Running Is a Great Coping Mechanism for Grief
"I had a distinctive time to be sad and not have grief take over my life.”
by Cindy Kuzma
Nov 20 2017, 9:13pm
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Erica Reid Gerdes was 28 when her 53-year-old father died of cancer in December of 2007. Her mother, devastated, began relying heavily on prescription drugs—with severe side effects and hospitalizations that have added to the strain for Gerdes and her brother.
Not wanting to follow her mother’s path, Gerdes turned to a different coping mechanism: endurance sports. She completed her first triathlon in her father’s memory four years after he passed away, then did three more the next year.
After a difficult year involving the loss of a good friend to cancer and a setback with her mother’s health, Gerdes took on another challenge she’d never before thought fathomable: She ran her first half marathon in October.
These activities aren’t easy for the Chicago producer, choreographer, and musician. But the struggle is part of the point. “I’ve been through so many harder things. I’ve watched my father die. I’ve bathed my mother while she hasn’t had a mind in her,” she says. “So I tell myself: You can run 13.1 miles, that’s easy. I’m proving to myself again that I can get through it.”
Training and racing—though she doesn’t focus on her times—gives Gerdes a sense of control during periods when much of her life feels unhinged. She’s not alone in turning to running after a loss. Some, like Gerdes, try the sport for the first time in the wake of sorrow. Others who were athletes before intensify or deepen their commitment to training after a loss, or take on new challenges in memory or in honor of a loved one who’s passed.
“You’re both really powerful and really vulnerable at the same time when you’re running, just physically,” says Sepideh Saremi, a licensed psychotherapist who believes so strongly in the power of the sport that she incorporates it into therapy sessions at Los Angeles-based Run Walk Talk. “There is an intensity when you’re running that makes other types of intensity more tolerable or less intense, in contrast to what’s happening in your body.”
Some of the psychological benefits of running are neurochemical. Molecules called endocannabanoids flow through your bloodstream at higher levels after a run, and then slip through your blood-brain barrier to fill the same slots as pot, stimulating similar feelings of calmness and peace (there’s a reason they call it runner’s high).
A study published in the journal Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise earlier this year correlated higher endocannabinoid levels to less stress and depression. And in research published last year by Rutgers University, the combination of meditating and running decreased symptoms of depression nearly 40 percent in eight weeks.
Of course, grief isn’t a mental illness that requires treatment—it’s a normal, human reaction to losing someone you love. But conditions like depression and anxiety can complicate grief. If you’ve dealt with them before, they may come raging back after a loss, Saremi says. Running provides an outlet to manage the barrage of emotions grief brings, says Jennifer Huberty, an exercise physiologist and researcher at Arizona State University in Phoenix.
When Huberty had a stillborn daughter, Raine, six years ago, she felt overwhelmed but found grief counseling too painful: “Other women have reported this too—it doesn’t change the situation that you don’t have your child. It takes you a week to feel better, and then you’re ripping the Band-Aid off again. For me, it wasn’t working.”
Instead, Huberty took her grief where she’d always gone—to the gym. Even as tears splattered across the exercise bike and treadmill, she found respite from questions about her baby and judgments about the way she was coping.
Running can offer similar benefits and often means avoiding a gym with familiar faces. “Running is a solo activity, for the most part. It allows you to just have the alone time, the downtime, where people aren’t talking to you, putting their opinions on you,” Huberty says. “It’s a sigh of relief.”
Now, Huberty studies the benefits of exercise for others in her situation. A study she published in 2014 shows that women who worked out after a stillbirth—most walked or jogged—had fewer symptoms of depression than those who stayed sedentary. She’s working on ways to encourage them to move more, whether through running or other activities, such as home-based yoga.
While people in mourning may sometimes seek solitude, in other cases, they crave connection. In a society with few rules or rituals for talking about grief, the team aspect of running and the uniqueness of relationships forged over miles may offer welcome opportunities to share, Saremi says.
Tracy Cockerham, a runner from Santa Cruz, California, had just started fundraising for the Melanoma Foundation of New England in the fall of 2013. She planned to run the next year’s Boston Marathon in honor of her son, Connor. He’d been diagnosed with the disease at age 18, but after four months and two surgeries, the boy she lovingly called “The Ginger” was declared cancer-free.
Instead, she ran the race in his memory. Connor was rediagnosed that November and passed away on Jan. 9, 2014. Because she was on the opposite coast, Cockerham hadn’t met most of her charity fundraising teammates in person. But they’d communicated online, and when Cockerham received her singlet in the mail for the race, she saw “For The Ginger” emblazoned across the front. She wondered if it was one-of-a-kind—until she saw all her teammates’ photos wearing identical jerseys on Facebook. “It took my breath away,” she says.
