Climbing the Mountain of Grief Side by Side
Author: Rachel Hunsell
These past few months, we’ve been called to focus on what’s really important. We’ve been physically distancing from our friends, loved ones and strangers to protect them and ourselves. We’ve strategized our outings for basic needs like groceries, healthcare, fresh air and sanity. Our 2020 Mount Kilimanjaro Expedition team returned home from the rooftop of Africa, the peak of the mountain, to the valley our nation and world had begun to collectively face.
Not every survivor will find themselves on Mount Kilimanjaro or trekking any physical mountain on the planet, but every single one of us knows intimately well the mountain we call grief. We invite you to walk alongside us and find yourself in the climb, as a few members of the 2020 Kilimanjaro Expedition team share their stories and lessons from the mountain we climbed together and the journey of their grief.
‘What Lee Would Want’
I wanted to do something big for my son and, in some ways, for myself. For many years, one of my dreams was to climb Mount Kilimanjaro, and when I got word I was accepted to the 2020 TAPS Expedition I was ecstatic, and then dedicated my life to being in the best possible physical shape for the climb. Success for me would be achieved through not only physical conditioning, but mental and spiritual. Mind, Body and Spirit.
It was not easy in many ways to do this Expedition, but I felt in my heart and soul that this is what Lee would want for me and nothing else mattered. Many times before, during and after the Expedition, I received confirmation of that truth. I know Lee was looking down with a big smile. I am and always will be proud of him and miss him everyday.
While I have so many great stories and memories of this Expedition, I will always remember my fellow survivors, the “Iron Ladies” I call them. They’re amazing survivors of a tremendous tragedy in this life, and they navigate this rough terrain everyday with courage and hope. Courage isn’t always found on the battlefield.
TAPS helped me to understand many aspects of the grieving process. Two have stood out for me as a father - 1. Do what you need to do to help heal, not what somebody else thinks you should do. 2. Never let anybody tell you how long you should grieve and heal...take as long as you need, there is no time limit.
Bill Cole, Surviving Father of Sgt. Lee Cole, U.S. Army National Guard
‘It Is OK to Smile and Laugh’
I learned that we are all so incredibly strong. We shared, cried, hugged, sweat, huddled for warmth, bared down for that last bit of air and strength to summit a mountain, but most importantly, we laughed together. We laughed amid our sadness — something that our past selves never thought would be possible. There is not a minute that goes by that we do not think of our loved ones that we lost, but it is OK to laugh and smile.
It was not climbing the tallest mountain in Africa or continuing to hang around each other after not showering after a week (ew!), that made anyone strong. Honoring our loved ones in whatever way we deemed fit, sharing their stories and loving each other through the good and the bad, that is the real strength and every single one of my Kilimanjaro teammates, now friends, possess.
Robin Hill, Surviving Sister of Capt. Russell Hill, U.S. Marine Corps
Blending the Past and the Present
Angry, sad and not the person I was, I so badly wanted to feel normal but struggled with my thoughts and my sense of belonging. I was weak and alone. I had been on the grief trek for a while and knew Jake’s 10-year KIA anniversary needed to be grand. Climbing Kilimanjaro with TAPS Expeditions was just the right journey to take.
The chaotic routine of climbing a mountain became my new normal. The days were filled with laughs, songs and stories of the ones we love, and focusing on our own personal basic survival. Breathe, drink, eat and stay warm.
A daily check-in gave us an intimate view of each other’s truths so we became inclined to help one another succeed even though our objectives of why we wanted to reach the summit of Kilimanjaro may have been different.
Popular advice says, “Don’t live in the past,’ but the past is where Jake lives so I want and need to go back there to be with him. The TAPS Kilimanjaro Expedition gave me the opportunity to blend the past and the present in a safe place. I was able to honor Jake and his 10-year KIA anniversary by bringing the past front and center, just like the next step on a climb where you need to keep your head down and in front as you look for the next right move. This journey gave me amazing memories with an authentic smile and a new family to belong to so I don’t feel so alone. I walked off the mountain feeling stronger with a better sense of who I am, and I am now a mountaineer who summited Kilimanjaro!
