When my former husband died in 2004, a hospice counselor suggested I join her young spouses grief group. (I was flattered that, at 57, I still qualified as “young.”) One evening about a dozen grievers gathered around a conference table in an office in West Los Angeles. The large windows let in the gloom of pitch black night as we took turns telling our sad stories. An Asian man, still formally dressed in business clothes, black suit, white shirt, tie, said that after work he locked the door to his apartment, and cried. The only time he didn’t cry was when he was playing in a band, because “I can’t cry and play the sax at the same time.” Someone mentioned losing a favorite neighbor. And someone else a second cousin. Not to be too picky, but where were all the other young spouses? To me, who was new to grief, it didn’t seem like a level grieving field.
“Everyone’s grief is the worst,” said the therapist as she opened the session.
If that first group experience hadn’t been helpful, why did I try another? Because I couldn’t stop crying, and it felt like an icy cold draft was blowing in my chest, as if I’d had open heart surgery and the surgeon hadn’t closed up. The second bereavement group was at Agape, a trans-denominational spiritual center where thousands of congregants and a one-hundred-plus gospel choir met in a warehouse in an industrial area of Culver City. I persuaded a friend who had lost his wife to go with me. Tom, who was still so angry that his beautiful wife had died, had insisted once that I sit through an entire slide show of every one of their gorgeous wedding photos. During the three years he’d cared for his forty-four year-old wife as she’d battled a brain tumor, he’d let his business, designing museum exhibitions, slide; eventually, he let his staff of eighteen go; just the previous month, he’d closed his office. He mumbled about rebuilding his business — he had medical bills to pay, but stuck in grief limbo, he asked, “What for? What’s the point?”
On our way to Culver City, he said, “The question is if talking about grief in a group is healing, or leads to healing?”
“We’ll find out,” I shrugged.
We arrived early, and while Tom wandered off to the taco truck, I sat, dazed, at a picnic table that had been set up in the parking lot. A twenty-something woman wearing a pretty cotton sundress was eating a tostada salad at the far end of the table on the opposite side. She asked me what I was there for.
I hesitated. It was going to be hard enough to reveal my story inside to the grief group after it started, but opening up out here in public, in the parking lot, to a stranger? But she kept looking at me. “I’m here for the bereavement group,” I said.
“Who’d you lose?” she asked.
In the bright California Sunday sunshine, I could not believe someone was prying like this. She stared at me, waiting. Finally, and reluctantly, I revealed my loss. “My husband. We were together for seventeen years. He’s been gone for eight months.”
“I understand your loss,” she said.
“Two weeks ago my roommate’s hamster died.”
Just then Tom returned and he offered me a slice of his organic quesadilla.
“We gotta get out of here,” I whispered to him.
As I got up to leave, the woman said to me, “I hope you find your way back to joy today.”
When we were out of earshot, I told him about the hamster. “A hamster?” he said. “A hamster!”
“It wasn’t even her hamster. It was her roommate’s.”
Tom probably hadn’t laughed since Dale died four months earlier, but the hamster did the trick. It dug in and reached a raw deep place and split it wide open. “I wonder if she had a personal catharsis when she had to toss out the hamster food?” he said.
“I hear the hamster scrapbook was another trauma.” I said.
From then on my grief was pre-hamster and post-hamster. Post-hamster was when I turned the corner and realized I was probably going to be okay.
Ten years later, in 2014, when my mother, who was called Babe, died in May on Mother’s Day weekend, you can bet that I did not scout around for a bereavement group for motherless daughters, though I thought about it. Instead I laced up my boots, cinched on my fanny pack, and went hiking. With Ed.
Ed and I had been introduced via e-mail by a mutual friend. Alice wrote: What fun it would be if the two of you decided to have a meal or hike together sometime soon. Both of you have lost a spouse and both love the outdoors. So now I have made the introduction. You two take it from there. On our second date we hiked in the Santa Monica Mountains, and it was on that second date after we’d gone hiking, and we laid side by side on the double-wide turquoise chaise lounge on my deck, and after Ed had responded tremulously to my touch — I’d never felt a man tremble when I touched him — that we talked about marriage and our getting married (yes, this on our second date). Nine months later, we married on a rugged mountaintop at a nature preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains, and Babe, with her red walker — we called it her Ferrari — decorated with so many colorful flowers it looked like a moving bouquet, walked me down the dirt path which served as the “aisle.”
