Grief is not an ocean

Have you ever noticed that when we talk about grief, people will mention the ocean? If you listen carefully, especially when the mourner is reeling, that expansive body of water is practically guaranteed to get a mention. It usually goes something like this: 

The bereaved will start by describing an idyllic scene. They’ll be standing on a beach at sunset with their arms wrapped around themselves to keep the chill of a cool breeze at bay. They’ll gaze forlornly out over the water at the far unreachable horizon; wanting so desperately to join their departed, to see them just one last time, but alas, they’re stuck, grounded, upon the shore. 

The cold salt water will be gnawing away at the sand under their feet, creating a hypnotic pull that brings them into a slow sink. They feel a heaviness in their heart and it’s almost as if their loved one is still clutching at the living world, grasping at their ankles with stiff fingers. And it’s then, in this exact moment of gripping death, that the surviving spouse’s knees will buckle. The grief will bubble and boil inside them. Rising up, it escapes in an undignified, convulsing sob. And it’s then that they stumble, head-first, into the waves. They capsize.

Once submerged, the griever will tell you how at first they battled to stay afloat. Fighting against the current, they shout bewildered denials into the whipping ocean spray. Determined not to let sorrow take over, they resist the waves crashing against them. With strong purposeful strokes, they’ll use all their might to swim away from reality and towards that heavenly horizon. But it’s so much farther than they imagined, so much harder than they thought, and slowly their strength wanes. The fighter weakens and their throat becomes hoarse; their shouts are lost to an indifferent wind. They are tired, exhausted, depleted. And it’s then, that they’re forced to let go, of this futile pursuit, and acquiesce to the riptide.

From there, the widower is simply carried off by the waves. Buffeted and battered until they are completely engulfed by an undulating swell of loss. Set adrift in dark waters of anguish until they become numb and unresponsive. They continue in this depressed state, lost at sea. Nothing more than a flimsy scrap of flotsam: a complete and utter wreckage. 

After weeks, months, or maybe, even years of drifting, the grief-stricken will eventually reemerge from the depths of this eternal ocean depression. A melancholic undercurrent will have slowly brought them back to the shallows and they’ll suddenly find themselves bumping up against solid ground. The water is just a little bit warmer and they’ll whisper cautiously of something they’d thought they’d never regain: hope. 

But they’re disorientated, drenched and frozen to the bone. The recovering mourner will grapple about on the sand, finding their feet after so long at sea. Spluttering and flailing about like a fish out of water, they try to push forward, to stand, but the shifting sands drag them back toward the water’s edge.

And it’s then, as they stumble towards higher ground, that an unexpected wave crashes over them. Slamming them right back down and pushing their nose into the sand. The convalescent sorrower spits and coughs, their mouth fills with brine, dirt and stone, but they will not be discouraged. The fighter has returned and they claw their way forward. Their belly scraping along the beach as they drag themselves, inch by inch, out of the waves to land. 

Once safely out of the water’s reach, the former bereaved roll onto their back, chest heaving. The sun beams down on them and warms their sodden skin. They’ll stare upwards at a bright blue sky and feel a sudden lightening in their heart. Relieved tears will stream down their cheeks and perhaps some of them will even laugh: they survived the ordeal! And, although not fully restored, they are feeling at peace. 

Now while all of this is poetic, grand and beautiful, it’s not really how grief plays out.

It’s not the ocean or drowning of emotion we have to fear. Oh no. Grief sits waiting. Ready with a punch to the gut when you least expect it. Stealing your breath and forcing you to keel over – like some kind of cruel practical joke. It usually goes something like this:

There’s the man in his sixties who goes to turn on the lamp by his late wife’s bedside, only to find the bulb has blown. He suddenly remembers that he promised her he’d change it months ago and that he must’ve forgotten. With a pang of guilt, he decides not to replace it because, it’s not like anyone is using it anyway.  

And the middle-aged woman who, while getting ready for her first night out since her partner died, realises she’s no longer there to zip up her dress and she suddenly realises she can’t do it by herself. She sprints across the lawn, with her coat draped roughly over her shoulders to hide her open back, and asks a neighbour for help. The next week, the woman buys a packet safety pins and coloured ribbons to create her own pulls for the zippers. 

Or the child who gets home from school and smacks head-first into the locked front door. Mum used to be the one home at 4 o’clock to greet him from school but she’s not around anymore. The boy sits on the concrete doorstep, schoolbag at his feet, and waits two hours for his Dad to get home. First thing next morning, the two of them head to the locksmith to get the boy a key cut.

Then there’s the 14-year-old who, after several months of wearing her big brother’s shirt, suddenly realises it no longer smells like him so she puts it into a drawer. Several months later, her Mum accidentally donates it during her annual round of spring cleaning. Despite driving to every thrift shop in their neighbourhood, they never see the shirt again. 

Or the teenager, who stays silent when his mates start complaining about their Dads being too strict. They’re all moaning and groaning about how they just wish Dad would lay off! They all turn expectantly to hear his contribution. Trying to participate, he makes a similar complaint about his Mum. After a moment of awkward silence, his friends all drop their eyes and change the subject. 

So you see, grief is not an ocean. Oh no. It is much more insidious than that. Grief hides in the mundane, in the lulls of daily life. It waits until you have a feeling of normalcy – boredom even. Then it strikes. Taking your world and tilting it sideways, flipping it upside down or perhaps shattering it for just a moment. It’ll yank you to a standstill or make you sit up and take notice. It forces you to face what you’ve lost and then makes you feel guilty for pretending life was normal. From there, it’ll continue to disrupt your routine, conversations, and relationships for the years to come; seeping into the fabric of your life like a permanent stain. It becomes a layer you carry with you always. 

But no one wants to talk about the mundane, boring things that happen to us – it’s not poetic, grand or beautiful. Perhaps that’s why people prefer the ocean metaphor. That and, because despite the ordeal, at least you get to dry off in the end. Wrap up warm and simply walk away; cleansed and at peace. Once you’ve reemerged, there’s no opportunity for any surprise gut-punches.

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