I started writing this blog on my late mother’s birthday. On this day, she would have been 76 years old, but she didn’t make it past 71. Her birthday and the anniversary of her death (the day before Halloween) are always tough for our family, but I never know quite how I’m supposed to act or what I should do to best commemorate her memory. It can be a lot of pressure – self-imposed, to be sure, but still pressure – but what finally come to understand is that the best way I can honor her memory and show my appreciation for everything she did for me is simply to live MY best life.
Ouch. Did I really just drop that overused, cliched phrase? “Live my best life”?? You bet I did, and I’ll do it again and again and again. Because when my mom died, something fundamental in me shifted. That’s not to say that I was living my worst life before she passed, but there was a self-awareness I was lacking. A recognition of the dichotomy that exists in us all: on one hand, we have far more control of our daily happiness than we generally think we do; on the other hand, life is tremendously tenuous at any given moment, and we have no true control over how or when it ends.
I’ve told this story probably close to 100 times, and I’ll undoubtedly share it many times to come. But when my mother was initially diagnosed with Lewy Body Dementia and Parkinson’s, it crushed me. That sounds selfish, and I can in no way imagine how scared she was to realize that her mind was betraying her, but if you have ever had a loved one afflicted by any form of dementia, you’ll know what I’m talking about when I say that it is truly a living hell for everyone involved. Losing anyone is hard, and whether it’s an unexpected, sudden death like a car crash or a drawn-out, long process like dementia, watching a loved one die leaves a permanent mark on each of us. Sad beyond words, yes. But there is a fragile hope we can all draw from these horrible experiences if we look hard enough.
For me, that hope came in the form of knowledge. I started reading article after article about brain health, about the connection between lifestyle habits and cognitive decline. And I realized that, even though it’s unlikely my mom could have avoided her fate, there are steps we can take to protect our brains. A better diet and more regular exercise being top among those factors. And thus began my “second career” in the fitness and wellness industry. I went back to school for my Master’s in Exercise, Fitness, & Health Promotion, I became a certified running coach and personal trainer, and I began thinking more comprehensively about both my health and the health of those around me. I am far from perfect, trust me. I still have too much of a sweet tooth, and I don’t do strength training quite as often as I should, but we are all works in progress. And, as these are areas under my direct control, areas that have a direct correlation to my overall happiness and well-being, you bet I’m going to do my best to maximize my life because my mother didn’t get the chance to maximize hers. Should anything happen to me, my hope is that MY kids would live to their maximum fulfillment in my absence.
The thing about grief, too, is that everyone processes it differently, and everyone copes with it differently. For me, running has always been a therapy of sorts – a way to reduce stress levels, to allow myself the mental space to sort through my problems and life’s puzzles. So, too, did running help guide me through the sharp grief immediately after my mother’s death. If you’ve never tried running as therapy – and I’m not suggesting you forego other forms of therapy to rely only on running – there is something very satisfying about pounding that pavement, about taking your angst out on the world – in the most literal form – and about imagining that, along with your sweat, your sadness and confusion are evaporating around you.
As I read back over what I’ve written, I have to ask myself: is this post about grief? Or about the importance of brain health? Or about the emotional benefits of running? Honestly, I can’t answer that question, as those three areas are intertwined for me. So I will simply say this: we will all experience grief in life in some form –
some more frequently or poignantly than others – but refusing to let grief define you and refocusing your life on what truly matters to you? My mother would be proud.