“Ships don’t sink because of the water around them; ships sink because of the water that gets in them. Don’t let what’s happening around you get inside you and weigh you down.”
A common analogy to explain the experience of grief to people is the waves scenario. You are riding waves. There are ups and downs. Sometimes they crash on your head and submerge you into tumultuous, bone-chilling water, where drowning feels imminent. Other times your buoyancy somehow helps you keep your head above water until you can float back to the dry mainland.
After the first several wipeouts, you start to acquire the skill of spotting impending waves before they crash. And then you get better at dealing with them. You become a stronger swimmer. But sometimes you revert back to your old patterns of not keeping your mouth shut and you swallow the seawater, sending you back into recovery mode.
One day you are fine, the next day you are floundering. That’s how grief works. Up and down, up and down, until those waves aren’t as high and not as low, and they aren’t tsunami-like in intensity, but more manageable to ride out. You may struggle, or you might not. It always depends.
The important thing is that you don’t get stuck. You fix your leaks and you keep on sailing. Sinking is not the goal, especially with so many passengers on board.
Of course there is the saying “if there are no ups and downs in your life, it means you’re dead.” I suppose I should be thankful for even the painful, crummy times. It means I’m alive. We’re never going to get rid of the waves, with or without grief. It’s just a part of living and being human.
But how do we keep floating? And even more importantly, how can I lay out on the deck, basking in the sunlight with a good book, actually enjoying my life versus just trying to survive? I don’t want to be in survival-mode all of the time. I want to be genuinely happy again.
Your life–the ship in this analogy–is put into question when you suffer great loss. In my case, it was my husband’s premature and unexpected death and getting left behind with three young children. When you lose a loved one, there are two major steps you must undertake in the aftermath of the trauma. First, you have to cope with the actual loss of the person. This is difficult to process. One minute they are with you, and the next they are gone. Your mind needs time to accept this truth. But perhaps more important and relevant, since you’re the one still breathing and in possession of a beating heart, is that you must begin the process of your own reconstruction. In a sense, you are mourning your former self. That person is gone. This is also not easy to accept. You are forced to accept a lot of craziness in one nasty dose.
Between those two major steps, you find yourself with a lot of mental work to do. Healing is a long, tedious process,and the bad news is that you ultimately have to do it alone. You can rely on support, but actual healing will only happen when you provide the labor and commitment to repairing and fortifying your ship. Plank by plank. Bolt by bolt. Plugging the holes. Inevitable leaks will spring, some big, some small, and your job is to fix them as quickly as you can before there is structural damage.
My leaks tend to happen when something triggers the negative emotions that I have bottled up. A bad day. Something I don’t want to do. A conflict with someone. Disappointment. Stress. The triggers open up the levee, and everything flows out. And then I have to do damage-control. I have to use my floaties to prevent myself from drowning.
When you see a person going through something, you might not be able to tell by surface factors that they are in pain. For example, you wouldn’t notice a change in my work patterns. You would see me smile. I’m still reliable, punctual, and efficient. I would make social conversation and socialize with others on most days. If you ask how I am, I will probably tell you that I’m fine. Most of the time I am fine, or some degree of fine, but even when I’m fine, you have to realize that beneath the surface, grief is always bubbling. It’s still raw and smoldering.
I tend to stuff a lot of the ugly parts of grief into the dark corners in the deepest chambers of my heart. It was imposed on me. I didn’t consent to having it in my life, so I don’t like to make space for it. And yet, somehow, it has become my garbage to resolve, and you can’t hide your garbage forever.
When confronted with people, the tendency is to do the same as what you would do if company was coming over and you had laundry and clutter scattered around the house: hide it all in a closet or in a room and shut the door. We can’t have people seeing our dirty laundry.
I often wonder when this will pass. I want it to pass. I want to wake up from this horrible nightmare and experience a day where “this” doesn’t permeate some aspect of my consciousness. That day feels like a faraway dream right now, eons of nautical miles to traverse before my ship arrives.
For now, I must focus on the journey.
When I find myself in a doldrum, I know I have to actively choose my response. I’ve learned that resistance doesn’t work. It’s like getting caught in a riptide. You want to keep swimming back to the shore, but in a riptide this might cause you to drown. You also can’t stop swimming and let yourself sink. Instead, you go with the flow. You ride it out. You don’t resist. I try to let my mind calm and see where it takes me. I give permission for my heart to override my brain and I let my feelings guide me. Sometimes it might take a day or so for me to accept that I need to let go in order to survive. I then have to clear my schedule. Watch a movie. Read a book. Hike with the kids. Something that isn’t on my to do list. Something that doesn’t fit in with what I think I should be doing. Tomorrow I can worry about my to do list. Right now I’m just going to ride the wave and float as if there was nothing in the world weighing me down.
The most important thing is that we don’t let ourselves get stuck in a whirlpool that we can’t get out of.
I’m still learning. And every so often I feel in my bones that it is time to advance to the next stage of this process, and I try to make it happen. I work a little harder. Keep swimming. No looking back. Sometimes reconstruction efforts require more attention, more self-care. And then you know you’ve successfully completed another stage, leaving behind the choppy waters of the past, and bracing yourself for the unknown conditions of the future.
There will be more storms and situations beyond my control. I know I must build resilience of body and mind, and that I need to weather-proof my ship.
I’m greedy. I don’t want to just live. I want to live well.
That is what I’m striving for: a good life. As close to my ideal life as possible, given my circumstances.
My ship is sailing regardless of what the forecast is telling me. I just might have to slow down every now and again to fix the leaks.