A good friend and I were taking a walk when she asked if I'd like to explore a path near her house. It wasn't until about 10 minutes in that I realized we were headed right into the woods behind my old neighborhood, the woods where Jack died.
I hadn't been back there in many years. I didn't want to make my friend feel bad for not connecting the dots that her neighborhood eventually ran into my former one. She's been going through a rough time, and I'd wanted the focus of our time to be on her, not on me.
As we walked beside the empty creek bed, noticeably dry even after 5 straight days of storms, I was transported back to the terrifying afternoon and evening 11 years ago when Jack fell in the creek and drowned.
As my friend and I spoke of other things, I silently checked in with my feelings, letting thoughts pass in and out of my head:
"There's the house where it happened."
"I wish no one had let them to play back there."
Then, as we followed the long path parallel to the creek, traversing the distance between where Jack fell in and where he was found, I thought of his small body hurtling through the churning water.
"This is really far. Wow. This is even farther than I remembered."
In checking in with myself, I found that I was okay. I wasn't stuffing my grief down. I was acknowledging the significance of the location, while still able to stay present with my friend with genuine interest and concern. I then shared some personal difficulties I'm having and got wise counsel from her.
Both of these things felt significant.
First, it was a gift that I was able to truly care about another's situation, because in the early days of grief, that seemed impossible. Back then, I couldn't imagine the ticker tape in my mind or heart saying anything other than "Jack, Jack, Jack, Jack" for the rest of my days.
Second, I was able to talk about problems I'm currently facing in the life I have, not just the pain of Jack's death and the life I thought I would have.
We made it to the end of the path, retraced our steps, and ended up back at her house.
I don't know whether this experience is helpful to anyone in early grief because frankly, thinking about years and years down the road was distasteful and scary to me at that time. It was torture to consider living so long without Jack's physical presence, and the impossible concept of healing or "getting better" provided no comfort whatsoever.
I was worried about 11 seconds!
Surviving grief is not about years, months, weeks, or even days. Sometimes it is a moment by moment slog in which your brain tries to process your new, unwanted reality, while also being forced to remain tethered to the rest of the world.
This walk made me think about how amazing it is that pain can lessen and soften-- although not through sheer will, or the desire of others for us to "get better."
In my case, it lessened through being acknowledged. Through glimmers of hope. Through my understanding that love never dies. And yes, through time. Lots of time.
I am no longer a raw, exposed nerve-ending. I am a person who can take a walk in the woods with a friend on a gorgeous fall day, appreciating the crunch of leaves under my feet, while living in this moment, being supportive, and being supported as well.