An intimidating 30-foot pole occupied a notable spot on the challenge-learning course. The facilitator explained that we were to climb the pole. The pole was manufactured with heavy metal staples that created a “ladder”-effect. Once we reached the top of the pole, we were supposed to mount the disk that was attached at the top, stand, turn to face the group—and, then,  jump!

Why would I climb a pole if I didn’t have to? The truth was—I  didn’t want to. But this pole stood in my way—representing a barrier between God and me, between the world and me; and perhaps, between me and the rest of my life. It was a choice between defeat or victory—much like the struggle of grief.

Early in my journey through grief, I completed a class that encouraged individuals to move from their comfort zone to their stretch zone. The lessons we learned in the classroom were now going to be applied experientially. The end-result reinforced a concept that could create a model for life. It was labeled “challenge by choice.”

We would wear harnesses. Trained course technicians would manage the belay lines attached to the harnesses that would control our suspension. Our fellow team members were responsible for operating the belay ropes that would lower us safely to the ground after our jump. Our instructor reminded us; we could stop at any point. The purpose of the exercise was to challenge us to take just one step more than we felt comfortable taking in a normal situation. For whatever reason, I was willing to give it a try knowing I could stop at any point.

For me, climbing the 30-foot pole was the easy part; it took only seconds. But as I approached the top, I saw the disc mounted there was only the size of a pizza pan. Surely this was a mistake. My feet were bigger than that!

Just two more steps. My hands reached for the disk above me. Reality took on a new dimension. My leaden feet felt glued to the staples; I couldn’t seem to lift them. My team members yelled encouragement. “You can do it!”

I cautiously tested the disk. My instinct urged me to kneel, and then rise to a standing position. But the platform was too small. My coach called to me, “Don’t kneel. You have to stand.”

Fear set in. How could I stand? There was nothing there to support me!

Minutes passed. My coach yelled out again, “You’ve got to let go in order to stand.”

“Let go?” I yelled back. “You want me to let go!”

I suddenly realized that this moment in time was no longer about “challenge by choice.” It was something far greater—a chance to rise above my fears. If I could do this, then just maybe I could overcome the other obstacles related to my grief that were taunting me..

My mind raced thinking about those obstacles:  insecurity, uncertainty, and the great unknown that lay in front of me after the death of my son, Chad. My faith was bruised. I wanted to cry out to God, “You’ve given me this mountain. Now teach me how to climb it! Show me what to do!”

I looked down. My support system was in place. My team members cheered, urging me to take the next step. The chorus of encouragement range in my ears. I heard their voices, but I felt alone, frightened, and frankly…”chicken!”  I could turn back now. I already went one step beyond what was comfortable for me. I didn’t have to prove more than that.  It was my choice.

In that moment of indecision, a sudden wash of supreme peace swept over me, surrounding me with a loving embrace. I felt as though my son reached out, hugged me, and said, “You know you can do it, Mom.”  The feeling lasted only a moment, but it was long enough to give me the courage I needed.

Fearfully, awkwardly, I reached my arms out into empty space. I felt as though someone literally lifted me up. My heavy legs were lighter and I felt secure. The pole swayed back and forth; and my breath caught in my throat. I was standing! Could I jump? Could I let go?

I stood as high as the treetops. I surveyed the golden colors of autumn around me, awe-struck by infinite beauty. My heart swelled with euphoria—a  wonderful sense of accomplishment ( just getting this far!). Surely God was there with me—and so was Chad!

The pole continued to wobble as I turned 180 degrees to position myself to jump. Oblivious to the echo of my team member’s cheers below, now I was only aware of God, my son, myself—and my choice. I reached for the sky—and jumped. Y-E-S!

Words cannot describe my sense of elation in that brief moment of flight before my body was caught in the security of the belay lines, and my teammates lowered me gently to the ground. I’ll never forget it.

Looking back, I realize now that the climb and jump were much easier than the challenge I’d been facing every day since Chad died. Climbing upward through my grief was much more grueling than climbing the thirty-foot pole. Some days, lifting my legs to walk forward was the biggest accomplishment of the day. Moving, just moving was an accomplishment!  No plan. No destination. Oblivious to the world. Carrying out the tasks that we as survivors carry out because we have to, with very few people cheering us on.

Climbing the pole was nothing compared to what I knew now was my primary task: finding the courage to live again. My position on top of that pole paralleled the personal crisis in my life. To move forward, I needed to overcome my fears. I needed to face my predicament, make a decision, and let go of my fear. Let go of my grief.

Letting go doesn’t mean forgetting; it means cherishing the memories. It doesn’t mean ignoring the past; it means accepting the challenge of living in the present. Letting go is a choice that can lead to peace and purpose. I made that choice on top of that pole one fall day. Victory over the pole! Victory over the sting of death!

Nan Zastrow

“I always wanted to write,” said Nan Zastrow. “But I never dreamed it would be about death, grief, and mourning. Today I write to heal my pain and teach others that even after a life-changing event, there can be a reason and a purpose to go on living.” On April 16, 1993, Chad Zastrow, the son of Nan and Gary, died as the result of suicide. Ten weeks later, Chad’s fiancée took her life. This double tragedy inspired the Zastrows to create a ministry of hope. They formed a non-profit organization called ©Roots and Wings more commonly called Wings. From 1993—2003, they published the Wings™ magazine, a publication about real situations and real people going through grief that was mailed throughout the United States and Canada. In 2003, their non-profit changed its focus to primarily grief education and support. They publish a free, quarterly newsletter by email to subscribers. Nan and Gary, together, have been keynote speakers at National Bereaved Parents and workshop presenters at various other events. They have been grief group facilitators since 1993, and host workshops and seminars. Each year they host an original theme-based community “When the Holidays Hurt” program for area funeral homes. Nan is the author of four books and over sixty Editor’s Journal Articles in Wings, Grief Digest, and other publications. Their non-profit organization is the recipient of the 2000 Flame of Freedom Award for community volunteerism. Nan was also nominated for the Women of Vision Award in 2001; the Athena Award in 2005, and The HOPE of Wisconsin, hospice volunteer of the year in 2008. Nan and Gary are hospice volunteers and survivors of six sudden deaths of significant people in their lives.

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