07 January 2011

The Ocean of Grief

Have you ever experienced grief? Specifically, grief from the loss of a loved one? It sucks. That's all there is to it.

I've experienced a lot of grief of this nature in my life. A lot. Twenty times or so. I've counted. In one of my darker moments I started a mental list of all the people who's passing had a direct effect on my life. I came up with 20. I won't list them out here, because that's personal. But grief and I are on a first name basis.

Here's what I've learned about grief: it's a bitch. But it's very predictable...if you understand the ocean and how it works. I'll explain:

First, let's talk about waves. Waves are comprised of two parts: the crest and the trough. The crest is the high point, and the trough is the low point. See Figure 1 below.

Figure 1: Waves Explained
Imagine you are visiting the ocean. The water is calm, it's so calm that it is perfectly still. You walk out into the ocean and you stop when the water hits your chest. As you're standing there, the waves start to pick up. As the waves grow you notice that when the crest washes over you, you're completely submerged. (If you remain flat footed on the ocean floor.) But when you're in the trough portion of the wave, the water is only at your waist. This is how waves work.

As waves wash up on the shore, the surface water is moving in, but below the surfaces the water is moving backwards. This ebb and flow can create a situation where the water stops washing up to the shore and instead gets caught in a tumble that builds until the ocean waves behind gather enough steam to push the water forward. If you've spent time standing calf deep in the water, you'll understand this phenomenon. (Refer back to Figure 1: the "orbital path of water, is similar to this...only closer to the shore.)

Imagine standing calf deep, and feeling this tumble of water. Now, your feet are sinking deeper in the sand as the water moves the sand around you. When the big burst of water comes up from behind you are knocked off balance and will find yourself submerged - mostly.

Grief acts in much the same way as the ocean. It hits you in the same way the waves do. When you're first thrown into the sea of grief you find yourself chest deep in the ocean. That first wave comes at you and you feel like you're drowning. That you're never going to be able to breathe again. Then the trough comes. You're able to plant your feet back down and gather your strength back to you. Until the next wave hits, and you're struggling to break the surface again.

Slowly, you're able to get yourself back, near the shore of normal life. You can see it in front of you, tempting you, calling your name. But you're feet are stuck in place, held there by the swirling grief that is still trying to keep you back, preventing you from moving on. As you're getting ready to take that last step out of grief, you find that sudden slam of grief that hits your from behind. You're knocked off your feet again, but this time your head remains above the grief. You momentarily panic, but you're able to recover faster than before. And slowly, you step out of the grief and into normal. It is a new normal, but normal nonetheless.

The secret to surviving grief: don't fight it. If you start fighting the ocean, you will drown. If you fight grief, it will destroy you. Ride the waves, and they will slowly move you back to normal.

I return to the ocean. When you're out in the middle of the waves and you pick up your feet, you can start riding the waves. Think of the surfers - they don't get caught in a perpetual crest/trough cycle. By riding the waves, they are returned to the shoreline. Like them, those found in grief can ride the waves to the shore. By picking up your feet and allowing yourself the chance to feel the grief, to experience the grief, you will allow yourself to heal and return to normal. When you try to keep your feet on the ground, and you fight against the grief because you don't want to feel, you keep yourself stuck where the grief will beat you until you can not stand anymore.

Grief is not there to destroy you, it's there to help you heal. Often, it'll feel like it takes you forever to reach normal. It happens. Each bought of grief is different, each time you are faced with loss, you are dumped in the ocean of grief at a different place than the time before. I have found myself only waist deep with loss. Other times, I find myself treading water when after being unceremoniously dumped. You can never quite predict where you will find yourself.

If you're lucky, you'll find yourself with a life preserver out there. Faith, family, friends. These life preservers can help you keep your head above the waves as you slowly find your way back to normal.