When Gretchen Miller found out that her father, 82, had leukemia — and at most three months to live — she reached out to hospice for help.
“Someone recommended I call hospice, so I called [them] and said, ‘I kind of feel like I need some support,’” Miller recalls. And for her, one of the main ways she found that support was through weekly guided hiking groups.
Each year, from May through October, HospiceCare of Boulder and Broomfield Counties offers drop-in hikes in south Boulder and a walking group in Longmont. Two HospiceCare volunteers lead each session, and participants can talk with other hikers about their emotions, or “they can just walk,” Jewel Lauer says.
Lauer, who helped organize the first hiking group six years ago, says the idea for organizing the hikes came when she realized that “nature heals,” and that for some people, participating in a traditional support group, especially immediately after a loss, can be too difficult.
“At first, their grief is so overpowering that the thought of going into a room and talking about it is overwhelming,” Lauer says, and even meeting in an outdoor, non-threatening setting can be a struggle for some people.
“It [sometimes] happens that people show up, and they look like they’re going to run,” Lauer says. “People can show up in a very vulnerable place.”
When she first heard about the idea, Julie Thomas, grief services coordinator at HospiceCare, welcomed the idea of a hike for people who were grieving.
“One size doesn’t fit all for how people get through the grief process, and this is just one avenue,” she says.
And even within one group, there can be different needs, which is why the hikes have a mostly free structure — the route, pace and duration are all flexible, depending on who shows up on a given evening, the weather and the season. Groups range in number from two or three to as many as 10, and all that is required to participate is that hikers show up at the right place at the right time and fill out a brief information form and release form.
“We allow whatever is happening to happen,” says Lauer, who also leads hikes.
“It’s completely low-pressure,” says Miller, who participated regularly throughout 2008 and occasionally since. “Whoever you happen to be standing next to, that’s who you end up talking to.”
Making connections with fellow hikers, especially those who have shared similar losses, can be the greatest comfort.
“For me, it was really helpful to be able to go somewhere and say this is happening in my life … to say, ‘My dad is dying,’” Miller says. “It’s comforting to hear that other people are feeling the same things you are, to know you’re not alone.”
The physical component is also a benefit not found in many other support groups, and apart from the physiological effects of exercise — lower blood pressure, reduced stress — it also helps the words to come.
“It seems helpful while you’re talking to keep moving,” she says. “It just kind of fosters talk.”
Lauer, Thomas and Darryl all emphasize that the HospiceCare hiking group is open to anyone dealing with grief or going through a difficult period in their lives, regardless of whether they have been involved with HospiceCare or received HospiceCare services. The group is generally adult-focused, but teens and children with a parent or guardian are welcome as well.
Darryl Dargitz, who has been the hiking director for five years, encourages people who, like Miller, are anticipating a loss to participate in the hikes as well. Caregivers especially stand to benefit, both from the emotional support and the respite that the outings provide.
The Boulder hiking group meets at the Boulder Montessori School, 3300 Redstone Rd., every Wednesday from May 4 through Oct. 26. The hikes, which are “easy” to “moderate” in difficulty, begin at 5:30 p.m. and are approximately one hour to one and a half hours long. The Longmont walking group meets at the Pella Crossing Trailhead on Wednesdays at 5 p.m. Walks last approximately one hour.
For more information about the HospiceCare hiking program in Boulder, or the walking group in Longmont, visit www.hospicecareonline.org, or call 303-449-7740.