Now, several years later, I can begin to put into words how I survived. In telling my story, I hope to help others with the grief they carry as well.
On a beautiful summer day in 2012, outside of Boulder, Colorado, my partner, Michael, fell off his mountain bike and crashed into solid rock. He severed his spinal cord, resulting in quadriplegia—paralysis from the chest down. Life as we knew it was changed forever.
Even though I didn’t physically experience this life-altering injury myself, survival for both of us took a lot of effort. Eventually, I found doing the walking my partner could no longer do helped immensely. So much so that I went on a very long walk through France and Spain. The Camino de Santiago is a sacred pilgrimage route that has been tread for thousands of years. It is magical, amazing, and challenging. Traveled for at least 5,000 years, the Camino is said to follow the Milky Way to Europe’s farthest western tip.
Walking the Camino was the best thing I’ve done for the worst thing that happened to me. Three years after the accident, I continued running my therapy practice while my partner hung onto his new life, in and out of the hospital, and funds were meager. But when an email from Red Monkey Walking Travel landed in my inbox for a walking meditation trip on the Camino, I immediately heard the call to join. Michael loves nothing more than hiking outside in nature. He loves Spain. Both of these are all but impossible for him now, and I knew I would walk for him.
As soon as I posted the fundraising page, money started pouring in. Tears of gratitude rolled down as I read the messages from our friends. My community wanted to support me in doing this pilgrimage, and they were ready to care for Michael in my absence.
A few months later, I was on a flight to Europe. After meeting up with a lovely group in Spain, we traveled to France and started walking. We trekked for 12 days, spanning a total of 110 miles. Walking the Camino is no easy feat—and not easy on my feet, either! But at least there was a path with welcoming yellow arrows along the roadside as if to say This way, my friend. In grief, such clear direction often eludes us.
Entire days were devoted to silence, and my intention focused on one simple task: walking. With each footstep, I was telling my story to the earth and all of nature surrounding me—the story of how, in an instant, Michael and I went from being a typical couple to facing what we had lost: walking, holding hands, hiking, dancing, biking, camping, traveling, cooking, having able-bodied sex, grocery shopping, and so much more.
The other pilgrims, both in my group and those we met along the way, were also walking to make sense of what life had given them. We chatted with a Swiss man who had been walking for three months to reckon with his new life after acquiring a brain injury from a stroke. Several people we encountered were going through divorces. All of us were struggling with impossible questions.
While walking, a question arose like a mantra in my mind: How do I love what is?
After one of the most challenging days on the Camino—the day we walked up and over the Pyrenees—I took my aching feet to the Cathedral of Roncesvalles, where a mass for pilgrims has been held every evening for over 1,000 years. As I took a seat on a hard pew, organ music began to fill the little cathedral. The tune was haunting and familiar, but I couldn’t place it until the organ player sang along to the chorus, the words of Metallica’s Nothing Else Matters. I had missed the mass, but the message rang clear.
"Nothing else matters except the love we have for each other," I thought to myself. I began to sob as I took in Metallica’s message. A year later, the song played as Michael and I entered the space for our commitment ceremony. I am forever grateful for that day when I walked myself into the answer. I cannot love quadriplegia. I don’t think I ever will. But I can, and do, love my partner.
When grieving a significant loss, walking is both necessary and impossible. It is necessary because it is so beneficial for the body and helps the mind to integrate. Yet, it also seems impossible because the cognitive weight of grief produces a physical sensation of heaviness and lethargy.
But grief needs to move—both internally and externally. Movement helps us survive.
Before his accident, Michael took full advantage of the incredible gift that is walking and moving his body. Having that snatched away from him made me realize that we are often guilty of taking this basic human activity for granted. So now, I make it a priority to carve out time walking on a regular basis, both for my personal well-being and especially in honor of those who won't ever experience this simple miracle again.
Whether you choose to walk the Camino or simply go on daily hikes close to home to work through your grief, give yourself your undivided attention. Slow down and feel your feet connecting with the ground below you. Breathe in and out. Remind yourself that walking in this new wilderness of grief is possible by simply placing one foot in front of the other.
Blessings to you along this daunting journey of living life upside down.
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About the Author
Beth Erlander is a body-centered psychotherapist and “grief geek” whose passion is using the creative arts to help others through life transitions of all kinds.