How Skiing Helped Heal Our Broken Family
After the death of their husband and father, the world felt irreversibly transformed. Skiing would offer a lifeline.
Heading out the door? Read this article on the new Outside+ app available now on iOS devices for members! Download the app.
Editor’s Note: This story deals with the sensitive topics of suicide and mental health struggles. If you or someone you know is experiencing suicidal thoughts or a crisis, please reach out immediately to the National Suicide Prevention Lifeline.
“We’re almost there,” I shout over my left shoulder, my skis tottering heavily on my right. I stop for a quick breather and glance behind me. My 11-year-old son, Chase, is clomping along about 15 feet back, head hung low. I can’t see his face, but I know he’s glowering. He hates when we make him hike.
It’s a crystal-clear afternoon at Keystone, a few days after the last storm dropped about six inches. We had woken up in the pitch black of the pre-dawn, pulled on our baselayers, lugged our ski bags out to the car, and hit the road before the sun could be spotted in the rearview mirror.
We live in Denver and try to ski most weekends at either Keystone and Breckenridge. It’s a schlep thanks to ski traffic most of the winter, but we don’t mind. The reward is always worth the effort. But this seemingly typical day trip in early March of 2022 is actually anything but.
This would be our first ski day since my husband took his life at the end of January. My partner of 17 years, Tim—the devoted dad, the guy who coached his sons’ lacrosse teams, showed up at every school play, and talked people’s ears off about his three cherished boys—had been dealing with Covid-induced unemployment and subsequent health issues, and in a moment of weakness (I like to think), made an unfortunately rash and permanent decision.
In the immediate days after he died, I believed that nothing would ever feel “normal” again. As the meals stacked up in our refrigerator and the calls and texts flooded my phone, it was like someone hit pause on our lives, despite the fact that the sun stubbornly kept rising and setting. Snow piled up on the lid of the gray cooler my dear friends placed by our front door for people to drop off food without bothering us. Everytime I brushed it off, I wondered when we’d ski again. If we’d ski again. It felt like such a superfluous thing to do. Had we ever been so blessed to do something so … normal?
February dragged on, snow continuing to fall atop of the cooler. I shoveled the front steps over and over again, reminded each time that this was something that Tim had always dutifully done. One month after his death, the meals were few and far between, and routine trips to the grocery store worked their way back into my weeks. Gas station fill-ups. School drop offs. Sports practices. Life.
At the beginning of March came a question so familiar yet so foreign at the same time.
“Mom, can we go skiing this weekend?”
My 14-year-old son, Jake, posed the same question he’d asked probably a hundred times since learning to ski on his third birthday. He sounded so … normal.
Could we go skiing this weekend, I wondered? Could we go back to the place where we’d spent so much time as a family of five? Could we eat in the same lodge, park in the same lot, sit in the same traffic on the way home? It felt impossible. But, taking my cue from this kid, whose own life story has now also been indelibly rewritten, I said yes.
“Let’s do it. Keystone or Breck?”
There’s something to be said about the good ol’ fake-it-til-you-make-it motto. Hackneyed and a bit of a cop-out? Sure. But also useful when you feel like life has sucked the soul out of you. I’m pretty sure it’s how I got up in the dark, woke the boys, loaded the car, and set out for the day. Once again, familiar yet so very foreign.
Once on the slopes, the reflexes built upon years of being a ski family kicked in. It was as if the mountain knew what our souls needed and provided every bit of it. We took chairlift selfies, ate our backpack lunches in the snow, and told funny Dad stories, like the time he went head over P-tex at Sunshine Village in over a foot of powder and managed to fill up the inside of his goggles with snow.
“Remember when he lost a ski at Deer Valley and had to slide down on the other one?” my oldest son, 15-year-old Cole, laughs. Their dad wasn’t the best skier, but he was always game to get out there for the rest of us.
After lunch, we decide to hike out from the Outback chair and see how the South Bowl looks. Well, three out of four of us want to hike, and one disgruntled camper is forced to come along. There’s another small group on the bootpack, so, to Chase’s chagrin, we push past them so we can drop in where we see the fewest tracks.
Before we click into our skis, I gather the boys for a photo. There’s a light breeze that’s cooling us off from the hike, and the views out over the surrounding peaks couldn’t be clearer. I feel hopeful for the first time in a long while. And while I know that the photo I’m about to take will be different from the hundreds of family ski photos on my camera roll, the thought doesn’t burn a pit in my stomach. This is normal. Our new normal.
Samantha Berman is the Executive Editor of SKI.