Lessons From The Barbell: My Journey From Grief to Strength

“I’m too sick to come in today. Sorry.”

I hung up the phone, threw it into a corner, and cried myself back to sleep.

You’ll be okay. It’ll get better,” I’d say.

But it got worst.

“She didn’t make it,” my mother cried over the phone. “I knew something was wrong; I tried calling all day and she never picked up.”

A month later, another call came in.

I remained quiet on the other line allowing my mother to cry and grieve while I sat there numb. I was so tired of crying at this point, but it didn’t look like it would end anytime soon.

By then, the amount of loss in my life was unbearable. I woke up in tears most mornings and walked my dog sobbing under my hoodie. I fell asleep holding pictures of my former life wondering how long this feeling would last. The love of my life was gone. The people I cherished were taken from me and I never got to say goodbye. Everything felt heavy and out of control and I was suffocating under its weight.

So there I was. Hiding under the covers, calling out of work again and telling myself that eventually, things would be okay.

That dirty five-letter word

Grief is a dirty little word. No one likes to admit to it and no one wants to talk about it. We’re told anger and depression are an inevitable part of the process, and our well-meaning friends advise us to be strong and “get out of the house.” But grief is a very personal and private experience with no timeline, with varying degrees of intensity and no manual to help you troubleshoot.

As trainers, we need to understand that the grieving process will take priority over exercise, and that’s perfectly okay. It’s not lazy, it’s not a mistake. We should encourage our clients or our grieving friends that it’s okay to sit around and mourn for a while. Our well-intentioned advice of “you need to get out of the house,” is a MASSIVE undertaking for a person in mourning. The effort and energy it takes to get out of bed, to move, to go to work is so insurmountable that “getting out of the house” for exercise or socializing might as well be a death sentence.

When someone is ready to heal, they will get up and get moving on their own. It might be baby steps at first but those initial steps are part of the healing process. Let your friend/client/partner initiate that healing on their own and allow them to move through it at their own pace.

Mending under the bar

There’s nothing quite like the iron to build you back up after life crushes you from the inside out. After a few months of misery, I felt ready to own my emotional and physical recovery again. And so my journey into Olympic weightlifting began.

Heavy lifting is hard. Olympic weightlifting specifically required all of my focus, and the learning curve was a leap into the uncomfortable. I walked into CrossFit Fortius about 10lbs lighter and at my weakest. Learning to lift again drained me. I dragged myself into the gym, leaned into the discomfort, did the workout and then dragged my tired ass back home. The mental and physical demands of weightlifting were so intense that it was the only thing that helped me sleep through the night. I repeated this for 1.5 years and looking back now, I see that it was the best decision I made during the most depressing time of my life.

Playing with weights

Playing with weights

Women are told all the time not to lift heavy because they’ll get bulky. Magazines tell us how to get a small butt, or lose our muffin top and this only feeds into the perpetual cycle that exercise is all about “fixing” something that is wrong with us. In reality, exercise, and lifting in particular, is the catalyst for owning your power. In my case, it literally lifted me out of my sadness and gave me something to think about until one day I woke up laughing instead of crying.

There is no time for loss, grief, or heartbreak with a barbell in your hands. There’s no self-pity allowed when you’re attempting 1.5X your bodyweight in a squat. There is zero time for sadness when you’re staring at your coach as he explains how to snatch for the millionth time. In moving again and doing everything in my power to gain back my strength, I started to heal. I got my power back.

Be victorious, not a victim

We may not control everything that happens in our lives but one aspect that we can control is our response to life’s events. Motivational speaker and author Jack Canfield tells us that successful people respond differently to situations than the average Joe. His formula: (E)vent + (R)esponse = (O)utcome states that we can change the outcome of any situation by either altering our response or a specific event. Movement in whatever form you prefer – lifting, running, yoga – is one positive response to adversity. You may hate it and have to drag yourself to workout because you’d rather hide under the covers, but eventually your mind and your heart catches up to your body and you become whole again.

This takes our victim mentality – the ‘this terrible thing happen to me’ – to a victory mentality. Under this mindset, you are in the driver’s seat and completely in control of turning a bad situation into something positive.

When my life unraveled before me, owning the discomfort in pushing my body and strength to a new level brought me back to life. It meant hours under the bar; dragging myself to the gym when I didn’t want to be there. It involved taking 100% responsibility for my healing, grasping for the victory mindset and getting uncomfortable enough to forget how broken I was.

When you’re ready, take 100% responsibility for your healing. No one else can do it for you.


Right now, lifting (in whatever form) is the highlight of my day again. Teaching gives me joy again. I run, jump, lift, sprint, crush pull-ups and Turkish get-ups because I want to. We can control how far we run, how big we lift and that’s how we recover from life’s unexpected knockouts.

As 2015 comes to a close, here’s a special shout-out to barbells and iron. Thank you for enabling me to push, pull, squat, deadlift, swing, carry and fight you year after year. I am better now for all the lessons you taught me under your heavy weight.


Now I want to hear from you. How do you rebound from life’s struggles? What lessons have you learned in your fitness or strength journey? Join the conversation with a comment below or spread this message to someone that needs it.


Comments 9

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  2. Trish, this great and well written and straight from the heart. A couple of clients of mine had an unexpected loss in their family and they still came in for their session. I tried to make movement as fun as possible to bring a little joy into their lives. It worked and they laughed and had a good time. Movement does heal.

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  3. Often, the most difficult reads are because we have our own sense of resistance – especially to sensitive topics like this. Thank you for openly sharing your story. There’s nothing more raw and real than experience — oh, and triumph 🙂

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  6. This article is the first thing that came up when I googled “weightlifting and grief”, and I wanted to give you a quick shout out and thank you for speaking so plainly yet passionately.

    I don’t understand why it’s taken so long, but I’m finally getting back into the gym after a bout of grief and really intense depression that lasted about 7 years. It’s good to see someone who relates. Much love to you.

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      Cindy, my heart goes out to you! Not only for your courage in trying to find your way out of your depression but sharing a piece of yourself with me as well. I’m so happy that this article touched you in a meaningful way. Even when I read it now, I get tears in my eyes because I remember EXACTLY what that year felt like, so I can only imagine what you’re going through. Grief and depression is so raw, personal, and emotional. There’s no one way out. Movement really is healing, I think, and I hope your journey back to exercise and yourself lifts you up 🙂 I know it did for me! Much love!

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