Grief and the Solace of a Long Walk

A photo essay of my meditative walk in the woods.

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Photo by Jacqueline Dooley

Winter in the northeast can be brutal. The last two months of biting cold have found me cooped up and sad, deprived of my much-needed therapy — walking the reclaimed rail trails and wooded paths that meander through the countryside of New York’s mid Hudson Valley.

The Hudson Valley is only ninety miles north of Manhattan, but its landscape is so different from the city’s bustling streets and the suburb’s overcrowded neighborhoods, that it seems much farther than that.

The area is blessed with many rail trails, seamlessly connecting miles of bucolic scenery.

This area also has a wealth of nature preserves and conservancies with winding paths that cut through woods or hug bodies of water, like the Hudson River. The trails are home to all kinds of wildlife, particularly birds (birdwatching is another passion of mine).

Goldfinches (getting their spring colors) gather at my backyard feeder

I began walking the trails a few months after my daughter died in 2017. In those early days, being out in nature was the only thing that made sense to me. I needed the open space. I couldn’t focus on screens or chores or the daily concerns of living.

The trees and the trails didn’t mind my tears. I would walk for hours, taking my time, looking up at the sky and watching for birds or down at the trail, searching for feathers and heart-shaped stones, signs that my daughter’s spirit was with me.

Even now, two years later, being out in nature helps me manage my relentless grief. That’s why the endless stretch of months from November through early April are particularly difficult. I’m at my most desolate when the days are dark and the world colorless.

On the day that I take these photos, we are gifted with mild weather, the first real glimpse of spring.

I grab my tiny dog and my camera and head to one of my favorite trails. The trail used to be a road. It’s wide and still partially paved. I love it because it reminds me of myself — ruined, but in the midst of transforming.

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At the start of my walk, I paused at a high point on trail that overlooks the Hudson River.

As you can see, the landscape is raw and barren, scrubbed clean after another relentless winter. The color of the sky is barely differentiated from the river and the trees, but in a few weeks everything will look different.

I take my camera so I can chronicle the trail as it looks now, bleak and naked after the long winter months. Watching the landscape transform from lifeless to verdant is one of my new comforts, a validation of life’s tenacity, and a balm to my bruised heart.

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This is the overgrown road. A conifer lends some color to the otherwise monochrome landscape.

The path travels at a slight incline for the first half mile and my winter-soft legs ache as I make my way forward. My 9 pound dog, Roo, is unused to the exercise. I carry him when he gets tired, but this is no trouble at all.

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My dog, Roo, stops to sniff a section of the trail

Roo will be my constant companion on my trail walks over the next six or seven months.

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The trail narrows as it enters the woods

The trail branches off in several places, narrowing and entering woods crowded with dead leaves and fallen branches. The leaves obscure the path and crunch under my feet. Old stone walls, covered in moss, slice through the trees. I wonder whose hands stacked the stones and what the road looked like when the walls were strong and new.

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Dead trees provide new life for birds and other wildlife. This hole was likely made by a woodpecker.

As I make my way along the trail, I watch and listen for birds. I stop near a tree to snap a photo. It looks like the favorite haunt of a woodpecker. In the quiet of the forest, I can hear something drumming on the trees.

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An elevated path crosses a swampy section of the trail

A chorus of spring peepers greets me midway through my walk. These tiny frogs are one of the first signs of spring in the Northeast. I hear them long before I reach the marshy section of the trail, but they grow quiet at my approach. I hope to see one and snap a picture, but they blend in perfectly with the landscape.

My daughter loved frogs, even into her teens. She could spot them hidden among the leaves and catch them with ease.

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A Northern Flicker searches for food on the forest floor

I spot a northern flicker — a type of woodpecker slightly larger than a robin — digging for bugs on the forest floor. A year ago I didn’t know these birds existed. Flickers are gorgeous, with bright yellow markings on their wing and tail feathers and rich patterns of spots across their bodies.

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This tree greets me as I make my way back towards my car

My three mile walk is nearly over. The only color I’ve encountered comes from evergreens and that lone flicker, but I feel invigorated, recharged. As I make my way back to my car, I stop to clip a paper crane to a slender branch that overhangs the trail.

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A paper crane clipped to a branch

Folding paper cranes is one way I remember my daughter. Each year on the anniversary of her death, I leave cranes around my neighborhood — in the stores she loved, on the trails I love, in restaurants, and all the places in between.

If you’ve gotten this far, thank you. I’m glad you came on the first walk of spring with me. Roo is exhausted, and I’m pretty tired too.

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Roo, sticking his tongue out at me after our walk

Jacqueline Dooley is a writer and entrepreneur living in New York’s Mid-Hudson Valley. Her essays on parenting a child with cancer and parental grief have been published in The Washington Post, Mothers Always Write, HuffPost, Longreads, Modern Loss, PulseVoices, The Wisdom Daily and more. Find her on Twitter at jackie510.

Written by

Occasional poet. Writer of sad essays. Novelist. Birder and amateur photographer. I enjoy trees.

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