The long walk
Image by phill.d via Flickr

I wrote this ten years ago. It takes on new meaning today. So I’m reposting it. It is important to remember that tragedy, terror, and epic loss is not unprecedented. It may be in new forms, but it is the story of humanity. The one thing we can control is how we move through it, and how we let it to shape us in the process. I invite you to consider, the parable of the tunnel.

It’s been roughly a decade of change for me; much of it hard, too much of it dark, tragic, sad. The tunnel analogy people use for grief is apt I think. Like feeling along the sides of a tunnel that has not been smoothed over with things like concrete and lights and train tracks. Just dirt. With big roots sticking out of the sides. For awhile, when you first enter the tunnel, you’re so confused at how you got there that the roots emerging from the sides of the packed clay smack you upside the head and scratch your tender skin near your eyes. After awhile you get smart and start finding your way with your hands first, folding down the sharpened points that would otherwise add insult to injury because you allowed yet another one to scratch you.

Sometimes it seems as if your eyes might be adjusting to the dark. You catch a glimpse of a pointy rock protruding from the earth even before you feel it with your hand or your face. Now and then you hear the faint sks kits kiss of a small animal bounding away. You imagine it bounding, so that the image in your head is of a bunny or a squirrel rather than a snake. You fight really hard not to let the snake picture in your head.

Eventually you sort of resign yourself to the process. You wake up day after day and amble forward feeling your way blindly, hands dirty, face either wet from tears or way too dry from dehydration.

And then you start to notice others who are in the tunnel with you. Depending on how far ahead or behind you they are, they might not notice your presence. But sometimes you and they realize you’re not alone — at the same time. And on those days you find a sandwich together in the dark, rough-edged tunnel. On even better days, you find a beer or a cookie and you exchange stories about how you got in the tunnel, and how much longer you may have to walk before you get to the end.

Occasionally you ponder turning around. You wonder if going back to where you’ve been would at least be familiar. But when you mention this to your fellow travellers you all agree it’s really not an option. This is a one way tunnel. The only way out, is through.

You know you’re half way through when the people in the tunnel start to seek you out more as if you are the leader. You know you’re getting close when your stories reach beyond those that brought you here and begin to imagine what might be. One day, you hear a sound you recognize as your own laughter. Not a chuckle. Not a loud smile. A genuine belly-laugh. It often comes even as you and your weary band of the lost are discussing the ridiculous parts of grief…the crazy things that happen…the things well-meaning people say…the things you do to stay sane.

And then you begin to speak of those you lost before you entered the tunnel in a new way. No longer a hushed reverence when you tell stories using few words and stacatto sentences, you start to bring back to life the person or people who are gone by telling the very best of them. By imitating the way they stood on that particular day when the sun blazed down and you laughed until you cried.

And in the silence after you and the tunnelers laugh, you could swear the people who are gone are right there with you groping along.

In the homestretch, you start to imagine what life will be like when you emerge from the tunnel. You remember dreams you once had that could still be realized. You start refining your talents, trying out your storytelling powers or your gift for listening on the others walking beside you. The list of things you recount in your head begins to change from what went wrong to what might go right when…

And then one day, you realize you are no longer having to bend down the roots to protect your face. In fact, you find your back isn’t as sore from moving in a bent over position. There is more space all around you. The tunnel is opening wider.

Until finally, you look up to see that your arms are now stretched high above your head and your chin is tilted up and as you open and close your fingers, sore from holding back so many roots for so long, you note that you are squinting.

Squinting. To protect your eyes so accustomed to the dark from the amazing sunlight, like aerosol lemonade pouring down on your face and arms, so fresh and sweet you want to add icy water and drink it.

Now. When you’ve stretched to your full height and maybe even roared a well-earned relief roar, you take the deepest breath you’ve taken in months. Your eyes adjust to the light and you take a long drink from the cold glass of water now in your hand. You slowly look around considering what path you will walk next now that there are paths in every direction and not a one covered in heavy black dirt. And you see that at the beginning and well into every path, there are others waiting for you no matter which one you choose.

They are smiling as if they hadn’t been waiting all too long.

And their wisdom is written in the telltale streaks of dirt on their cheeks and sealed scratches on their arms. They have come through the tunnel too.

After awhile, one or two come forward and greet you and guide you to a specific path. And as you begin to walk the sunlit path with them, you find the stories you are telling one another are one and the same.

And you are certain, though you’re not sure how, that the place you are going next is surely blessed by someone who knew you when you were in the tunnel. Who maybe even helped you get through it.

You turn briefly before the tunnel disappears from your view completely, as if you expect to see that person in the distance, behind you, waving.

They are not there, which is a shame. Because you want to tell them thank you. You want to tell them if they want to see you, you’ll be walking, talking, planning, dreaming…moving with these people who accompany you now.

You want them to know that in some way you once never imagined was possible, you have arrived. Safely. Into the light.

Copyright © 2010


  1. Marie, this is really wonderful and inspired – one of the most honest and poetic descriptions of grief I’ve read. With your permission I’d like to make this available to a couple of people who could use it.


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