Ed had a cabin in Montana, so post-Babe that’s where we hiked. On high altitude trails with no cell reception where the trees smelled green and the air tasted fresh.
Scientists at the New York Academy of Sciences tell us that being outdoors — sometimes even looking at a picture of the outdoors — can make us smarter, can reduce stress, can be restorative, and can elevate our mood. As I velcroed a bear bell to the handle of my hiking stick, I wondered: can being in nature also make us less grief-stricken?
That summer we hiked the shady Hyalite trail to Grotto Falls with its spectacular vertical drop. If you’re extra careful you can balance on the slick stones down in the river bed, and on a hot day the powerful waterfall gives off a cool, refreshing spritz. Strolling past an alpine meadow filled with waist-high wildflowers, we hiked the strenuous (for us) Spanish Creek trail to Pioneer Falls where it scared me to death when we spotted three grizzlies just to the left of the trail. Ed had a new canister of bear spray, but still. With a guide we side-hilled on gravelly terrain up to a frightening ledge at Storm Castle, a peak we wouldn’t have been brave enough to summit by ourselves. On a top-of-the-world hike at Beehive Basin on our way up to the lake at 9,200 feet, we were forced to turn back because of a snow bank. A snow bank in July? And we slow-picnicked at Fairy Lake, a place so aptly named you wouldn’t be surprised to see gossamer fairies emerging from its pristine emerald waters. (When a friend saw my photo of Hyalite Reservoir with its perfect early morning mirror reflections, she accused me of photoshopping the picture. I told her, “You don’t need to photoshop Montana.”)
On miles and miles of steep and rocky trails I did not think I am deliberately doing this — step after step (so many steps two toenails had already turned black) — to heal myself. I used to hike with a group in Big Sur that did a ritual before every hike. The Shinto ritual — clap-clap-bow! — is done in front of Shino temples in Japan. Before we took our first step onto a trailhead, we stopped and performed that ritual; it’s a deliberate call to attention that we were leaving civilization behind and crossing the threshold into wilderness. Without my Big Sur hiking buddies, I also did not do that prayerful ritual.
I never left for a hike without first thinking, I’d better call Mother first. After a lifetime of checking in with Mother every morning, how could it be otherwise? Out on the trail when a tear slipped down my cheek again, and I let out another long sorrowful sigh of “I miss my Mother!” it helped that Ed had known and liked Babe, too. The first time the three of us went out for dinner at a neighborhood restaurant, we had such a good time we closed the place down. When the big check eventually arrived, to our surprise we had no way to pay: Mom and I didn’t have our purses; Ed hadn’t brought his wallet. But that wasn’t the worst of it. After I signed an IOU, and promised, promised our waiter I’d return tomorrow to pay, we straggled, laughing, out to the parking lot, and that’s when the attendant asked Ed to point out his car, and he couldn’t figure out which of the four or five cars left was his.
“He can’t find his car?” laughed Babe. She’d been married to my father, the kind of handy guy who changed his own oil, and now her daughter was in love with a man who had been a fancy lawyer in Washington, D.C., but he forgets his wallet and can’t identify his car? Babe, who was 92 at the time, thought it was hilarious, and with a twinkle in her eye, never let Ed forget it.
“I can’t find it because I just bought it,” he said.
“It’s green, and we call it the Lovemobile,” I said, laughing.
That first summer post-Mom, I soothed myself in Montana’s green cathedrals. Hiking in the quiet of the woods was the balm that healed this daughter’s soul. Besides, Babe, who had loved visiting us in Montana, and who said, “Life is for the living!” wouldn’t have wanted me moping around inside in some grief group. Mother would have approved: Mother Nature as nurturer, as friend, as grief counselor.