Ever since my dad got sick in Feb of 2020, I’ve been perseverating on the metaphor that grief is like the ocean. Since he passed away, the lessons I’ve learned from this concept have helped keep me afloat. It has given me helpful categories and wisdom for engaging with my grief. The metaphor became not just a helpful tool, but inspired me to begin a new body of work. As I created, I continued to meditate on the relationship between the ocean and grief. And it deepened even more. I am going to share ten of the lessons it has taught me. In doing so I hope it can help someone else navigate these murk waters.
The ocean is a beautiful place bursting with life. Being by the water fills me with so much wonder and peace. But the ocean is also incredibly powerful and merciless. And if not properly respected can be dangerous. Grief is so similar. It is a powerful force we don’t have much control over. And, like the ocean, if treated irreverently can be immensely harmful.
Know it comes in waves
Grief isn’t something that happens all at once. Instead, it comes in waves. Big and small. Tumultuous and gentle. Always constant. It is triggered by the most minute of things. Often things I would not have expected. Like the ocean, it’s unpredictable. In a moment, the wind can change, the current alters, and a placid shoreline can turn choppy and formidable. But even when this does happen, I’ve learned the best thing I can do is face it head-on.
Don’t turn your back to it
One of the first lessons I learned about the ocean is to never turn my back to it. The water is unpredictable, and if I don’t pay attention they will pummel me. The waves will come whether I acknowledge them or not. It’s not a matter of if, but when. The same is true of grief. When the waves of sorrow come it can be tempting to just ignore them. I regularyly get the impulse to do this. Sometimes I just don’t have the time to be sad. Others I’m just tired of it. Regardless of my motivation, I’ve learned that if I ignore my grief, no matter how inconvenient, it will always come back to get me. A wave will come that I can’t ignore and these have left me unable to function.
So I always do my best to face it and simply accept the waves as they come.
Staying on the surface can be dangerous
There are times when staying on the surface is perfectly fine. If my footing is good and the waves are on the smaller side, it is easy to stay above water. The impact of the wave is still felt but it doesn’t wipe me out. But there are other times when the waves are high, my feet can’t find the bottom, and I don’t have the strength to make it over. When these are the circumstances, it’s far less dangerous to dive deep and let the wave roll over me. The water might be cold. The crashing wave might rock me a bit, but it doesn’t send me tumbling unable to find the surface.
When a wave of grief comes, sometimes it is good to dive deep to feel all those deep feelings. And I’ve noticed that in the end, it is actually less disruptive than if I try to just get over it, and get swept away by sadness unawares. But I will say this isn’t the case every time. There are moments when the water is shallow there isn’t room to dive under the wave. And if I tried I would be slammed into the sand.
How do I know when to dive deep and when to stay on the surface? I read the wave. Take note of my footing. And make the best decision I can. I don’t get it right every time. And sometimes the mistake is painful. But the more I try, the better I get at it.
Don’t fight the current
Another classic ocean rule is to never fight the current. Getting suck in a riptide is scary. No one wants to be helplessly pulled out to sea. Most people’s instinct is to get back to shore as quickly as possible. But in the process, they tire themselves out, are unable to get back to shore, and get swept out to sea anyway. Instead what you are supposed to do, is swim sideways out of the current. When I feel the pull of sadness, taking me somewhere unhealthy it is time to swim sideways. Going under or over isn’t the question anymore, but rather I must ask myself what do I need to do differently.
I have found it is usually a change of circumstance that I need. If I’ve been alone, maybe I need to be with someone. If I’ve been inside (or in bed), maybe I need to be outside and active. Or the opposite of either scenario. I can dive deep or hang in the shallows shallow in any circumstance, but sometimes neither will be helpful if I need a change of environment.
Protect what is vital
There are times when I am simply destroyed by grief. I did my best but it can be unpredictable. In times like these, I ask myself what I would do if I was in the ocean – protect what is vital. In the water, it is simple to know what to protect, my face and my head. If I was caught by a wave and tumbling around, I’d immediately throw my arms up to protect my face and head. If a rock or surfboard hits my arms or leg it would hurt but I’d probably be okay. But if my head or face hits the reef, I could be seriously injured and even drown.
