I met a man when I was out walking the other day and the encounter provided me with so much to ponder about life – my life, life in general, and the grief that follows when life ends.
When I set out for my walk I expected a quiet, solo adventure filled with personal reflection. After all, that is what most of my walks are like (solo living, and all that). More than that, I had taken a few days off work as an extended “Me Weekend” specifically to spend time reflecting on my life and my grief as I approached the 12-year mark of my husband’s death. My plan for the day was to walk and think, with a practical goal of exploring some ruins in the Pentland Hills and the emotional goal of simply being mindful of my surroundings.
Along the way, another walker was stood admiring a heron standing in the reeds. He pointed the bird out to me and began chatting about the weather and how wonderful nature was in general. He seemed a little lonely and in want of a chat, so I happily joined in a conversation about the beauty of the hills. He indicated that he’d never walked beyond that point and was heading towards the same place as I was, so it transpired that we walked together* (socially distanced, of course!).
And as we walked, we talked. And although he seemed quite joyful in his demeanour, I could sense a sadness behind the cheerful chatter. I mentioned I had been shielding for the last year and that I was widowed, and he mentioned he was a full-time carer for his elderly parent, leaving me to wonder if that was the cause of the loneliness and sadness that seemed to lurk in his soul.
As we walked, my new friend talked about his caring role and his life with his Mum. He spoke in both past and present tense, which I found odd. At some point, I found myself wondering if his Mum had already passed away or if maybe he was speaking in the past tense when thinking about the “former Mum” before her decline and memory loss. But it wasn’t my place to pry, so we just talked and walked.
Along the way, we stopped at interesting sites and I acted almost as a tour guide (in addition to my “listener” role). When we got to the point where I had intended to turn around, my new friend indicated he was really keen to see views across to Edinburgh so I agreed to carry on with him to climb up and around a hill before dropping back down to the main path – partly because he didn’t really know the area, partly because I hated the thought of a lonely person being abandoned half-way up a hill, and partly because I am always up for an adventure!
As we continued to walk, he talked more and more about his Mum and re-told stories she had shared with him about walks over the Pentlands when she was a young woman. He shared stories of his late father and the travels that he and his Mum took over the years. He talked about the stress of caring for a woman not long for this world and he asked how he would cope after his Mum was gone and how I managed to survive the grief of loss. He didn’t know what he would do, given he has lived with his Mum for the whole of his life (50+ years). It sounds like, in many ways, they were one – especially in the years since his father passed away.
On occasion, we would stop to take in the views. And then we walked some more. We talked some more. And I listened.
When we got back to the start of the path where we parted ways, he said he had a confession: His Mum had died the day before but he didn’t know how to say it** and he just didn’t know what to do with himself. Hence, heading to the hills. The hills that his Mum regularly walked through and over as a young woman at university. It was then that I realised why it was so important for him to see the views on that day and I was happy that I had agreed to carry on with the longer-than-planned walk. He needed someone and I was happy to be that someone.
The day’s walk was more than 13 miles (6.5 hours) and about 10 of those miles were with my new friend. Whilst part of me begrudged the company when what I really wanted was to do my thing at my pace with my thoughts, I was also pleased to have a bit of a chat. But more than that, I couldn’t walk away from someone who clearly needed the company. And I am pleased that I am the kind of woman who offers her time to others. (Let’s face it, countless people have offered their time to me over the years!)
Of course, as I said before, the reason I was in the hills that day was that I had taken some time off from work in the run-up to the 12th anniversary of Paul’s death. I had intended on walking and thinking and reflecting on my life and the course that it’s taken in these 12 years of widowhood, but that didn’t really happen.
But maybe I wasn’t supposed to think about my grief that day. Maybe this chance encounter was what was needed for both of us: Him to find a release in his recent and raw grief and me to be reminded of how far forward I have travelled in my own grief.
I have known for quite some time that I have been moving forward in my grief. I have learned how to incorporate my loss and my grief into my life in a way that the grief is just a part of who I am and I have learned how to cope with my “amputated heart”. This encounter helped to show me just how true that is and just how strong I have grown because of it.
As for the lost “Me Time”, I am not concerned. After all, most of my walks are solo walks filled with thinking about or reflecting on the past, present, and future. So, it’s not like I won’t have a lifetime of other opportunities for Me Time.
* Don’t worry! It’s a popular activity place with enough other humans walking, cycling, and running that I wasn’t in danger from an unknown man.
** It might seem strange, but it can be hard to say the words! In the early days and weeks after my husband died, I used both present and past tense when speaking of him, and I struggled to say to strangers that I was widowed – especially because the moment I did, I was left to console them because they were so upset at hearing my tragic news. Over the years, I’ve learned that all of this is “common” for the bereaved.