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Running through the grief

Running through the grief


Published on 2 April 2024

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In this blog by Runner's Wold, runner's share their experiences of how lacing up and moving can help us move forward when tragedy strikes.

It’s a sight many of us will be familiar with at races: a runner with a loved one’s name and image on their top, often accompanied by poignant words about a life often ended far too early. These tributes to those no longer here let us know the motivation powering each step of those who are. Maybe that runner has been you.

As racing returns post-Covid, we are likely to see many more people remembering many more loved ones. According to the Office for National Statistics, in 2019 there were 530,841 deaths in England and Wales. But owing to the pandemic, that figure rose by more than 78,000 in 2020.

In some ways, the public acknowledgment of such a loss can be heartening. It shows this runner can now mark or – even celebrate – that lost life, be it through running, fundraising or increasing awareness of a cause, or all three. It also shows they are moving forward, however slowly.

Professor Paul Farrand, a psychologist at the University of Exeter, agrees physical activity can help to rebalance our lives. ‘Our life structure consists of three main areas – the routine, pleasurable and necessary activities,’ he says. ‘Bereavement can have a significant impact on all three, and we can find ourselves wanting to do less and less. For example, if you ran before, running might be the first thing to go while dealing with loss. If you’re not careful, you could be trapped in what we describe as a downward spiral.’

Farrand says returning to, or starting an activity such as running can help lift you from this negative mindset, though he notes that, in some cases, it can be used to avoid facing a loss. ‘Those using running as a distraction will not always find it works as a long-term fix,’ he warns. ‘It can be that during these runs, you tend to ruminate on your loss and go over it in your head. This can be negative, as you become stuck in a vicious circle and don’t move forward through bereavement.’

However, Farrand stresses that when exercise is used effectively, it can be as valuable as a grief-counselling support group, particularly when it has a social element. ‘Being in a running group offers social contact and a connection, which can be crucial to re-establish after a loss,’ says Farrand. ‘As well as bringing pleasure, running can be a “safe medium of exchange”. By that I mean you can talk about issues like bereavement with fellow runners as you run, if you want. This differs from going to a counselling group, where you would be expected to discuss that which for some might feel awkward.’

Read the full blog here.