For me, the vital things in my life are my faith, my marriage, and my family. So when the waves come, I make it my aim to protect those three things. Practically that looks like continuing to read the bible and go to church even if I don’t feel like it. And to do my best to love my husband and my family, even when I am a mess. I choose to prioritize these things above everything else, even my feelings. I am not saying that I should stuff down my emotions or not give myself the time I need to grieve. But I know that my husband and my faith are going to be the things that help keep me afloat in the long run, and should be prioritized over other things like work or entertainment.
It’s okay to accept help
There was a time as a kid when I was saved by a lifeguard. I didn’t really feel like I was in danger. I was a good swimmer and very familiar with the ocean. But looking back I was in a pretty sketchy circumstance. Especially from the lifeguard’s point of view. She didn’t know me or my comfort in the water. All she saw was a tiny 9-year-old swimming close to the pier in a riptide. So she swam out to help.
In all reality, I probably could have swum out of the riptide. Or I could have even navigated the waters under the pier through to the other side. But the waves were large, and I also could have been slammed into the pier and seriously hurt.
When the lifeguard got to me and handed me her red buoy thing, I accepted but thought it wholly unnecessary. However, as I let her tow me in, I realized how very tired I was and that maybe I didn’t have the situation as under control as I thought.
I think this is also true of grief. Friends and family offer help and we refuse thinking it’s unnecessary.
As an example, I had friends bring me a meal. At first, I accepted because I didn’t want to be rude. But I sort of felt bad that they went to all the trouble. I wasn’t sick or bedridden. I could cook for us still. But after I warmed up the meal, and Kyle and sat down with a healthy home-cooked dinner, I started to tear up. I was really tired. And I felt so loved and cared for by the plate in front of me. By allowing my friends to help, I allowed myself to be cared for.
I probably would have been fine that day swimming by the pier, and the night eating a dinner I cooked myself. But I didn’t have to be. And I didn’t have to do it all on my own. I didn’t need to do it on my own.
Drowning is not necessary
There are times over the last couple of months when the waves of grief have been high and I was in deep water. When all semblance of sure footing was gone. But I had to remember that I didn’t have to drown. As sad deep gut-wrenching sadness swept over me, I wondered if it was depression. I only had categories for “I’m good” and “I’m depressed”. In my mind, lingering sadness was depression. Yet I’ve come to learn that grief is more nuanced than that. I have never been sadder, spent more days alone, cried more in my entire life. But I’ve given myself the room I need to be sad but I’ve also given myself the permission to not drown. Both are so important. And in those times I feel like I might slip under the surface, I’ve asked for help and allowed others to help keep me afloat.
It won’t always be this way
The ocean has also taught me that grief won’t always be what it looks like now. The tide will change, the winds will shift, and the waves won’t always be an overwhelming tempest. This doesn’t mean that grief is something to “get over”. It isn’t a thing that will ever truly go away. But I do think it will change. As time goes on and milestones pass, the grief will still come. Some will be just as tumultuous as they are at the beginning but others will be gentler. No matter their shape or power, their coming is inevitable.
Influence the impact
Big storms and the constant impact of waves shapes the shoreline. There have been many times when I’ve walked along the shore after a storm to find the beach almost completely washed away. I think similarly this season of grief will shape and change me. I am already aware of how I am changing. Even just in the simple fact that I feel so much older.
However, unlike the shoreline, I am not a passive victim of circumstance. I will not let it make me afraid. But I will let it make me more intentional with those I love. I will not let it make me cynical and hard. But I will let it fill me with compassion and softness. I will not let it make me hopeless. But I will choose to find beauty even in its dark and murky depths.
Grief is inescapable. It is a part of being human and something we will all experience at some point. So why is it, that grief is hardly talked about or understood? Maybe people don’t know how to interact with those who are grieving because we don’t know what to do with ourselves. I hope this post and the Current Collection, create a little space for the grievers and their loved ones. A place for connection, comfort, and hope.