Grief, Connection and Joy on the River


“It doesn’t get any easier,” she said as tears streamed down her face and she spread the ashes in the water. “He would have loved this place.”

“I acknowledge you for being here,” I said, tears welling up in my eyes as well. Wishing I could do something to ease her pain, and knowing that the best I could do was hold space.

It was her first river experience ever, and 6 days in the Idaho wilderness was a big adventure to take on.

Nina was my best friend in grade school. We grew up in a small, bilingual and rural community between Ottawa and Montreal. Being the only two English kids in our French elementary school, we became fast friends.

She was tall, blond, super creative, confident, and she rode horses.

I remember desperately wanting to be like Nina.

We grew apart in high school, and thereafter life brought us on different paths. I came to the US for college and then followed my passion for paddling. Nina pursued music and became a commercial airline pilot.

Facebook helped us stay connected and exchange messages back and forth. There were a few failed attempts at getting her schedule aligned with a visit to Asheville.

Last month I posted a photo of my Main Salmon River trip in Idaho. A few days later I got a message from Nina: “In my mind I’m already there. Hopefully work doesn’t get in the way. ‘No experience necessary…’ Key words when it comes to spooky water stuff.”

I was thrilled that she was considering the trip. Not only would it be a chance for us to reconnect, but I also know the healing power of the river, especially a wilderness multi-day trip with no cell or internet service.

Where present moment awareness is the norm rather than the exception.

The last several years hadn’t been easy for Nina. Her husband took his own life 3 years to the day of our trip.

She was bringing her grief, and his ashes to the river for healing and release.

I wondered what it would be like to spend a week with someone from childhood. There’s always the risk that people who once knew you still peg you as how you were instead of seeing the person you’ve become. She may have been wondering the same.

Spending the week with her traveling down the river I realized that, even as children, the reason I was drawn to her wasn’t because of her creativity, her confidence or her horses.

It was her passion for life and her acceptance of me just as I am.

She fully threw herself into the river experience just as I remembered we would throw ourselves, laughing hysterically, into huge piles of raked fallen leaves as kids.

I was so impressed by how she could be fully present in a moment of grief, and then transition authentically into a moment of joyful living in the present moment.

It occurred to me that I was witnessing a true, powerful, and authentic healing process.

Having to run a rapid with fun waves usually helps that transition too 🙂
What she taught me is that when you share a passion for life with someone, it doesn’t matter how much time has passed, or that your journey through life looks different from the outside, or that you look and act differently.

A willingness to live fully, through the joy, the sadness and everything in between, is a powerful connector.

After I acknowledged her for taking on the trip she responded:

“A friend recently commented that we always make time for funerals, so I’ve decided that it’s time to always make time for living.”

Amen sister! Thanks for the powerful reminder and the courage to tell your story.

Here’s a link to Nina’s blog post about the trip and her healing process along the way.