Posted by: njrigg | March 26, 2010



By Serena Nathan

Serena Nathan

I’ve been a fairly regular exerciser most of my life. When I was about ten years old my dad would let me come along on his early-morning runs by the beach. We would jog to the coast together (we lived only metres from the Indian Ocean in Perth, Western Australia) where Dad would meet his running buddy, Paul. They would go together for a longer run while I did shorter laps near the main beach, waiting for them. This was followed by a swim and light run home and an immensely enjoyable time for me.

Running has had good and happy associations and I have been a runner, albeit not a very good one, on and off ever since.

When my son died six years ago, it literally took my breath away. Rory drowned in our pool when he was three and I was 37. I immediately sought the help of a grief counselor, who suggested that re-building familiar structures was a vital thing to do; reading to the kids, cooking meals at home, going for jogs along the beach with the dog… all things that in the very early days went on hold. We had friends bringing us dinner, grandparents hovering each evening to listen to the other kids do their school readers and I spent a lot of time sitting in the garden with a cigarette (something I had given away years earlier) more or less frozen by the horror of sudden and unexpected loss.

Exercise is good: It increases blood flow to the brain, it makes you feel so much better about everything, with the release of endorphins from the brain; our very own inbuilt happy hormones. It is also one of the top recommendations for the management of post-traumatic stress and other sudden death stress reactions.

When I began running again, it surprised me that had no puff in me. I suppose the fact that I had started smoking again the day Rory died didn’t help matters, but I was lost, empty, panicked by the thought of a world without my beautiful blonde boy. We’d had pools in two of our houses and he was our third child to grow up around one. We were vigilant about pool fences, supervision….we were careful parents to a point where even my mother thought I was a little over-protective.

But on that one day, September 13, 2004 it wasn’t enough. Rory and I were home alone, it was a beautiful spring Monday and we went into the pool area to pull weeds and tidy up. When we left the gate never latched properly and an hour later he was dead. I had put on a video for him to watch before his day nap and when I heard the credits roll on “Spot the Dog,” I went to find him, only to see an empty couch and beyond that my darling Rory lying lifeless at the bottom of the pool. Despite my frantic efforts to revive him and those of the paramedics and hospital staff, he was gone.

Fast-forward to a year after he died. I had tried many times to get out and go for a run. I would have been satisfied to make it around the block, but each time I started out, my breath left me. I was heavy, lethargic, exhausted by the adrenaline coursing through me, as I worked out how to live without Rory, how to raise his older brother and sister, how to be married as a broken soul to another equally broken soul.

City to Surf Marathon 2009 - Serena at the 10km mark

Then one day I found I could run again. I made it all the way to the beach – about half a mile – to the place I had started running all those years ago with my father. I stopped, breathless at the ocean, looked out at the water, cried, and then ran back home.

Each run held something else in store for me. Some days I ran and wept hot tears in grief, fear, terrible shame and longing. Some days I ran with music, old hits from the eighties; my life before marriage and children, lighter times that were easy to recall. Thinking of nothing at all but the words in the song: “She’s got Bette Davis eeeyyyes”.

Slowly, slowly I came to rely on running, still as terribly and slowly as ever, for the feel good hormones. Occasionally, I would take a week or so off to slump, and this I needed to do, too; wallow, be still, mope around the house with a ciggy and wine, knowing I was doing nothing good for myself – punishing myself for my tragic and unspeakable mistake.

My runs eventually started to take on a new level of meaning. I would constantly see signs of Rory around me; feel him pushing me on, to keep going, to keep living. I had had the feeling of trying to Run Away, but it occurred to me perhaps I was running towards something… what, I had no idea.

Busselton Ironman - Serena at the Finish, 2008

I decided to set a physical goal and lighted upon the big one: I would train for a marathon – 26 miles/42.2kms. I was about to turn 40 so it seemed a timely milestone of kilometers. Three years had passed since my son died and we now had a little baby daughter. As I trained, I thought perhaps I would raise money towards drowning prevention but then fear gripped me – what if I failed to finish and had to chalk up yet another failure to Rory? The thought paralysed me and I thought about quitting altogether, but I didn’t. I chose to keep training and just run the marathon to see if I could do it.

I made it! For the first time in a long time I felt like I had achieved something, rather than simply experiencing the constant and heavy weight of his loss. In the final ten kilometers I almost quit, but I said to myself, “Is this the hardest thing you have done? No it isn’t! Keep running; this is a walk in the park compared with the marathon you are wading through of life without Rory,” and this thought kept me going. His memory was like a sweet little bird sitting on my shoulder, and I could hear the light jangle of the silver “R” on a chain around my neck. The finish was beautiful. I staggered to the water station beyond the finish line and burst into tears. I said to the water lady “I am so… happy,” and finally knew how to shed tears of joy and sadness at the very same time.

I have run another marathon since then – last year – and it was equally wonderful. This year I feel calmer and more settled in my skin. I am taking a year off the grueling marathon distance to simply run for the fun of it. Actually I may never run that magic distance again; I don’t feel the need to any longer. I know how to feel happiness and delight now without the grueling 42kms as a prep! I would be struggling to make it further than 10 kms at the moment, and rather than feeling like a failure, I am thoroughly enjoying running for the sake of running. I get things right sometimes and wrong sometimes. Energy comes and goes, mostly goes. The marathons taught me a sense of discipline with my exercise and once I am out there I know I will work hard (it’s just getting out of bed that is sometimes the problem!).

Not everyone likes to run, but everyone likes endorphins. The ones we produce in our brain are far superior to the ones we get in a bottle; it’s just a matter of putting one foot in front of the other until they emerge to lighten a moment in our day. It might be a walk around the block, a hike in the mountains, a stroll on the sandy beach:

A moment of lightness is all it takes; just a tiny single moment, and we know we can keep going another day.

* * *

Remembering Rory Nathan

(C) Serena Nathan, all rights reserved



  1. Serena,
    Thank You So Much for sharing. Congrats on your accomplishments! You are a beautiful lady!
    Diana Riddle-Jeff(brother) & Grant(nephew) Bruce

  2. My 3 year old boy drowned 18 months ago while he was visiting his father (we were not married.)
    His father refuses to speak to me and he never told me what really happened.
    Thank you for being caring, brave and humble enough to share your story.

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