In Time of Grief, Exercise Can Return the Feeling of Control

The Los Angeles Marathon is being run March 29. Whenever I hear about a marathon somewhere, anywhere, I'm reminded of my first and only experience as a marathoner. Though the event was in Hawaii more than 20 years ago, I'll never forget it. How could I? Those 26 miles saved my life.

My parents passed away within two years of each other while I was still a teenager. First my dad died of a heart attack, then my mom was killed in a plane crash. Their deaths utterly devastated me. Suffering this excruciating double loss, I wasn't prepared to live without their love and guidance, as my self-destructive behavior over the following few years confirmed.

What finally pulled me out of the all-encompassing grief was my commitment to train for, and participate in, the Honolulu Marathon. I would run and run and run, using my grief as a running partner. Though the tears often mixed with my sweat, I gradually became aware of how beneficial the running had become to my grieving process. Even if I felt out of control mentally or emotionally, I at least controlled my physical body, and that seemed empowering. I'd set a goal of completing the marathon, and worked to reach it.

Mustering every last ounce of strength and willpower that remained in me to complete those final miles on race day, I felt strangely exhilarated. And as I crossed the finish line, I realized that my life had changed forever.

As it turns out, this balance between grieving and exercising that I stumbled on by accident, is one endorsed by many mental health professionals, among them my friends Dr. Leslie Pam and Ann Christie. They point out that some grieving people try to avoid the pain of their loss by refusing to acknowledge it. Others tend to wallow so deeply and for so long in the pain that they become paralyzed. What the avoiders need to know is that grief will not be denied. It's certain to express itself one way or another, in unexpected ways, if repressed.

Meanwhile, relief for anyone suffering a loss can be found along several avenues. Among them: exercise.

Exercise helps us to take control of our bodies, which is precisely where the feelings are located. It restores a sense of control to that scary feeling of being out of control. And it also releases some powerful chemicals, like endorphins, that act to ease the pain. As long as we don't use exercise to avoid experiencing our grief it can be an incredibly useful tool for regaining equilibrium and an appreciation of life after the loss of a loved one. The key is balance.

Though I didn't know the psychological dynamics of grief when I stumbled upon exercise in the wake of my parents' deaths, I've long attributed my emotional healing to two factors: my ability to feel the pain and cry; and my training for, and then completing, the marathon.

Given my experience, I admire all of the runners in this year's L.A. Marathon. But I have a special feeling for 26 young people, each running a one-mile leg of the course, in memory of their deceased father or mother.

These kids represent a Westwood-based organization called Our House, which helps children cope with the devastating loss of a parent. According to Our House founder Jo-Ann Lautman, an astonishing 1.5 million kids (that's one in 20) will lose a parent to death by the time they're 15 years old. Society, Lautman says, doesn't allow kids time to grieve. Our House helps them go through the process. And by participating in the marathon, she says, the kids get a chance to experience how exercise helps them feel better. And it does. Which is why I'll be there next Sunday, running Mile 14 with one of the kids from Our House.

Losing my parents at an early age led me to a deeper appreciation for life. When I understood its temporary nature, I decided that I would always try to live my life to the fullest. I also learned that when loss comes, as it must for all of us, we can't run from our feelings. But we can run with them and through them.


Copyright 1998 by Kathy Smith

* Kathy Smith's fitness column appears weekly in Health. Reader questions are welcome and can be sent to Kathy Smith, Health, Los Angeles Times, Times Mirror Square, Los Angeles, CA 90053. If your question is selected, you will receive a free copy of her book "Getting Better All the Time." Please include your name, address and a daytime phone number with your question.

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