout is safer and more probable. If you are outmatched, know when to turn back, only to return stronger and more savvy tomorrow. Stay objective and don’t let short-term excitement get in the way of long-term fulfillment.

Failure is a part of the process.

If we would have started our climb the week before, conditions would have been too grave to make it. Be ok with not reaching the summit every time. Falling short is inevitable. You will never learn more than from your failures…at anything. Embrace them.

A daunting summit is nothing more than a challenge. A challenge is simply an opportunity in disguise. You won’t summit every one you come across, but you will become a better person with each attempt.

There will always be another mountain. You are not meant to conquer them all. Past summits are simply preparing you for the next. With the right strategy, you’ll put the top within reach. When your summit arrives, you will be ready.

“It is not the mountains we conquer but ourselves.” ~Sir Edmund Hillary

Grieving isn’t pretty. There will be good days and bad. Lot’s of bad days. Feeling OK one day and completely down the next doesn’t mean you’ve failed. It’s OK to be sad, to miss your kid so bad you don’t think you can go on. You can go on. Live through the bad times, remember the good ones and keep taking one step forward.

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