White Coat, Black Art·Personal essay

How running helped me get through pandemic isolation, and the grief of losing my father

After Chantelle Richmond lost her father to cancer in December 2019, the pandemic cut her off from her family and prevented them from holding a traditional ceremony to honour him. She shares how she found comfort in running.

After Chantelle Richmond lost her father to cancer in December 2019, the pandemic cut her off from her family

Chantelle Richmond with her father, Reg, on a walk along Lake Superior, Marathon, Ont., in Dec. 2018. (Submitted by Chantelle Richmond)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

In December 2019, Chantelle Richmond lost her father, Reg, to cancer.

She spoke to White Coat, Black Art about grieving during the pandemic and the impact of being unable to carry out traditional Anishinaabe practices and her father's wishes for his final rites.

In this essay, she shares what helped her build resilience and work through loss. 

For most of my life I have been a runner. I am not fast, but I am consistent.

For me, the goal is to keep my body moving. I want to feel my breath, to tune out the noise of the everyday and focus inward. In my life, running is the one place and time that is meant only for me. I push myself up and over the hills, and across the miles. I always feel better after a run.

It is a gift I give to myself.

In the past year especially, running has featured significantly in my everyday life. Like for many others, living amidst a pandemic has been incredibly stressful due to the fear, disruptions and social isolation it has caused.

For me and my family, this time has been made all the more difficult as we grieve the loss of my Dad, who passed away in December 2019. Living nearly 1,200 kilometers away from my hometown of Marathon, Ont., I have never felt more isolated from my family.

I can recall the day my Mom called to tell me that Dad's family doctor suspected he had cancer. It was July 2019. I was sitting with a student in my office at the university.

It was not unusual for my mom to call me in my office. What was unusual that day was the urgency in her voice. And the sadness. "Your dad is short of breath. He was up all night in his chair. He has a lot of pain in his chest."

She took him to our local hospital, where he was admitted. Images of Dad's chest revealed his left lung was almost fully collapsed. She went on to repeat words I did not understand. I would later google them. Lung collapse. Pleural fluid. Chest X-ray. Draining of the lung.

Richmond with her parents in their family home in Marathon Ont., in Nov. 2019. (Submitted by Chantelle Richmond)

My thoughts turned to Dad's recent weight loss. I recalled him telling me about the night sweats he had experienced that winter. He did have a nagging cough.

A few days later, it was confirmed he had cancer. I got the call as I sat watching my son play soccer. Weeks later my parents met with a thoracic surgeon who suspected Dad had late stage pleural mesothelioma lung cancer.

My Dad lived for just five months following his cancer diagnosis. While his diagnosis meant many changes to his life ... he persisted with his daily walks.- Chantelle Richmond

We were all in shock. The surgeon estimated he had less than a year to live.

In fact, my Dad lived for just five months following his cancer diagnosis. While his diagnosis meant many changes to his life — chemo, his pleural drain, countless medicines, suppressed appetite, fatigue — he persisted with his daily walks.

For as long as I can remember, my Dad would walk the five-kilometer loop around Marathon. In the rain, fog, sun or blizzard. For him, the movement was important. So was the social connection with the friends and neighbours he met along the way.

I am grateful that I was able to walk with him on his final tour of the town. He was the most dignified, strong and brave person I knew. Even when his body was actively shutting down, that he could move independently meant that he was "just perfect."

In the months immediately following my Dad's death, I was sadder than I have ever been.

The pandemic meant I was unable to gather with my mother and sisters. Our ceremonial obligations were put on hold. I searched for outlets of prayer, solace and comfort.

Through running I have found a place to carry out the healing I need to do.- Chantelle Richmond

During grief, people often take comfort in the company of others. In shared food. In the telling of stories, and memories that help you remember how special your loved one was to you. These moments bring comfort.

COVID-19 meant that I did all of these things over the phone. It helped some. But I knew the heavy work of grieving was not a job anyone could do for me. I simply had to go through it. This is when running became so much more important to me.

Through running I have found a place to carry out the healing I need to do. Over countless miles, running has supported me to regain some semblance of control. I have never been so grateful for my strong lungs and my powerful legs. 

Richmond with her husband Ian, and children Maya and William, at the Springbank Road Races in London, Ont., in Oct. 2016. (Submitted by Chantelle Richmond)

During my runs, I often think of my Dad. I think back to his frailty and the decline in his body. It is easy to get stuck in that sadness. But my Dad told us many times that he did not want us to cry for him after he left. He was intent on "going up the river." He was adamant there would be no sadness where he was going.

I gathered strength from his direction, and his persistence. For even when he needed the support of a walker, he kept moving.

With each step I honour my Dad as much as I honour myself. If he can do it, surely I can too.

With every step, I am restoring my balance, feeding my spirit, and expressing gratitude for my life.

Chantelle Richmond holds the Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Health and Environment at Western University. 

She was the lead on the Royal Society of Canada report COVID-19 and Indigenous Health and Wellness: Our Strength is in our Stories, a collection of 10 stories written by Indigenous scholars published in December 2020. In that report, Richmond wrote about the experience of grieving during COVID and the impact of having to delay an Anishinaabe ceremony to honour her father.

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