On the Edge of Things: Grief & Guiding

Words & Photograph By Emerald LaFortune

The Salmon River is flooding, surging at 65,000 cubic feet per second and I’m washing downstream with it, kicking through boils, sputtering in the waves and thinking about death. Not because I think I’m going to die at this moment. I have a hand on the boat, it’s a swiftwater rescue course, I know my coworkers have my back. But that is what these rivers and wild landscapes of Idaho do to a person. They put you right up next to your own mortality, staring into that human truth:
“I am very, very small and the world is very, very big.”
I haul myself back into the boat as the other guides around me do the same.
“We’re gonna die,” someone exclaims as we crest another wave. And we laugh, sort of.
“No really,” he says. “We do all die someday.”
As we pull with our paddles into the next trough, I think about that.
We do all die someday.
I wonder if that’s why we are here, letting our lives dangle on the edge of risk and reward. There is no place better than that line to feel alive. The guiding community knows this and is also stung by it, all at the same time. Over the last month or so we’ve grieved as we’ve lost members of our tight knit guiding and outdoor community. We say goodbye to friends taken by cancer, taken by the very rivers and mountains they love, taken by their own hand as they face inner struggles we never saw. As the Director of this organization here to support you, I wish there were easy answers and condolences but there aren't. I can’t tell you to stop going into these mountains and out to these rivers any more than I can tell you to stop breathing. How do we take care of a community that lives on the edge of things? What do we do when our livelihood is so often intimately connected to our sadness? How do we reconcile our loss with our own close calls?
In 2010, I lost my father and best boating partner to cancer. I learned how different every death is, how much space should be created to let people grieve and feel loss in the ways that are best for them. I learned the only important thing is that we don’t turn away from each other, assign blame or let difficult experiences harden our hearts.

“Grief is not a problem to be solved but rather an authentic expression of love,” says the Redside Foundation helpline counselor.
We all do die someday.
I don’t say this to be morbid, I say this because I know this community often holds this reality closer than our culture as a whole. Guides don’t just understand death in the abstract, we feel it every time we row a flooding river or pack a horse through a tight switchback. It is part of the disclaimer we sign off as we sign in to this profession.

“We all do die someday... and have you felt how good it is to be alive,” we ask.

“We all do die someday... and I’m so grateful to be here today,” we say.
Losing a friend, a coworker or a loved one is different in every situation, to every person. Grief is a natural response to loss. Sometimes we grieve the situation and our part in it, sometimes we grieve the loss of a person we cared deeply about, sometimes we grieve both.  I encourage you to lean toward each other and have the hard discussions about why and how.  Healthy coping means talking about the person who has died, sharing stories and pictures, talking about feelings, crying, exercise, doing something fun and being honest with others and yourself. Unhealthy coping means using drugs or alcohol to help feel better, avoiding talking about the death, avoidance of angry or sad feelings (or avoidance of other feelings) and isolation.

Whatever your journey, always know you have a supporting hand in the Redside Foundation for when the grief or risks inside and outside our profession becomes too heavy to carry alone.

Additional Resources:

Affects of Grief

  • Separation pain, sadness, sorrow, anguish
  • Anxiety, panic, fear vulnerability, insecurity
  • Yearning, pining, longing
  • Helplessness; powerlessness;  feelings of being out of control, victimized, overwhelmed
  • Anger, hostility, irritability, intolerance, impatience
  • Guilt, self-reproach, regret
  • Depression, hopelessness, despair
  • Apathy
  • Frustration
  • Fear of going crazy
  • Hypersensitivity
  • Deprivation, mutilation, violation
  • Lonliness
  • Abandonment
  • Ambivalence
  • Relief

Cognitions of Grief

  • Disbelief
  • Bewilderment
  • Disorganization, confusion, distractibility
  • Preoccupation with the deceased, obsession, rumination
  • Impaired concentration, comprehension, mental functioning, memory, decision making
  • Meaninglessness, senselessness, aimlessness, disillusionment
  • Spiritual confusion, alienation, rejection; increased spirituality
  • Lowered self-esteem, feelings of inadequacy
  • Pessimism
  • Diminished self concern
  • Decreased interest

When to Seek Help

  • Feeling teary and emotional more often than not
  • Persistent anger or sadness about the death or circumstances surrounding the death
  • Increase in substance use
  • Excessive grief symptoms to where others are noticing and concerned
  • Nightmares, not sleeping or sleeping all the time
  • Thoughts of death or suicidal thoughts, suicide plan
  • Panic attacks (deep pounding in chest, difficulty breathing, often thought to be a heart attack), can not stop thinking about the death or the person who has died, thoughts that something bad is going to happen at any time
  • Avoidance of all things around the death
  • Inability to work or complete basic self-care functions


Coping with Loss: Bereavement & Grief - Mental Health America

How to Go On Living When Somebody Dies - Whale Foundation

What is Normal Grieving and What Are the Stages of Grief? - Web MD

Idaho Guide Helpline - Redside Foundation