Recently, I embarked on a series of conversations with people about their reasons for taking walks. I heard about a wide range of motivations. But surely one of the most compelling was walking as a way of coping with grief after the death of a loved one.
Christine Baumgartner, a dating and relationship coach based in California, married the love of her own life in 2007. After moving into her new husband’s home, she struck up a friendship with a neighbor. The two women often walked a nearby trail that offered a stunning view of rolling hills and wildflowers.
Then in 2012, Baumgartner’s husband died suddenly, upending her world. By night, she struggled to sleep. By day, she was in a mental haze. “I felt like I was on a roller coaster in the fog,” she says.
At a time when everything else in her life seemed to be in suspended animation, Baumgartner gradually resumed the walks with her neighbor. “At first, walking helped me see that, even though my own world was standing still, the outside world was going on,” she says.
Over time, Baumgartner says, “I began to see the walks as a time when I could put a moratorium on my grief for 30 minutes a day.” The birds, lizards, trees, flowers and panoramic vistas captured her eye and drew her focus outward. For a half-hour, she took a much-needed breather from thinking about the terrible void in her life. “It was like my brain got a break,” she says.
The friend with whom Baumgartner walked seemed to understand her need for respite. “It wasn’t like she wouldn’t listen if I needed to talk about something, but she didn’t press,” Baumgartner says. The quiet companionship of the walks made them even more soothing.
“Looking back, those walks were healing in so many ways that I didn’t fully recognize or appreciate at the time,” Baumgartner says.
Walking Out of the Shadows
Grief is a journey that for some is best traveled on foot. Movies such as Wild and The Way have depicted long, arduous treks prompted by personal loss. Yet walking doesn’t have to be so physically grueling or outwardly dramatic to feel therapeutic.
If you search the scientific literature on walking and coping with grief, you’ll discover — not much. Few studies have looked specifically at this connection. Nevertheless, there’s good evidence that physical activity helps reduce stress and ease full-fledged depression. Those are very relevant benefits for anyone mourning a tragic loss. Grief is a highly stressful experience, and the risk of becoming clinically depressed is increased among the bereaved.
Walking outdoors in natural surroundings, as opposed to on a treadmill or urban street, may be a source of added solace. Research in non-grieving individuals has shown that spending time in nature helps boost mood and restore mental focus.
In a study by Stanford researchers, participants who walked for 90 minutes in a natural area reported a decrease in rumination (repetitive brooding over negative feelings), which is a risk factor for depression. On brain scans, they also showed reduced activity in the subgenual prefrontal cortex, a brain region that’s active during rumination. Participants who walked in a high-traffic urban area didn’t experience the same benefits.
Some people prefer to walk alone. But others appreciate the feeling of social connection that comes from striding shoulder-to-shoulder with another human being. Here and there, you’ll find grief support groups and hospice programs that offer organized walking clubs. More often, you’ll find informal groups of friends, neighbors and coworkers who started out simply as walking buddies and ended up as companions on the odyssey through grief.
Walking with others helps ease feelings of loneliness and counter the tendency to withdraw socially — a common response to loss that may contribute to complicated grief or full-on depression in certain individuals. Knowing that a friend is waiting on the walking path may be the motivation that some people need to lace up their sneakers and face the world again.
Moving Forward, Step by Step
Going for walks, even short ones, is an act of self-nurturing. In the depths of grief, it can be difficult to muster the energy to take care of yourself. Getting some exercise is a step in the right direction, but Baumgartner cautions that you need to be reasonable about what you expect of yourself.
“I walk almost every day now, and I walked almost every day before my husband died. But I tell you, for a little while after he passed away, I just couldn’t do that,” she says. “So I would tell myself, ‘Let’s do five minutes and see how that feels.’ And sometimes, that’s all I did, and then I would turn back while my neighbor continued on. She understood completely. I never felt like I had to do something that I wasn’t capable of doing.”
Baumgartner is now living in a different home than the one she shared with her husband, and she has found another neighbor to join her for regular walks. Her life is finally getting back on steadier footing again. She says, “It has been three-and-a-half years since my husband’s death, and I believe my regular walks are definitely part of the reason I feel as good as I do today.”