April 12th & 13th 2024

50 Mile | Marathon | TS Half

Highlight Real: Grief and Glimmers

Alex is a trail and ultra runner from the upper midwest who loves Minnesota’s long winters and logging miles on the rooty, rocky, steep trails of Lake Superior’s North Shore. She was the first female to set a supported FKT on the 310 mile Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and enjoys multi-day events and races, especially if they involve snow and -20 degree temps.

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Social media feeds are full of carefully curated highlight reels ripe with opportunities for comparison and judgment (of self and others), that hide or obscure reality. In the past, I contributed to this, returning to social media with the new gear I am reviewing, a fresh brand partnership, or the 14er that I willed myself up after weeks or months of debilitating anxiety and depression. I questioned taking up space with my “real” amidst the highlight reels. 

In the past decade I have opened up in ways that I never imagined myself doing. In sharing the realities of life, and allowing the hard stuff and the really cool stuff to take up equal amounts of space, I have found support and healing in so many places, with so many people. Most recently, I have shared my journey with grief and loss. This was motivated by the handful of others that have shared their experiences. Unbeknownst to them, I often revisited their posts as a means to process  what I was facing in real time. They served as a guide in a way. It also gave me a sense of hope and a reminder that I was not alone in this and that there was a path through loss.

Grief is heavy. Grief is isolating. Anticipatory grief is the ultramarathon version of heavy isolation. It’s like riding your bike 650 miles to the start of the Western States 100, without the environmental gain. Furthermore, there is no celebratory buckle, no t-shirt, and the sporadic, unpredictable aid makes you quickly realize that you are on a largely self-supported journey with a finish line that is unknown to you.

I showed up to the current phase of my life tired. Worn down from a lifetime of anticipatory grief and knowing that a lifetime of it won’t excuse me from the acute grief that accompanies loss. When I was very young I felt this isolation and didn’t have the resources  to put words to it. My mom has been sick since I was 5 years old, when she had her first of eight brain surgeries. Because of the headaches that seemingly worsened between each surgery, we had to be very quiet. Because of her nausea she could not ride in the car. Because of her immobility we could not be active or outside together. Because of her illness I took on a caretaking role very young. We both missed a lot of my childhood to her sickness.

I am 37 years old now. I lost my mom five months ago. It feels both painfully near and strangely distant. The week following her death was spent in a dissociative haze. I knew what was coming, I knew the things people would say. I lost my dad 13 months prior, and my father-in-law 3 months prior to losing my mom. I had practice. I willed myself to take the necessary steps to plan a funeral. To answer questions and make decisions that felt simultaneously trivial and profound. To receive sympathy from many who took more than they gave. It’s funny (exhausting) how many people need to be made to feel good about the things they try to tell you. The inaccurate narrative they try to recite back to you about your relationship, your experience, and how wildly uncomfortable people become around you. Like death is contagious or something. 

I also slept. After months and months of either not sleeping at all or waking every hour to check my phone, anticipating the worst, I turned my phone off, and I slept. A deep sleep that had eluded me for months. I ate. After weeks of having no appetite, I ate full meals at reasonable times. These activities felt indulgent. 

After the funeral, I mindlessly and robotically (over) packed a few bags and we got in the car and started driving west. A much-anticipated routine that we have (over the past two years) gotten out of the routine of doing. The further we got from home the more I missed her, the more I felt as though I was distancing myself from her. I didn’t want space or time. I wanted to stay close to her. It felt like a betrayal, like avoidance. I didn’t want to see or experience beauty, I didn’t want to feel relief. And so I clung to grief and sadness. Then, a few days in, I smiled. I wasn’t really aware that I had smiled until someone made a comment: “you look so happy” on a Strava photo that I posted… I cringed and strongly rejected this assertion. I did not feel happy. I felt miserable. I could not possibly be happy and feel the deep loss that I felt. Then I smiled again, and I realized that a smile, a good run, a good day, feeling the warmth and calm of a beautiful July sunrise did not mean that I cared or missed her less. I realized that holding one, two, sometimes countless seemingly conflicting emotions at the same time, are possible. Because it kept happening. I also realized that experiencing glimmers amidst deep sadness are possible.

