The 48 Mountains That Held My Grief

By Carrie Thompson for the NY Times

On the first day of 2020, my anxiety roared as I approached the summit of Mount Pierce in northern New Hampshire. At about 4,300 feet elevation, the wind was picking up, the visibility dropping to near zero. I was about to turn around in defeat when I heard faint voices ahead of me: two women, zipping up their coats as I approached.

“Are you heading for the summit?” I asked. “Could I tag along?”

We left the shelter of the tree line, leaning forward slightly as gusts of wind whirled blinding snow around us across the open mountaintop. When we reached the peak, they waited patiently as I held out a battered green hat, took a picture of it and threw a tiny bit of ashes into the snow. It wasn’t until we descended back to the safety of the trees that they asked about the hat.

“It was my son’s. I lost him to suicide in July.”

There was a long silence. Then the older woman told me she lost her sister too. I remember thinking my son had brought us together. We connected over our shared stories, and they understood — something so rare for me those days.

My son, Ben, 23 when he died, was always most at home when he was outside. As I struggle with his unimaginable loss, I’ve found peace in the rush of rivers and streams, the open majesty of the New Hampshire mountaintops where he spent his childhood.

The year after his death, I hiked 48 of the state’s tallest mountains in his memory. Hiking has been a way to hide from the trauma of loss, the judgment and stigma of suicide and the reaction to my family’s openness about it. Every step, trail and summit — whether socked in or wide open — has been a way to heal.

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