The Healing Power of “Grief Runs”

Fitness

Shelby Forsythia can’t listen to the song “Wrecking Ball” by Miley Cyrus without being reminded of grief. When she learned that her mom’s breast cancer would be terminal in December 2013, Forsythia used running and music as a way to cope. She’d play the pop ballad on repeat through the long cord of her headphones while she dashed back and forth from her home to a nearby park.

“The lyrics crashed through me as I pumped my arms and legs,” Forsythia remembers. “I saw myself as an innocent, unsuspecting being in a violent, screeching construction site. My demolition was inevitable, and all I could do was run. Not to escape the certainty of my mother’s death, but to feel like I was doing something — anything — with the pain of it.”

After a short period in hospice care, Forsythia’s mom died on December 26, 2013 — and the combination of movement and melody helped Forsythia process her loss. “At a time when everything felt so big and so inescapable, running and listening made me feel like I had an outlet to channel it all into,” she says.

Many runners say that lacing up their shoes while processing a loss is supremely helpful, says Meghan Riordan Jarvis, LICSW, a psychotherapist and author. “I think of grief as this jet pack of new energy that’s created in the body on account of loss,” Riordan Jarvis says. “The energy needs to be processed and moved through the body.” That might be through walking, running, or chair yoga. Anything with bilateral movement, using both sides of the body, tends to have a soothing effect and help people process, she adds.

This has to do with the brain-body connection, says Beth Connolly, PsyD, a clinical psychologist who practices “running therapy,” which involves running or walking with her patients during sessions. “Most people misunderstand the intensity of the relationship between the mind and the body,” Dr. Connolly says. “We tend to see our bodies as these separate vessels. But if something feels so emotionally overwhelming — like it’s too much to process — we can first look to our bodies to start the healing process.”

When the brain is trying to compute something challenging and new — whether it’s the loss of a loved one, a breakup, a job loss, or something else — it can send us all kinds of mixed signals. It usually means our sympathetic nervous system is activated, prompting us to “fight, flee, or freeze,” Riordan Jarvis says.

“One of the brain’s jobs is to assess: am I safe? And nothing feels safe when you’ve lost someone deeply connected to you,” Riordan Jarvis adds. “The brain is experiencing a fight/flight response. It’s trying to fight against or run away from the fact that this person has died. And it can’t — sadly, we can’t do that. The natural next step would be to freeze, but when we’re exercising, we’re preventing that freeze from happening. And part of you that wants to run away? We’re giving it something to do.”

For as long as your jog lasts, you can run away from the hard things in life without actually going anywhere. And that’s just the starting line of the benefits runners say they’ve gained running through periods of grief.

A Path to Processing

Until she was about 50 years old, Bernadette Turner disliked running — no, she “despised” it. Then one day, while watching her kids run track, she noticed some other adults her age were also jogging for fun at the same rec center. “I thought, ‘If they can do it, I can do it,'” she remembers. “I just decided to start and do my best to make it around the track. From there, it took off.” She joined a running group in Georgia with Black Girls Run, and now, at 61, Turner’s run a marathon and has done 5K every day for the past year. For her, running isn’t just about moving her body, but is a way to process, especially during hard times.

When Turner learned her older brother had died, one of the first things she did was lace up her running shoes. She was visiting San Francisco at the time, and her family was hours away in Alabama, where she grew up. “I was feeling this sense of helplessness,” Turner says. “And then suddenly I said, ‘OK, you know what? I need a moment — I need to go for a run. I gotta process this, get some clarity, and then I’ll call you back and get the ball rolling on arrangements.'”

That day, she ran across the Golden Gate Bridge and began to mull over everything that had just happened. “As I looked out at the water, I realized: all this nature and the trees and ocean around me, I did not create this, but I’m glad it’s here,” she says. “And I did not create my brother. I had nothing to do with him being born, and I couldn’t have prevented him from dying.”

This thought helped with the loss of control she was feeling. It also reminded her of a parable about Jonah from the Bible, which helped her feel strong in her faith. Running got her through that terrible day. And the next one. And the one after that.

She’s been running ever since.

A Physical Release

You know the old Elle Woods quote: “Endorphins make you happy . . . ” When you’re grieving, “happy” can feel a million miles away. But any boost at all can help you heal — or at least get through the day. Endorphins — the feel-good neurotransmitters that are released during physical activity — and similar biochemicals released from exercise called endocannabinoids can actually help relieve stress in the body and have natural mood-boosting effects, no matter how low your mood is.

“With athletes, endorphins are part of how you move through pain,” Riordan Jarvis says. “They serve as a protective mechanism. I don’t think people are chasing endorphins when they’re grieving, but endorphins can help the entire system feel a little bit more energized.” Movement may also help you sleep and digest better, which can be a problem for some who are grieving, she adds.

When Mary Creech’s father was diagnosed with stage 4 cancer during her freshman year of college, one of the only things that helped her cope was hopping on the treadmill at West Virginia University. “I’d feel this anxiety that would physically fill up in my chest, and I figured: I can either cry to get this out or I can use my body for a more physical release,” she recalls. “It was a great distraction from the fact I was far away from my family in Ohio and I didn’t know a ton of people at college yet . . . It also helped the hypochondriac in me, who thought: if I’m as healthy as possible, then I’m not going to get sick, too.”

The feeling of release that Creech describes is one of the reasons running helps with grief. “Movement stimulates a biological process — the endorphins that lead to what we hear about as ‘runner’s high’ — and it can help facilitate the release of chemical components of relief that we need to ward off depression or other symptoms,” Dr. Connolly says. “The movement is helping your brain to get what it needs to continue managing your stress and emotions.”