Glimmers are the small moments when our mind and body are in a place of connection and regulation, causing our nervous system to feel safe and calm, the opposite of triggers. I was recently introduced to the concept of glimmers by my therapist after describing a deep fear of losing more people from my life. The cumulative effect of my recent losses in a short period of time has me living in a constant state of hypervigilant, anticipatory grief. I worry about my family and friends. I worry the worst will happen to them. Being a cup half empty kind of gal, I thought the concept of a glimmer was a bit cheesy until I realized that I had finally found a word to describe these subtle, fleeting, small moments that I experienced even during the darkest times. A final squeeze of the hand, a warm knowing smile, a reassurance that you are so loved and that you will be ok. I experienced these glimmers during the final days of my mom’s life.

Until very recently, they have evoked both a sense of calm and also fear. Fear that they won’t last, that something will happen to interrupt them. I now understand that without the interruption, it would not be a glimmer. It is the small, passing nature of them that make them special. Slowing down and being intentional about recognizing glimmers has allowed me moments of peace amidst intense grief and loss.

When I would visit my mom in assisted living, I found comfort in the knowing glances and sympathetic smiles of other children and partners who shared the hopeless, helpless feelings of so many things outside of our control and the myriad of concerns about whether or not they are doing the right thing. Shared experiences bring us closer. Whether it is in this form of circumnavigating Lake Tahoe, walking through a -30 degree overnight on the Arrowhead Trail, or spending days together thru hiking during torrential downpours. These experiences, the collection of moments of shared time and space, bring us closer. The suffering is less knowing we are not facing it alone. So many of the lessons accumulated through the joy, beauty, and pain that running prepared me for the joy, beauty and pain that is life. 

I am sharing my story because there are individuals within this community who may have experienced, or may experience in the future, some part of what I recently went through. I am not the first to write about grief and loss, and I hope that more of you will. While no two experiences are exactly the same, there is commonality in its process and universality in its existence. We will all experience loss. And very few of us are prepared to navigate it. The process is universal yet isolating. And so few people talk about it. We post our photos about running in the mountains and disappear from social media when we go visit our loved ones in the hospital, navigate hospice, and desperately try to educate ourselves on what to expect in the final stages of life. This is not a campaign to get everyone to share all of the intimate details of their life, it is simply a reminder that you aren’t alone in navigating your grief, living in anticipation of more grief, and questioning yourself at every step. Because I needed these reminders when I felt really alone and questioned myself at every step.

It’s an invitation into a vulnerable space just like we share on the trail, that time and space where you are forced to be immediately present with those around you and to work together to support one another in putting one foot in front of the other. It is also a reminder that amidst pain and darkness, there are always glimmers. You just have to be open to looking for them. I used to think that smiling through really hard times was for instagram, not reality. Now I am realizing that smiling through hard times can happen. That glimmers can happen. That it is entirely and reasonably possible to feel the heaviest grief and sadness and also experience moments of relief, joy, calm. Instagram, meet reality. I now think differently about the highlight reels. There is so much we cannot possibly know. Maybe the highlights that we see are glimmers within a collection of really sad moments that gave us hope. A much-needed reminder that nothing lasts forever: life, sadness, joy, pain. 

Highlight real. Let your big emotions take up big amounts of space. Your experience could offer someone a much-needed glimmer. A connection, a recognition, a knowing that we are never alone.

About the Author

Alex is a trail and ultra runner from the upper midwest who loves Minnesota’s long winters and logging miles on the rooty, rocky, steep trails of Lake Superior’s North Shore. She was the first female to set a supported FKT on the 310 mile Superior Hiking Trail (SHT) and enjoys multi-day events and races, especially if they involve snow and -20 degree temps.

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4 Responses

  1. I feel like grief exists outside of normal time and space – like, the brain doesn’t keep it in filing cabinets like it does other contained items. Since 100% of us will die, I hope essays like this one can help us to create awareness so that we can normalize end of life preparedness and give ourselves and our fellow humans the permission and space to grieve and share our grief. Thanks for the reminder. I lost my Dad, little sister, and Mom in the past five years and while I am not alone in my loss (I have five other siblings equally struck) I know my “grief response” to these losses is deeply personal and yet universally common in quality and form. I’ll remember this sisterhood next time I get a “Spring shower” out of the blue.

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