Rachel Hall never considered swimming as a therapy, until a sudden loss four years ago.
As an adult, I have always turned to swimming. At university, I swam regularly. Every time I have moved to a new city or area, I would join a local pool. I have also loved swimming outdoors, although largely done this in warm weather and on holidays. I had never considered swimming as a therapy, until I needed it.
Four years ago, our son Archie was diagnosed with a brain tumour, completely out of the blue. His tumour was not operable, and only 10 weeks later he died. Archie had been a healthy, happy boy who loved life. He was a funny, compassionate, hilarious six-year old who genuinely brightened every single day. Within the space of a few days, we went from having a bright, confident, clever son to a boy with a terminal diagnosis and treatment plan. The shock was immense.
An overwhelming helplessness engulfed our family as we cared for Archie. We experienced the rapid changes in him as the tumour grew, taking pieces of him each day. The hospital stay was distressing and exhausting. However, the children’s hospice allowed our daughters, Bethany and Lucy, to be together again and supported us to care for Archie.
The trauma of his demise and death led to many dark days and awful surges of reliving the worst moments, alongside a longing for him to be returned.
“A deep, exhausting sadness”
As I lived with grief, I struggled to leave our home, where I felt safe with my husband Ben and our two remarkable daughters. Work was the only reason to get out of the house and this provided a routine where I could continue getting up and getting dressed and functioning.
I read that grief can feel like wading through a river, and this is how it felt to me: a deep, exhausting sadness. I said no to all social events, if I was invited, until offers stopped coming. I self-isolated before COVID was a thing. Lockdown provided an excuse to isolate further, but really I became more and more lonely in my grief.
About a year after Archie’s death, my two sisters encouraged me to sign up for an outdoor swim event, organised by Vigour Events, maybe realising that I needed a sense of purpose and reason to start living again.
I reluctantly agreed and began swimming again: at the start, once, then later twice a week in my local pool. I nervously swam outdoors, worried about the dark water. Swimming in an outdoor lifeguarded pond gave me some confidence, although the long drive made this a rare event.
I did a short course on outdoor swimming with a triathlete coach. A good friend, Suzanne, came with me, giving me the support that I didn’t ask for, but very much needed. A few coaching sessions built up a lot of confidence. My husband encouraged me and supported me, often paddle-boarding alongside.
“My love for open water grew and grew”
Before I knew it, the event came. I swam 2kms in beautiful Loch Lubnaig, with a sister at each side keeping me going. At the end I collapsed into Ben’s arms, from emotional exhaustion as well as physical. Without realising it, the constant swimming and focus on the event had allowed me to look forward and gave me respite from my overwhelming grief. I felt proud of my achievement. We also raised over £4,000 for CHAS Children’s Hospices Across Scotland.
My love for the open water grew and grew, although I still hadn’t found a swimming tribe and was nervous to join existing groups despite knowing about a few. A friend Clare, alongside two of her friends, Nicki and Monica, became interested in outdoor swimming and the benefits it offers in terms of mental and physical health. They did a little afternoon course with an outdoor swimming coach, and caught the bug. They invited me to join their group and I felt safe with this small group of lovely, honest and very funny women.
We ventured to a nearby reservoir one Sunday morning. I was nervous and quiet on the way to the water, but afterwards I felt jubilant and brave. We started going each week, sometimes accompanied by our husbands or some children, but more often than not just the women.
We have swum in the sun, rain, fog and snow; as the sun rises and as the sun sets and even cracked through the ice. In the water my memories of Archie come to me as the house martins swoop low, as feathers rest on the water, as sheep graze on the hills and the cold numbs my fingers. The memories here are good ones, the bad ones remain on dry ground.
Reconnecting and forming friendships
These women probably don’t realise the impact they have had on me. Through the cold water and freedom of being in the hills, I have reconnected with people, forming friendships and getting me out of my self-inflicted bubble. My confidence to face people and re-join society started to return. Swimming with people opened up my shrinking world and gave me confidence to socialise again, in spite of my grief.
Wild swimming is certainly not the answer to grief, but it has helped me. On very dark days it brings me back to the present – especially when the water is really cold, as it often is in Scotland. However, more than anything it has helped me form friendships and connections. Trying to get dressed with freezing fingers under a changing robe can only make you laugh!
We have been swimming now for over a year and have bravely cast the wetsuits in favour of skins, but not sure how long we can do this as the temperatures go down.
Words by Rachel Hall.
Rachel would like to thank her husband, daughters, sisters and friends.
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