The county in which I live has a vast trail system open to exploration. Some trails are minimally maintained, and others have been paved; some end at a beach on the shores of Lake Michigan, and others are entirely wooded.

Imagine the grief journey as a part of that trail system. One trail might be paved and free of all debris. It begins smooth and remains smooth for the duration, and it has limited risk of harm. Another trail starts on flat, level ground and appears well-carved and maintained.

Further into the woods, though, that trail becomes less defined. Tree roots break the barrier, causing the wanderer to trip when caught off guard. Then, just as you have trained your eyes to spot the roots ahead on the path, the terrain changes yet again; what was flat is now an uphill climb with little to cling to for support.

Yet another trail marks its difficulty at the entrance. One begins the journey knowing the road is going to be hard. Wet leaves pile together to cause slips. Roots and sticks and pine needles carpet the floor and require all focus to be on safely navigating the trail. The body tenses as it remains on high alert, doing everything it can to protect itself from pain.

Grief journeys are unpredictable.

It doesn’t matter whether you had advance warning of your loved one’s death or if you had the opportunity to say everything that needed to be said and have no regrets: until you enter the trail, you don’t know which type of trail you will walk. Most likely your grief journey will be a composite of the examples above. But just as there are items available to help you safely walk trails, there are tools to ensure you safely navigate your grief, and which might even help you find some beauty along the way.

In learning about grief, you discover what to watch for on your journey and how to avoid hazards along the way. Support yourself with friends or family who can walk alongside you and help you get back up when you trip. Find a trained professional to journey with you who will remind you to look up and notice the beauty around you, help you remember the smooth parts of the journey, and point out scenic overlooks where you can pause and reflect.

It can be tempting to study a map before starting on a hike. In the preparation you learn how long it might take, what you are going to need with you, and where you’ll end up. That is a great plan for a true hike in the woods, but grief is different. The grief journey does not have a map; there is no indication on distance, time, or destination. Instead, you enter trusting that signposts will guide you from one turn to the next. You observe and learn and participate in each section as best as you are able, and when the next section begins, you leave behind whatever you no longer need so you are ready to pick up what awaits you.

Several trails in my area are built within the dunes, which means a lot of hard work. It is a challenging terrain with few respites from an uphill climb. But at the end of that work, a breathtaking glimpse of the horizon is waiting to greet those who endure. The road of grief is often like hiking in a sand dune by Lake Michigan. It is long and challenging with no indication of relief. But as you near the water, you feel a breeze, and you come over the final hill to something unexpected and beautiful. The horizon greets you with a promise of continued life, renewed purpose, and the hope that you will carry your loved one with you into your next adventure.

Adapted from Faith Doesn’t Erase Grief: Embracing the Experience and Finding Hope, by Kate J. Meyer. Photo by Arkadiusz Śliwiński on Unsplash