Last week I went on a women’s retreat in Milwaukee. It was through the Tragedy Assistance Program for Survivors (TAPS) and all of the women there were survivors of a military loss. It was a great experience and I highly recommend that anyone who has the opportunity to go on a retreat with people that you can connect with does so at least once.
I was very apprehensive about the trip. I don’t do well in new situations, surrounded by strangers. I am very quiet until I warm up to people. And three days is just enough time for me to get comfortable but not quite enough to make the deep connections I have been searching for since Joshua died.I look forward to connecting with these amazing women in the future and strengthening the bonds that we made. Until then, I would like to use this blog post to reflect on what I learned about myself and about my grief during the retreat.
On our first day together we went tandem kayaking. I had only ever been kayaking in a single and I had only ever gone with Josh. It had been a couple of years since the last time we went and I was afraid that I wouldn’t remember how to use the paddle correctly. I was also afraid that whomever I was partnered up with would get frustrated with my inability to “do it right” and that it would be a miserable experience.
Thankfully, that was not the case. My partner and I were able to work together easily. The second we were out on the water, it was like things just clicked. We were able to sync up with each other and work together towards our common goal. There was minimal communication needed between us, but when we did need to talk about turning and slowing down, we were able to do so effortlessly.
With a little reflection, I was able to relate this process to the grieving process for me over these last several months. As many grieving people know, there is always someone waiting to tell you what to do and which direction you should go. Usually, these people have never been in your shoes and while they have good intentions, they are generally ignorant to the profound changes that come with loss. I have fought internally many times with whether or not I should heed a do-gooders advice. What has always saved me was falling back on the people who “get it” – they will always have my best interest in mind. And they will never try to tell me what to do. Because they know. Grief is different for everyone. Circumstances surrounding loss are different for everyone. Through this experience, I have learned that connecting with someone, sharing similar stories of loss, and being able to take that connection and apply it to a task is so powerful. Allowing yourself to be vulnerable and share the ugly parts of what you have gone through will afford a much stronger connection than just staying on the surface.
Another activity that we all participated in was paddleboard yoga. Again, this was something that I had only done before with Josh. Well, not the yoga part but the paddleboarding. And, again, I was afraid that I would not be any good at it. I was afraid that I was going to fall right off of the board and not be able to get back on again. If that isn’t a metaphor for my life, I’m not sure what is. However, I was able to get out there, find my balance, stand up on the board and even participate in some of the yoga moves. This was a small, personal victory for me. But what really moved me was what happened within the group as a whole. We really came together. The encouragement, the excitement, the celebrations for everyone who took a step forward in overcoming their fears was phenomenal. People who were refusing to even get on the board were standing up by the end of it. And yes, some people fell into the water. And some people chose to fall. And some people got a little lost along the way. But we were always there to lift each other up, encourage each other to get back on and keep trying. Just like our military men who were probably all watching down from somewhere in the “Great Beyond” – we had each other’s backs. Those types of experiences are rare for me and I am so grateful to have been a witness to it.
And this also resembles the grief process in so many ways. We are all in so much pain and hiding in fear of the unknown. But with the encouragement and support of others, we can pull ourselves out of our darkest places. It might take a while, but as long as there are people there who can shine their lights and guide us along the way, we will make it.
The final event that I want to reflect on was a deuce coupe scavenger hunt. These small, side-by-side bicycles with one steering handle in the middle were our chariots to plethora of locations within a park along the coastline. We had to work together while peddling and one person was tasked with navigating while the other people steered the vessel. That takes a lot of trust. Especially when you are working with someone that you have known for less than 72 hours. But we did it. And we were able to peddle and push together when unforeseen obstacles got in the way. There are hills within our grief that look like insurmountable mountains while we are climbing them. But if we can bring others in to help us climb, the mountain begins to feel more manageable. It begins to look more like a hill. And sometimes we might end up off road, but together we will always be able to find out way back to smooth land.
There were plenty of other meaningful activities, including a kite building session that I will likely share photos of on my blog Facebook page (@readysetgrieve) – but these were the ones that I wanted to reflect upon and remember in the future.
I think the most important thing that I learned on this trip was that I am okay. And I can do this. I often following in Joshua’s shadow, he had such a large presence. I was inexperienced with many outdoors things and so I followed his lead. I know now that while he was my teacher for many lessons in life, I am no longer his student. I have grown and learned and am now able to do all of these things on my own. And maybe, some day, I can even teach others how to do them.
I learned so many things from Joshua while he was alive, but one of the greatest gifts of his death was learning my strength. Finding myself. Knowing what I am capable of.
I’m on my own now. And, because of his lessons, I know that I CAN do this.