The waves of grief hit me (again) yesterday.

Last night I attended a visitation for a friend who was taken too soon from his family. Another life lost to cancer.

I shared a moment with the widow and told her to please call whenever she needed to vent, to cry, or just to have someone listen who might have the slightest understanding of what she is going through.

Last month was two years since I lost my husband to cancer. And although some days it still does not seem real, most days I have accepted this new life situation (I searched for another word, but after reading the definition “a set of circumstances in which one finds oneself” – situation seems to be the best word to convey my meaning).

As I left the visitation and started driving, I wondered what I would say to her if she calls. I started thinking about my trip to the ocean earlier this summer and how grief is much like the waves in the ocean.

When instructors are teaching swimmers how to swim in the ocean (a much different type of swimming than in a pool) some of the lessons they try to convey are:

  1. Stay in tune with the movement of the water.
  2. Adjust your breathing in unpredictable waves. When facing unpredictable waves, take a breath whenever you can, or hold your breath if you must.
  3. Keep up your momentum
  4. Dive under the big waves. Submerge your body until it passes.
  5. Don’t go alone, have help available in case of an emergency.

As I think about each of these lessons, I realize that this is how I have survived the past two years.

  1. Stay in tune – the calendar is the best way to stay in tune with the movement of grief. The first year there are so many predictable events that will bring about a heavy feeling of grief. Allow yourself the time and space to feel those and realize that the wave of grief will be coming at you during those times: birthdays, anniversaries, holidays. When you know the wave is coming, it is ok to ride it out. Trying to fight it will only wear you out and you may get sucked under or swept away by a deeper undercurrent.
  2. Unpredictable waves РAs the words suggest these are the times that you have no idea why you are feeling so pulled into the wave of grief. This will happen. It is ok to adjust your schedule to allow yourself to be swept into the wave. Fighting it will just mean that more unpredictable waves may come and they will be bigger and more fierce. If you learn to stop and take a breath you may actually be able to discover what the trigger may have been so that the next time it may be a predictable wave instead of unpredictable. [Note: there will be unpredictable waves that you will not ever see coming, but after time, the unpredictable waves do become smaller].
  3. Keep your momentum – momentum is the key. Stay in touch with friends and family. Get up every day. Put one foot in front of the other. And all the rest of the cliches. When you start to feel yourself stopping, seek help. There are many people around you that care for you and love you. Some days this will be harder than others, but wake up, put your feet on the floor and find one thing to help you to keep moving forward.
  4. Dive under the big waves/submerge – For me the big waves are still birthdays/anniversaries. I have found that if I allow myself to submerge myself in the grief temporarily it is easier to come out of it on the other side. Ignoring grief and trying to stay above may work on as a stopgap measure, but the wave will come back, and it will be stronger the next time. One of the best books I read after my husband passed away was “You Can Heal Your Heart” by Louise Hay and David Kessler and my favorite excerpt is “The only way out of the pain is through it. You must feel it, but not stay in it or live your life from it. The only way to feel love when you’re grieving is to stay aware of how you treat yourself during the loss.”
  5. Don’t go alone – Finding a friend who understands your circumstances and being able to share your feelings is a huge relief. Holding all the feelings inside and not being able to feel like you can share them with friends because you think they are tired of hearing you cry is very common. I have never been a huge fan of support groups, mostly because of one very bad experience a long time ago. But I have found a support group that has changed my tune. If you have not found a support group, keep looking. A good grief support group will be nonjudgemental and will listen to all the crazy thoughts that you have been holding in, because, believe it or not, at least one of them has had that same thought.