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Cockerham has since joined the board of directors of the foundation—now called Impact Melanoma—and has launched her own non-profit, the Melanoma Coalition. She also has local training partners in Santa Cruz who she says have been vital to her support system. With one of them, she’s planning a 5K race to raise more funds and continue remembering Connor.
“When you lose a child, that honestly is the worst thing that can happen to a parent. After that child is gone, the worst thing that can happen is people forget about him,” she says. “Doing these things keeps his name alive and keeps his memory alive.” When a loved one dies, Saremi says, your relationship doesn’t end. The idea of connecting running to that person becomes a way to honor that, to “make meaning out of something that is inherently meaningless,” she says.
Jim Williams’ reasons for running were far more literal, at least at first. When his wife Becky was diagnosed with multiple myeloma in 2008, the couple traveled 100 miles from their Staunton, Virginia, home so she could have a stem cell transplant. “You can only see the inside of a hospital room for so long without going completely nuts,” he says. “I started slipping out and getting a couple miles in to try and clear my head.”
At the time, doctors gave Becky six to eight months to live. But she recovered, and Williams kept running, working his way up from 5Ks to half marathons. Eventually, the two—who loved to travel—set a joint goal of making it to Athens so Williams could run his first marathon there in 2010 (a year the race celebrated the 2500 th anniversary of Pheidippides’ initial journey from Marathon).
Becky’s health improved, Jim trained hard, and they made it to Greece. Afterward, the couple looked for more opportunities to travel. They set their sights on the Abbott World Marathon Majors, a collection of six races in major cities, checking Boston, Chicago, London, Berlin, and New York off the list.
But Becky relapsed before what was to be their final major, Tokyo in February 2014. They postponed the trip. Becky passed away in December 2016—but not before she made Jim promise he’d go the next year. “She said, ‘You’ve missed too much over the years with me,’” he says.
Much of the travel, two months after her death, remains a blur. He had far from his best performance. But as he would in many other races, Williams channeled his wife’s strength. “You get somewhere around mile 22 or 23, and you think, ‘I can’t do this anymore,’” he says. “But I’m constantly reminded that little bit of pain is nothing compared to what she was living with every day, just trying to get out of bed in the morning.”
He’s still training—he ran the Steamtown marathon in October—and is even flirting with the idea of an ultramarathon. The route for his long training runs used to take him past the cemetery where Becky’s now buried. Now he makes a point to go inside.
Kristen Geil also reconnects on the run with her mother, who died of metastatic breast cancer in 2014. “The university arboretum is a mile from our house, and one of her favorite things to do for exercise was to go and take a friend and just walk and gossip the whole two miles,” she says. “Whenever I go home I run it and think about my mom.”
Geil was preparing for her first marathon when her mother died. Immediately afterward, she temporarily moved from Chicago back home to Kentucky and kept training. For one thing, running was an acceptable way to physically leave the house and the well-meaning but seemingly never-ending stream of visitors. What’s more, it served as a sort of container for her emotions.
“I made a rule for myself—if I want to have any sad thoughts or negative thoughts or really just dwell on something, I’m going to do that and honor it, but I’m going to do it on a run,” she says. “I had a distinctive time to be sad, to get through days, and not have grief take over my life.”
For a while, it was running that loomed extra-large in her life. Her mother died in September of 2014, Geil finished her first Chicago Marathon in October, then tackled two more—one in her hometown of Lexington and another in Grand Rapids, Michigan—before a year had passed.
At her third race, she hit her personal-best time of 3:51:11—then felt done, burned out. “I knew I needed a break, but I don’t think I realized how much I’d been leaning on running,” she says.
At first, she feared she’d slide back into deeper grief. Day by day, she realized the knowledge she’d gained on the path—that she could experience sadness and also appreciate the positive things in life—lingered after she’d backed off her regimen. Though she still includes some running in her routine, “I definitely was aware I did not need it in that same everyday drug type of way,” she says.
Her experience speaks to the importance of having multiple coping strategies, Saremi says. After all, injuries, weather, or other factors beyond your control can interfere with your training and racing plans, and your motivation may wax and wane.
“I want people to have as vast and varied of a toolset as possible to deal with anything, so if running’s not available, you have therapy. If therapy’s not available, you have two or three really good friends you can lean on, or you’re going to see a psychiatrist or you’re talking to your primary care doctor.”
For those who can run and choose to use it as a coping mechanism, Saremi sees a striking symbolism in forward momentum. “When you’re in grief like that, it’s like being in tar. It feels so bad,” she says. “I think running is the opposite of being stuck. It gives you hope that even though you can’t do anything to bring that person back, you’re still alive, and your life can go on.”
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Read This Next: I Started Running to Keep Myself Alive