How 5 Days in the Grand Canyon Helped Me Process Grief

Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona, United States


Chloe Donlan

About a month ago, me and other members of the Santa Clara community unexpectedly lost a very special friend.

Ever since losing my friend, I have been struggling to understand my grief. I've been confused, stretched way too thin, unexplainably sad, and possessed by a multitude of questions I couldn't begin to describe. After 5 transformational days in the Grand Canyon, I found some of the answers I was searching for. 

Lighten your load 

I am the classic example of a busy college student. Apart from taking four classes, I am fortunate to have a variety of opportunities that fill my free time. I intern for The Outbound Collective, play intramural soccer, am an active member of an off campus sorority, dog sit for a professor twice a week, run and practice yoga, am learning to surf, and hold an executive role for Santa Clara Into the Wild (check us out here).

In the Grand Canyon, I realized that I might need to lighten my load. Similar to shedding excessive poundage from my backpacking pack, I realized that I need to shed excessive weight from my daily life. While I am still figuring out how to do this, I know that my mental health and inner peace will benefit. 

Distribute the weight 

If you notice that someone in your group is carrying too much weight on trail, offer to take some. Carry their excess food and water, sleeping pad, sleeping bag—anything it takes to help him or her enjoy the present and arrive safely at the top of a canyon or mountain. 

Off the trail, it is important to recognize that family and friends are unconditionally available to provide support. I typically internalize every ounce of stress or anxiety that I feel, but being in the Grand Canyon helped me realize why I should adapt my way of dealing with unforeseen circumstances. When an unexplainable event happens, don't be afraid to lean on the shoulders of the people in your life. Your friends, family, peers, and colleagues offer a wealth of knowledge and advice that will help ease your soul and calm your mind. 


My time in the Grand Canyon allowed me to discover one of (in my opinion) the most admirable qualities to possess: resilience. The desert experiences extreme temperature variations and weather conditions, yet life always prevails. The cacti bloom, the elk find shrubbery, and the swallows find seeds. I am motivated by the deserts ability to continuously regain strength. I hope to be able to inspire the people in my life as I mimic the deserts resilience and regain a deep passion for living life to the fullest—while allowing myself to process grief at my own pace. 

The abundance of ways to say "I love you"

I am quite fond of the theory of love languages. There are so many ways to communicate your love to people. On our trips, we at Into the Wild leaders show our love by waking up extra early, going to bed last, eating last, treating blisters and other medical ailments, and constantly facilitating a group of strangers as they transform into a group of (hopefully) long-time friends. By doing this, we touch as many hearts as we can throughout the duration of each trip. 

When dealing with grief, it can be hard to balance your own emotions with those of the people closest to you. Try to figure out what these people need: a meal, a hug, someone to sit next to in a service, or something as simple as a warm smile in a big crowd. Convey your love for them by providing them with an essential act of service, useful gift, quality time, physical touch, or a word of affirmation.

Finding pleasure in the little things 

A novel idea: perhaps money doesn't buy happiness or cure sadness. Perhaps you can take steps toward moving forward from extreme grief by sitting at the top of a waterfall with one of your long-time best friends, while sharing cheese, apples, and a view of the Grand Canyon that is sure to evoke tears and a profound sense of connectedness to the earth and the creatures who inhabit it. 

If you are reading this because you are experiencing a form of grief, please know that you are not alone. You are surrounded by love and light. I stand beside you in spirit as you take the time to comprehend what has happened. I walk beside you on the path to forgiveness, understanding, and inner peace. 

With a love for all things wild, 

Published: April 2, 2017

Chloe DonlanAdmin

Student at Santa Clara University, member of Santa Clara Into the Wild, lover of animals and all things nature. From the mountains to the ocean and everywhere in between.

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