At first, right after the loss of my daughter, I did not want to move, let alone exercise. But once I was able to slowly join the living again after her death and started incorporating moderate exercise into my life, I did feel somewhat better. It didn’t cure my grief, but it did give me protection from it. Exercising was like a shield I could use to help get me through the day. If I went for a walk or run that morning, I felt that I was better able to face the smaller moments of disappointment, or what would be normal everyday challenges, that were now intensified by my grief.
Such as in February, when we had mice in our house and my husband killed one with a mouse trap. This, what normally would be a regular life challenge, was more difficult for me to handle due to my grief and the fact that death was once again in my house. But, these challenges were more tolerable on the days I had exercised. I’m not sure if it was the 30 minutes of focused time of being distracted from my thoughts, being brought back into my body through the physical exertion, or the increase in chemicals in my brain that the exercise produced, or maybe a combination of both. Either way, on the days that I exercised, life seemed a little bit more manageable.
On days that I did not exercise I could tell that I felt more depressed and sluggish. Nick noticed this as well. He did not intentionally take on my February challenge of exercise and healthy eating with me, but he did try these practices in order to keep in good shape. He, too, said that he noticed a difference in his emotional state. I could notice the change in his attitude as well. On days that he did not exercise he might be more withdrawn, sullen, or at times irritable.
Grief expert Therese A. Rando talks about the connection between exercise and the reduction of aggressive emotions in her book, How to Go on Living When Someone You Love Dies. She notes that there could be a connection between the physical exertion and the reduction of anger associated with the grieving process. This is good news, because as Elizabeth Kubler-Ross, M.D., writes that anger is one of the five stages of grieving, then exercise could be one tool to use in helping us in navigating that stage in a healthy way.
Nick and I aren’t the only ones who have used exercise to deal with grief. A Virginia mom, Rebecca Garson, who lost her 10 month old daughter in 2005 to a rare genetic disorder, walked her way to healing. She talks about her journey to healing by walking through grief in her article, “Walking Healed My Heart and Body.” Garson states that after 4 months of training to walk in the Richmond’s Prevention Marathon that, “Mentally I was in a better place,” and her “emotional dips were fewer and further apart.” Another Mom, Dorothy from California, also used walking to ease the pain of grief. She is quoted in the Medicine For The Mind Journal written by Victor Parachin as saying, “Walking helped me avoid depression and kept me sane after my beautiful daughter was killed last year,” and “It allowed me to process my grief and anguish, I just got off the floor and did it, even on days when I wanted to curl up and die.” Dorothy goes as far to say that walking even helped “save thousands of dollars on therapy.”
Nick and I plan on continuing to deal with grief through exercise daily and in the long term. Part of our healing journey involves running two half marathons this spring, in April and May. We also plan on participating in the Hope for Hearts Run in September, which raises money to help research stillbirth, we will do this in our daughter’s honor by having a “Team Nora." Having long term goals helps me stay committed to my exercise plan. But I also see it as going on living and trying new challenges that my daughter will never be able to try, such as running a half marathon.
Through doing my daily exercise and running the half marathon I see myself dedicating my actions to her and her spirit, as well as managing my grief. She inspires me to go on living, and part of living is maintaining physical and mental health. Exercise helps with both.