Brené Brown writes: “The wilderness is an untamed, unpredictable place of solitude and searching. It is a place as dangerous as it is breathtaking, a place as sought after as it is feared. But it turns out to be the place of true belonging, and it’s the bravest and most sacred place you will ever stand.”
For me, the wilderness of grief was paired with the wilderness of Yosemite because I went there to hike after my wife died. There, in the solitude of nature, as the noise and rush of city life faded away, I listened to the sounds of nature and heard what grief was trying to tell me.
I knew that I was in a place I didn’t control, and even though I prepared as well as I could to deal with accidents, changes in the weather, mountain lions and bears, nature had its own agenda and set of rules. Every time a stick cracked, I tensed up, not knowing what creature was just passing by or getting ready to attack. I figured that if an animal was heavy enough to break a stick, then it must have big teeth and be enormously hungry. Yet the stunning landscape of the wilderness left me in awe, and I wasn’t going to give this up just because of my fears, whether they were irrational or prudent.
I hiked alone not because I felt isolated in my grief, which I did, but because none of my friends wanted to hike 12 hours a day, and I didn’t want to listen to well-meaning platitudes and theories of grief recovery. Then I discovered that I liked the solitude of the trail. I could move at my own pace, spend as much time as I wanted sitting on a rock and watching the land and its creatures go about their daily lives. There were no human conversations to distract me from listening to the conversations of nature. As the Ahwahnechees and John Muir discovered before me, the wilderness is a sacred place.
When grief sets us down in a landscape we don’t know, we’re neither aware of the dangers nor of the beauty we might encounter, yet we fear the unknown because we’ve heard too many tragic stories of people who lost their way on the trails, and our imaginations go into overdrive. It takes courage to stand in the wilderness, not panic, and let ourselves stay open to seeing reality clearly.
When we face our fears and head into the wilderness, whether this is nature’s wilderness, returning to school at the age 50 to study for what we’ve always wanted to do, or learning how to be a single parent, we find resources and strengths we weren’t sure we had.
I feel at home when I’m sitting on the side of a mountain and looking at hundreds of square miles of wilderness spread out before me. I feel a Presence that seems to hold the wonder and chaos of this world together. As I explore nature’s wilderness, I discover hard truths about myself, learn to trust my heart, and how to soften my rough edges for others.
It takes courage to face our fears and set out each day hiking in a new direction without knowing what dangers we might face. The trails through grief’s wilderness are indistinct and force us to take risks, step outside the boundaries of our comfortable habits, and follow an unknown path.
Facing our grief is one of the most courageous things we will ever do. Yet, on the trail we will find others who are searching, and we will discover the strength and hope of community.