Having hit rock bottom through her own deep loss, Faye Smith spent time in a Christian psychotherapeutic community and was also reminded of the healing nature of walking. Today, she provides guided walks for other women struggling with grief – or simply needing to reconnect with life
Faye’s own journey of grief started with a challenging marriage. “He was a wonderful man, but he was also an alcoholic. We stayed together for 21 years in total, 14 years together and seven years apart, while I waited for him to get professional help…but he never did.
“When my marriage broke down in 2003, I started walking because my husband had the kids every other weekend. Initially I wasn’t very physically fit so I would walk three or four miles, then the distance just started increasing.”
Faye’s ex-husband tragically died by suicide and then, two years later, her twelve-year-old daughter, Gabi, tragically drowned in the bath.
“Her father’s death by suicide had unfortunately set up a trauma response where she developed a condition called non-epileptic attack disorder. It is where your brain mimics epileptic seizures because it can’t take the trauma of what you’re going through anymore.”
Faye’s twelve-year-old daughter, Gabi, tragically drowned in the bath
Ten years ago, at 9am on a Saturday morning, Gabi was having a bath in order to go and play with a friend when she started fitting – and drowned.
“Her death was almost too much for me to take. I had been trying to be a single parent, I was running my own media and marketing communication consultancy and I staggered on with all this unresolved grief, even though I kept trying to give it to the Lord as best I could.
“I spent years burying my grief and loss because I had to keep going for the sake of my son. He couldn’t have another parent who was not able to be there for him.”
The way Faye coped was by walking, but, in the end, four years ago, she had a breakdown. “It was triggered by my fiancé leaving me on the anniversary week of my husband and daughter’s death. I thought the Lord had brought us together so when the relationship broke down, I really struggled. Every grief and loss I’d ever been through cascaded over me in a 48-hour period.
“I was not able to function. I struggled to leave the house. I was having panic attacks. For the first time ever I developed acrophobia.”
At that point Faye discovered a Christian psychotherapeutic community. They had one place left in the community, and so she went there four years ago in November.
“They’re called Rapha, which stands for ‘God my healer’. They take the best of secular psychotherapeutic technique and place it within a faith context. I initially went for a six-month sabbatical and stayed there for two and a half years!
“I felt like God decided he was going to clean the back of the wound once and for all. Every loss, trauma and grief that I’d ever been through – the bullying at school, right back to being abandoned as a baby at nine days old.”
One of the techniques Faye learned at the community to help overcome grief was journalling. She wrote almost every day and filled 14 journals. Another technique used was ‘mapping’. “It is where you connect the dots; all the things that have gone wrong in your life, and then you correct them.
“We never look at why we are wanting to thump the sales assistant in the store, or we’re screaming at our kids, or we can’t cope when our man is ten minutes late, because we haven’t connected the dots with past trauma, grief and loss. After we have, then we’ve got to correct it. That’s the invitation the Lord offers.”
Walking alongside women
Faye started walking again through lockdown to care for her mental health, and got to know her local area well.
“I thought: ‘I wonder if I could become a walk leader.’ It has been part of my life for so many years. I’ve been on lots of walking holidays with my son, including to Pompeii for his 18th birthday and Jordan for his 21st birthday.
Every grief and loss I’d ever been through cascaded over me in a 48-hour period
“When I was being guided on walks by women, I kept thinking: ‘I could do this.’ I love chatting to people. I love helping people. I love guiding people. So I started Hope Walking: modern-day pilgrimages for women. Then the British Pilgrimage Trust took me on to run guided walks along the North Downs Way, which coincides with the Via Francigena, the mother of all pilgrim walks 2,000 kilometres from Saint Thomas Becket’s shrine in Canterbury Cathedral all the way to Rome. I hadn’t even heard of it, but I was living almost on it.
“On the Hope Walks I listen deeply to the women. They tell me what’s going on in their lives, and then I share some of what’s happened in mine.
“There’s something about the act of walking. When you are walking, you are walking away from tragedy, loss and trauma, and are walking towards a positive new future. Your brain is firing creatively about solutions to your troubles. You’re not stuck physically and mentally; you feel empowered, because you’re getting the endorphins from the movement. You also get oxytocin from the bonding with other people.
“I do some walks that are specifically around grief and loss. It can be any grief and loss – maybe a health issue, a lost career, an empty nest, a betrayal, a lost relationship. It’s not just about bereavement – we carry all these things until the day we surrender them. God will work as we bring him into each situation, but we also need help and support, love and care from each other.
“I love working with women who may have lost their faith, are looking to rediscover their faith, or haven’t got a faith. That’s what I want to do with my life – help women reconnect with themselves, others, nature…and the God who created it all.”
Find out more at hopewalking.co.uk