Personal Pilgrimage Exercise

Experiential Exercise Series: #2
In today’s piece, I’m going to explain another cool, entry-level DIY experiential exercise for death-grief.
Again, as with yesterday’s tactic, you’ll want to have the courage to “lean into it” with this exercise.
And, yes, you’re probably going to get emotional.
Plenty emotional.
But there will be tremendous release—a sharp recognition accompanied by an undeniable warmth…
That provides substantial value to your healing.
Take a deep breath…
Then give it a try. 🙂
The Personal Pilgrimage
The Personal Pilgrimage exercise is one that sees you retrace the steps of the deceased’s routine in some way. Here, it could be a daily walk. Or a daily ride. Perhaps play time (pet or child). Part of a work day. Time shopping. A specific yoga class. Something along those lines.
I’ve included examples for both human death-grief and pet loss, as my therapy clientele is comprised of both. I’ve included these simply to better illustrate the technique and its range of applications.
This exercise definitely takes some creativity.
It takes some guts.
And, it may well be an especially painful experience. There’s just no way to sugarcoat it.
But it’s an exercise that provides tremendous insight into acceptance…
If you’re able to withstand the surge of emotions that are bound to arise.
Human Death-Grief Example
My father died many years ago. Unexpectedly.
At the time, I didn’t know much about experiential therapy, as it wasn’t really on the radar during my undergraduate studies in the early-1990s. (Although, it does now seem almost custom-built for death-grief.)
Thus, I grieved the loss of my father hard. I’d lost my beloved miniature husky-chow mix, Piggy, only 87 days prior, and I was already in a terrible state by the time my dad passed.
And since both deaths were rather sudden…

The latter managed to level me.

Again, at the time of those two deaths, I didn’t have the toolbox I now have as an experiential psychologist.
But one thing I did manage to do, intuitively, is carry out an exercise known as “Personal Pilgrimage.”
To cope with my father’s death, I decided to retrace the steps of his typical work day.
A physician, my dad was a career man, ambitious and with an unwavering love for his work.
Thus, every morning, Monday through Friday, he’d be up by 5:30 AM and out the door, headed for the hospital, by no later than 6:45 AM.
So, one morning, I—who lived 30 minutes south of my parents—got up much earlier than I typically do, and proceeded to take on his morning.
I showered. Had a light breakfast. Dressed in a tie-less suit, and headed to my parents.
I got there a bit early, so I sat outside, in the driveway, until 6:45. (My mom was still asleep, with her dog Tookay, inside.) At 6:45, I pulled out of the driveway in Burnsville, Minnesota, and headed for the Southdale Medical Clinic in Edina, Minnesota, a 15 minute drive pre-rush hour.

I drove all the same streets he did each morning, including Interstate 35W. The entire drive, I pictured what he might be thinking.

  • Did he worry about his kids?
  • His grandkids?
  • His case-load that morning?
  • When he might be able to get to his cabin or Florida home again?

Did he already know about his heart issue and worry about that???
When I got to the hospital, I was able to park in the parking spot that once belonged to him; although reassigned, the tech made arrangements for me to get in, as the new owner of the spot typically didn’t arrive until 8:00 AM or so.
I pulled into the garage…then the parking spot. I sat for a long moment…then took a deep breath and stepped out of the car.
I headed into the building, walked the same three halls he walked, and found his office. While the office was not being used at that time, my dad’s empty desk and chair remained in the room. The tech had arranged to put an old stack of x-ray files on his desk for me.

I sat down at the desk—tears streaming from my eyes, of course—turned on the light backdrop, and proceeded to look through the stack of old x-rays, one after another, as my father would. I even took on many of his mannerisms in doing so.

After about 15 minutes, the tech appeared in the doorway, with tissues in hand and an empathetic smile. I put everything back as it was when I arrived, thanked her, and headed on my way.
To complete the exercise, I drove back to my parents house, as if it were 6:00 PM. I pulled into the driveway, on my dad’s side, and parked the car. I sat there for what seemed like forever, trying to picture what might go through his mind each evening when he returned home.
Did he wonder how my mom’s day had gone? Did he anticipate what might be for dinner? Did he look forward to diving into whatever book he was reading at the time, a nightly ritual?
Yeah, I cried…and cried…and cried there in the driveway.
But I left that morning with a sense of something greater—a perspective that helped me shift my grief to a place a bit more manageable.
And, many years later, when I discovered the Personal Pilgrimage exercise in my doctorate studies, I already knew first-hand how powerful it can be.
Pet Loss Example
So, how can you apply the Personal Pilgrimage exercise to your pet loss?
Well, let me give you a simple story from my own life.
As I said above, I lived, for many years, 30 minutes south of my parent. I actually lived in a small college town called Northfield. The town is one of the most beautiful small towns in America, housing both Saint Olaf College and Carleton College.
With being such a beautiful town, it has some enchanting parks and walking paths. Once such path leads from the railroad tracks through a long archway of mature trees, into the neighboring town of Dundas. In autumn, this path is emblazoned with magnificent color.
Yet, the only time I ever walked this path was with Piggy, the pet I mentioned earlier. Pretty much every day, regardless of weather, we’d walk that trail. And she’d stop every 10 feet to sniff and investigate.
So, in the wake of her life, a few months after her death, I got the idea—and finally the courage—to walk the path again and carry out a typical jaunt with her. I stopped every 10 feet or so, sniffed the air, studied the trees around me, listened to the breeze, felt the sunshine. During two of these stops, I even pretended I’d done so because Piggy had to pee. 🙂
I walked the path and back, just as I did with her, emulating the thousands of walks we’d taken together through that tunnel of color.
This is a Personal Pilgrimage for pet loss.
Can you apply something similar to either example?
Next time around, I’ll give discuss a third DIY healing exercise.
Until then…

Note: I do edit the email letters for texture. If you wish to send one, you may do so via our contact form.