Grief ebbs and flows; it isn’t linear. I don’t know that it has an ending point; maybe just a gradual diminishment. The sudden death of a close family member was, for many in our extended family, the first exposure to the buffeting of the big waves and the intervals between them. It’s brought all of us to an unfamiliar place; one where we never wanted to be.
Ebb and flow — in the ICU waiting room, you could see when the dreaded seventh wave hit us each in turn. People would stop talking and drift away. Soon, they’d be looking out the windows or at the carpeting, hands held like visors to shield their eyes as thoughts and realization brought tears they wanted no one to see. Not yet ready to share this grief; afraid it would jinx any possible miracle. Not willing to give up any shred of hope.
Grief is suddenly there, crashing into you like a tidal wave, swamping you, pulling you under. And then it recedes, leaving you battered but able to make conversation, attend to tasks, notice something outside yourself. Then it’s back, coming at you from a different angle, blindsiding you.
Some of us defy it, facing grief with crossed arms and feet planted firmly in the sand. But it is sand, after all, and a photograph or a shared memory can take even the stalwart unaware.
Others allow themselves to go with the flow for a while, trusting that they will be deposited back on the shore of their lives eventually — that each wave will be a little less strong and that they will survive.
I know the purpose of memorial services now — to allow an opportunity to feel grief in the support and love of others who won’t let you drown, so that when you are alone and grief comes crashing in, you remember that you can survive it.
The radio stays uncharacteristically silent during my short commute these days. I am listening. I don’t know what I’m listening for, but I am. Others in the family report mysterious connections and I think maybe people with recent loss try to stay open and receptive to the unseen, at least for a while.
“Grief—it’s a thing and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door. Grief will always accept an invitation,” said Steven Colbert in a recent Playboy interview. Colbert lost his father and two older brothers in a plane crash when he was 10. For him some 30 years later, grief didn’t dissipate, it just became less present.
I suspect that the waves of grief will become less violent as time goes by and for some of us that will take much longer than for others. There will be longer intervals between the waves. Maybe what bruises us now will become a gentle tug at our hearts, followed by a smile as we welcome our loved one’s presence in our memory.
For now, it’s a battle with the elements for each of us and all we can do is to let the waves wash over us and move forward, continually blindsided by objects, odors, songs, photographs.
The stories have already started. When we’re sharing stories, we see the living person before us, not as they were in their last moments, but actively going about the business of life — laughing, getting into trouble, helping someone else — being the real person we loved. With each story, they are back among us, even if just for a moment and we love them all over again.
Stories are life. The love of the people around us is life. Together stories and love are the lifesavers on this sea of grief. We will use them to rescue each other.
Wendy Schultz is a staff writer and columnist for the Mountain Democrat. Her column appears bi-weekly.