Krista Meinert, Surviving Mother of Lance Cpl. Jake Meinert, U.S. Marine Corps
While a Pandemic Brewed Below
This past fall, I passed the mark in time where my first husband has now been gone longer than we were together, and while I can honestly say that I do not think of him every day, the indelible mark he left on my heart remains. Although I have always despised the phrase “move on,” I have definitely continued to move forward with my life — remarrying, separating from the Navy, planning for the future. The present and the future both seem to be a lifetime away from what I was living a decade ago. I chose to go on the TAPS Expeditions trip to Mount Kilimanjaro more for myself than for him, an acknowledgment of my journey.
Climbing Kilimanjaro was the most difficult physical task I have ever asked of my body. The scenery that surrounded us was otherworldly: seven different climate zones in six days. The beauty, often not conventional, is hard to describe. The pace of the climb was often painfully slow but necessary to conserve energy; the Swahili phrase is “pole pole,” which means “slowly, slowly.” And truly that is what happened on the mountain: Life slowed down. Step after step, rest break, food break, bathroom break, camp, dinner, and sleep. Pressure breathing became a way of life. The world, however, continued to turn. We lived a week in simplified existence on a mountain in the middle of Africa while a global pandemic was brewing down below. And while it seems cliché to relate the climbing of a mountain to a journey through grief, the comparison continues to be true. Each member of our Expedition team had a different experience on the mountain, and each one of us has had a different journey through our grief. I am thankful that I was able to make this comparison firsthand. The struggles that I endured during the climb increased my gratitude to be there exponentially.
By the end of the trip, Tanzania’s wonderful people, Mount Kilimanjaro and my fellow survivors had taken up residence in my soul.
Lindsey Crain, Surviving spouse of Lt. John Cedric “Ceddie” Rath, U.S. Navy
‘No Match for What We Had Survived’
Over the months and years since the death of my husband, people have told me how strong I have been through everything, but I’ve never felt strong. For a long time I’ve felt adrift, not being able to see past my own pain. I felt like I was one step away from falling apart, one step away from failing my kids, one step away from giving up. Many times I did want to just give up; I didn’t feel this strength everyone kept talking about.
Headed to the summit, a guide pointed to my TAPS pin with my handsome husband’s picture and it reminded me why I was doing this. For the rest of the trip I kept telling myself, “I’m doing this for you, for our family. If losing you (my husband, Will), didn’t break me, this won’t either. If I didn’t quit then, I sure as hell won’t quit now!”
What I realized on that mountain is that I (we) had already experienced the most difficult thing in our lives, so climbing to the top of Mount Kilimanjaro, though no easy feat, would be no match for what we had already survived. This new realization will forever remain in my head and my heart.
There are no words to describe the feeling of reaching the “Rooftop of Africa,” just like there are no words to describe the pain of losing one of the people you love most in the world, but I do know that the tears shed at the summit felt beautiful and peaceful, unlike the tears I have been shedding the last two years. I still don’t feel like the strong woman others say I am, but now I know and believe in my heart that I’m a fighter, I’m a survivor and I’ll never quit.
Rosselyn Kapun, Surviving spouse of Chief Petty Officer William Kapun, U.S. Navy
There is a weaving of intentions that only a collective challenge can bring together. These stories are but a glimpse into the resilience of survivors choosing to walk bravely, step by step, into life’s greatest challenges. Today we find ourselves looking at our fellow survivors, our fellow climbers on the mountain of life, and each experience is uniquely different, yet we feel bound together. And, after my second journey to the summit of Mount Kilimanjaro, as I stood side by side with my fellow survivors and climbers each of us carrying our own stories, meditations and intentions, I could feel the one thing that bound us all together: love.
It is the love that binds us, and it’s the love that will carry us on.
TAPS Expeditions are outdoor therapeutic adventures that draw survivors together in the healing powers of the wilderness, require participants to step out of their comfort zones, and foster growth in mind, body and spirit. Expeditions require dedication, preparation and a willingness to learn, trust and grow. Leading up to the expedition, survivors form a team bond and gain familiarity with each other through monthly team meetings. These teams that transform into a family are a source of encouragement during training, on the Expedition, and long after. For more information, contact Rachel at firstname.lastname@example.org.