A Brief Journey Through Grief — and a Pilgrimage that Saved My Life.
Every day from the day we received my brother’s diagnosis, I bargained with God. I sat up in the pool area of our large garden and negotiated as best I could.
Me for him. It seemed realistic, and why not?
He had everything to offer the world. He was kind and gentle, a great friend and my parents liked him more, I told myself.
He should stay, and I would go.
But I lost!
Of course, I lost to God — who would win in any event, I told myself angrily.
And so my journey with grief began. And as the journey progressed, the angrier I got!
Brain Cancer is a Cruel Disease
My brother used his hands. He was a technical guy and literally would take apart a machine and put it back together again just for fun!
He also played the piano. I loved that so much — I would come home from school or a swimming gala and being an introvert, that time lying on the floor with my eyes closed just listening to him play was a refuge from the loud world.
A loud world that I often thought that I didn’t really belong to. A world that didn’t cater to people like me — the quieter, more reserved ones who longed so much for just a little peace at the end of the day.
But as my brother’s cancer progressed — he lost his ability to control his hands and that playing eventually turned from sweet tunes to bashing and uncontrollable noise.
It wasn’t just me who was devastated at it. My brother when he tried so hard to control his hands was often left sobbing onto his ivory white keys in front of him.
Cruel is a kind word still.
The morning he lost his battle
I remember it vividly.
I woke up to my mom crying — just hearing her I knew that Craig had moved on. Among the sadness, I felt relief.
Relief that he was now outside of his failing body and into a place where I believe is one of absolute nirvana.
But the overwhelming emotion was anger — and I immediately looked up, clenching my jaw and punched my fist into the empty air, and cursed whoever it was looking down.
At that moment, I really didn’t care about karma, retribution, or respect — it was pure and unadulterated anger.
It was directed to that invisible presence who I had been bargaining with for two long years. And I was livid — livid at my loss — livid at life — livid at just about everything!
Anger is often an empowering result of grief
Grief manifests in us in so many ways.
I was one of the lucky ones because mine translated into this ever-present and deep-seated anger. And in some weird and wonderful way, this anger led me to make some incredibly courageous and empowering decisions.
I enjoyed a wonderfully exciting career that had me working and collaborating with some amazing people. I stepped outside of my comfort zone and grew in ways that when I look back on it now, I am exceptionally proud of.
But there was just this thing lying in wait. This unseen darkness had gripped the space where my heart used to be.
It was the anger that would often erupt in unreasonable responses and when I was afraid, under stress, or anxious as we all are from time to time, this anger would swirl into play. I was throwing my stuff around, punching walls and windows, and ultimately hurting myself in ways that I didn’t even realise at the time.
People in my space knew though — and I would often have some of them taking a wide berth around me and my personality.
Although it wasn’t my personality — just my unacknowledged grief.
I went on a pilgrimage
There I was doing what all introverts do — burying my face in a magazine while I was having a pedicure. Still, a self-care luxury treat that I enjoy today!
I am aware that I made a generalisation there. But as I have become more aware of my own introversion, and others too, I do feel less critical of myself and now acknowledge this incredible part of my personality.
Anyhow, there I was reading this magazine and in this article, a woman, who had just lost her lifelong partner, had gone off to Spain to walk the Camino de Santiago. It was the first time that I had heard of this adventure.
As an adventurer at heart, the article resonated with every fiber of my being. Even being a human with a design more favourable to swimming (which I love) the thought of a long walk — unaided — staying in albergues along this route called the Camino Frances really tweaked my interest.
It didn’t take me very long to decide that one day I would do the same.
Aside from the adventure that beckoned, I was struck by the woman’s account of how her painful experience of losing her loved one had manifested in her life. Even more importantly, I was intrigued as to how the process of pilgrimage had moved her to a transformation.
I knew that a transformation for me was exactly what I needed — what I wanted to.
It’s exhausting being angry even 50% of the time.
Fast forward a few years, because life got in the way as it does, I was jetting off to Barcelona to my Camino.
A transformation is what I got!
“Pilgrimaging always results in an unexpected transformation of our being”
This line from a book by GMT Brosius, entitled A Daily Pilgrim Devotional
My pilgrimage — my Camino — was as broken as I felt.
I started on a good footing, walked away, got injured, and returned home only to go back to Spain to finish what I started.
I’ve never been a great finisher of things — but this thing, I just knew that I had to complete.
I loved who I was while I was walking — I loved how I felt while I was walking.
Even as introverted as I am — I spent evenings talking to fellow pilgrims and in our stories, I discovered that I wasn’t that weird because there were others who shared my story too.
I felt less judgmental of myself. I wanted to start being my own best friend for the first time in my life, and I knew that all I wanted to do was to embrace every bit of grief that was welling to the surface while I was on Camino.
It was a feeling that I had not had before, but a feeling that I was willing to step into, because all of a sudden, my eyes were seeing light, and my heart was feeling joy.
When I arrived home, back in South Africa from what was a broken pilgrimage — certainly in comparison to the thousands of other pilgrims who have walked the route to Santiago de Compostela — it was still the most impactful and transformational time of my life.
I saw things with a renewed vision and for the first time in a long time, with a defined and purposeful spirit.
I was excited to live this life
If I had to point out the biggest change it would be that I felt excited!
From that person who was willing to negotiate her own life for another, I wanted to glean every bit of joy from this life that I was gifted with.
All the grief that I had felt during the time, from that day my brother received his diagnosis of cancer to the day my father took his last breath, I felt strong enough to start to acknowledge it.
It initially felt like an uphill battle, but I remember those uphills on the Camino and there is magic up top!
There was a “backlog” of grief that I had to negotiate too. Because it certainly felt like everyone who I loved was just dying around me.
It wasn’t only my brother and my father — they were the start and end of the timeline of loss — but in between, I lost one of my best friends who to this day, I still feel the hole that he left.
But it’s a beautiful hole — because I now see these holes as places where the light shines through.
They are places that I feel exceptional gratitude for because grief and loss are a result of love.
And love is just the best emotion ever.