• Ben Dench

Running through Grief

Updated: Dec 29, 2021

The Cause

Eight years ago my eleven-year-old daughter Ruby went into cardiac arrest and died. She was in perfect health, or so my wife and I had thought, and was enjoying her time away with school-friends at a water sports centre in the Scottish highlands (we live in Ireland).


The day after she arrived she began to feel unwell, as did a number of other students in her class. A stomach bug was going around. She went into heart failure then cardiac arrest, was given CPR by school workers, and then by the ambulance crew for six hours until she died. Back in Ireland, the first we knew there anything was wrong was when we were awoken at 6am by very loud banging on our front door. It was her school headmaster and a policeman.


I still hate the sound of banging doors.


Paradigm Shifts and Tethering


Everything changed that day. Our family dynamic utterly transformed from four of us to three (my son Tom was two and a half at the time). The way we each perceived the world made a paradigm shift. No short words can do any justice to our process of grieving. My wife Claire, Tom and I have undergone an extraordinary journey these last eight years without Ruby.


But I hold close some concrete observations, things I weigh and consider regularly. These have provided a framework upon which I have built a new life, a new personality, a new future without Ruby.


There is a short list of anchors to this world that have tethered me when I feel I may drift away that have, literally, saved my life.


These include:

  • The power of art to help reconnect me. Some writings, paintings and sculptures caused such strong emotions, especially in the raw, early days and forced me to think “Maybe I could be human again, feel normal things again, be like other people again”

  • Humanism. Beginning to reject all forms of spirituality reassured me in many ways. I soon accepted I would not see her again. It encouraged me to continually ask, “So what makes my life worthwhile now? Why should I carry on living?”

  • And, third, running.

Running saved my life.


How I Run


I had started running only a few months before she died when I saw how running had positively affected a friend who had experienced depression and poor body image for years. Within a few months I had completed the free NHS “Couch to 5K” programme—running three times a week on increasingly longer runs up to 5km. I was feeling great, lost excess weight, getting my first exercise since discovering whiskey and motorbikes at 17, moving fast and at distance under my own steam.


Since then I have run one marathon, numerous half-marathons, broken personal bests regularly but nothing comes close to the feeling of that first 5km- it felt like an Olympic gold medal.


I also started running in more minimal shoes. For the last seven years, have only run barefoot, in minimalist sandals. Or, when it’s very cold here in the Irish winters up in the hills, I run in thin, very lightweight shoes with zero drop.


I run alone, always.


Baring injury, I run three or four times a week. I am very injury-free on which I “blame” barefoot running, and have covered many thousands of miles jogging two or three short runs each week and I aim for a long run (usually a half-marathon) once per week or fortnight.


When a fan asked Maya Angelou, “How do I write well?” she replied “Make writing your friend” by which she meant “Go to it however you feel.”


This is how I feel about running- it is my friend and I go to it however I feel.


When I am tired, I run and I am invigorated. When I am angry, I run and I am calm. When happy, I run and I feel connected. When aloneness weighs me down, I run and am buoyed. And when I grieve, I run and I am relieved.


Running helps with grief


What Works For Me:

  • Running helps. But so does the right medication and Cognitive Behavioural Therapy

  • I run where there are trees. While I live next to the sea and love the sea and the hiking and climbing in the local mountains, when I am in a forest, I am home.

  • I run for the intrinsic value of the run, not its instrumental value. In earlier days I would consider my new, reduced chances of developing diabetes, heart disease, cancers, etc. but now I am more present.

  • I wear bright clothes. As a large, middle-aged man, I am not supposed to wear drab. No thanks! I love my body for what it can do, and where it can take me. It’s awesome!

  • No matter how little motivation I have to get out the door I never regret a run. It is an endeavour but is always worth it.

Don’t run a marathon again.

  • Don’t run a marathon again. I hated the training, hated the run, hated being around thousands of other people, hated the noise and the stimulus. Maybe a quiet ultra-marathon in the hills one day, on my own but never an organised Big Run.

  • Time running alone is never wasted. My mind and body wander, and I am a little more free than before.

  • Mostly my runs will be a good hour. Maybe a good hour on a bad day or in a bad week. But that hour will be good. And that counts.

  • Keep moving. When I can’t run I know it helps almost as much to cycle, to walk, to climb, to hike, to amble, to wander, to not be sedentary.

Like grief, you can’t go around a run, you can’t cheat and take a few skips ahead. You have to go through it. I may stop for a massive cry sometimes. But that’s OK, it will pass and I will carry on.


Everything passes. And still I run.

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