Running may also help people think through their emotions, Dr. Connolly says. Physical activity has been linked to stronger problem-solving skills, possibly because it increases blood flow to the brain, according to research in the journal Environmental Health and Preventive Medicine.

Dr. Connolly adds that there’s a level of “empowerment and mastery” that comes from running, which can give people a sense of control at a time when they feel stuck.

When her dad passed away in February 2019, running got Creech through the dark period in which her mourning intersected with the COVID-19 pandemic. “Because I was running, I wasn’t going to have a breakdown,” she says. “Instead of crying in my bedroom or doomscrolling on TikTok, I’d just keep moving.”

“Fresh Air Will Do You Good”

This isn’t just a quote from “Freaky Friday,” but something experts say is actually a major reason running can be so helpful to those processing a loss. Turner says that being in nature while running has been “meditative” for her. Similarly, Forsythia says getting out of the house helped her, even when the weather was bad.

On the week before her mom died in December 2013, Forsythia remembers “sprinting and noticing the combination of spitty rain and bright Christmas decor — a strange paradox,” she says. “I can now see how it mirrored my grief. There was fog and gray enveloping everything bright and warm. Lacing up my shoes and getting absolutely soaked made me feel validated, like my insides were matching my outsides.”

The day Turner lost her brother, she experienced a similar catharsis for the opposite reason: the scenery around her was gorgeous, which completely offset the sadness she was feeling in a way that made her feel grateful to be alive — and that reminded her how everything in nature has a “life cycle.”

“When you get outside and you allow the sun to hit the system, you feel part of something larger,” Riordan Jarvis says. “The quality of the sunlight, especially before noon, is also believed to help activate serotonin creation. It’s really good for you.”

Dr. Connolly adds that when you pair nature and movement, you’re also getting evolutionary benefits. “Our ancestors were hunter-gatherers, so we’re conditioned to need to move and be outside — it’s how we survive,” she says. “We have this inherent affinity for nature, so by merely being outside, we’re getting a therapeutic benefit in the biological sense.”

Plus, nature is free, and so is running (well, it can be cheap). When Forsythia was processing, she remembers this being a game changer. “I didn’t have to buy a bunch of expensive equipment or go see a medical professional,” she remembers. “Movement is free in a world of telehealth and insurance hurdles, where we’re charged to process our emotions.”

When Exercise Isn’t the Solution

There comes a time when you need to take off the running shoes and rest, Riordan Jarvis says. Although running and walking have tons of benefits, they can only help so much. It’s also important to talk to people about how you’re feeling, whether it’s to a therapist or a friend, and find additional ways of processing.

If running is your only coping tool and you’re constantly hitting the pavement, what was once a helpful survival mechanism can become somewhat unhealthy. “It’s important to evaluate whether it’s becoming a compulsive behavior or obsessional or tied to food restriction in some way,” Dr. Connolly says. If you find that’s the case, she recommends confiding in a therapist or talking it through with someone you trust.

And in general, as much as movement can help, so can rest. “I’m never gonna talk somebody out of running, but if they’re not a regular runner, yet they’re feeling really drawn towards exercise, I would encourage them to start with walking,” Riordan Jarvis says. “If you’re not used to it, you could pull a muscle and you just might literally create more like lactic acid in the system. When you’re grieving, you need all of your energy to process. It can be so exhausting. So if you’re adding physical pain or soreness, it’s just not a great plan.”

Finding Hope on the Road

In “On the Road,” Jack Kerouac writes: “Nothing behind me, everything ahead of me, as is ever so on the road.” When you’re huffing and puffing and looking out at the horizon, you’re literally moving forward. And this trajectory can help you naturally start to move through your grief.

For Turner, running wasn’t about time or distance — especially on days her hip was acting up. Instead, she used her runs as meditations, which got her through her brothers’ death, and many challenges since.

Years after her brother passed away, she began to think of how she could keep moving forward while keeping his memory alive while on a work trip in Maui. She ruminated on this as she gazed out at the shimmery Hawaiian waves on a jog. When she got home, covered in sweat, she grabbed a pen and scratched “scholarship fund” on a notepad. Later, she made a donation in her brother’s name to such a fund at the Alabama church she and her brother grew up in. “That was the result of a run,” she says.

For Creech, as time went on, running shifted from a way to release her emotions to an activity she did for fun with friends. Eventually, she decided to sign up for a half-marathon to benefit the American Association For Cancer Research (AACR). She’s done three halves for the organization since. “This last one, I was very much not motivated to run the whole thing, but then I thought about how lucky I am to be able to run,” she says. “If I can run a couple miles and raise money for people who can’t, it’s the least I can do.”

Although Forsythia can’t listen to “Wrecking Ball” today without feeling a little sad, she still uses running as a transformative way to process loss, and has since gone on to be grief coach, authoring the book “Your Grief, Your Way.” Today, she goes on “grief runs” and thinks about her mom, others she’s lost along the way, and where she’s going.

“Movement helps us change our story,” Forsythia says. “It helped me go from ‘I think I’m going to be sad forever’ to ‘It’s possible to do something else besides suffer.’ The story of my grief isn’t cemented in rock. It’s fluid. It’s in motion, and so am I.” Running ultimately gave Forsythia a way to regain power and control of her own narrative. It helped her realize she wouldn’t feel “wrecked” forever.


Molly Longman is a freelance journalist who loves to tell stories at the intersection of health and politics. Molly enjoys hiking, public records, and looking at cow videos on Instagram. She’s originally from Iowa.


Image Source: Photo illustration by: Aly Lim

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