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The Wave, Part I : A Story of Grief

August 20, 2020
illustrated woman holding her knees to her chest under a cloud pouring rain

The Waves

When Tom died, it was as if I found myself thrown from the boat in the middle of a hurricane storm. I’m in the water, struggling to tread water, and there’s something tied to my leg pulling me under. I can’t swim back to the boat. I am helpless. The boat is circling around me with everyone else on the planet - except him. I can’t see him anymore. I am struggling between the tears and the water to find him on the boat. Can someone help me? Can someone please find him? The boat just continues to circle around me. Family, friends and strangers are on the boat  shouting at me, looking down, commentating about the tragedy that has befallen me. 

“Swim to the boat, Anne… what is wrong with you? You know how to swim… you’ve done this before!”

“You need to swim Anne! You have kids to live for.” 

“I know you’re busy falling from your life… but when you get a minute could you talk to my son? He is having such a hard time.” 

 “All you need to do is catch this life preserver that I am throwing at you… Can’t you see I am trying to help you?”

 “You should have worn a life jacket, Anne. You know this was going to happen; I mean he was an addict”

“Oh, poor Anne, I don’t know what to do… You’ll be okay… I’m just going to sit here on the boat and wait for the storm to calm… You let me know what I can do to help you.”

“You have this baby coming to help you be buoyant and get right back to your life.” 

“In a few months, this treading water is going to get worse.”

“Soon, this will just be a bad memory. You will find your way back on the boat and we can all make our way back to land.”  

“Oh honey, Jesus is so proud of you. You are so strong.” 

While they are all giving their advice on how I need to get back to the boat, I am struggling to tread water. No one knows how to help me. I bob up and down under the surface; it takes all my energy to breathe, exhausted. I’m afraid I am going to drown. 

Please can’t someone help me? 

I think it’s possible to drown in my pain. I can’t see him on the boat. He is not there anymore.  I’m having trouble hanging on the air in my lungs, let alone comprehend that there is no air in his lungs anymore. Here comes another wave, I can’t maneuver myself over the wave so I need to go under it. I go under it and their voices are muffled; I hear nothing. There is something around my leg and I can’t get it loose; it burns.

Let me help you to help others Grieve 

Google has a list of things you do not say when someone is grieving - there is an actual life hack article about it. If someone’s grief makes you uncomfortable, then you need to know that it is supposed to make you feel uncomfortable. Uncomfortability is where vulnerability and authenticity grow. Grief is so incredibly personal that the very energy of grief pushes other people away. Grief automatically separates people from the griever and the griever from others. You don’t know what kind of life you are catapulted into until you experience soul-cutting loss. Having gone through trauma, mourning, grief and loss on a personal basis, I know what it feels like to be not only separated from your partner and disconnected from others, but to be disconnect from yourself and forced into a life you did not ask for.   

It wasn’t until recently that I had to realize how utterly helpless it is to watch someone you love struggle in their own tears, sweat and pain -- unable to help them. Unable to hold that pain for them. After all, there really are no words to make the pain go away. Grief is grief, because you can only walk it yourself; no one can carry your cross for you. This is the hard reality and can further complicate grief. 

While there are some very helpful, thoughtful, and encouraging things to say and do as mourning begins to redefine meaning in one’s life, there are also unhelpful actions and statements that can be difficult to receive while experiencing grief. 

Unhelpful 

  • Don’t push the griever to play a part. Please don’t say, “You are so strong.” 
  • Don’t say “This is what you should do.” There is a lot of shame in the word should. 
  • Don’t say “Call me if you need anything.” 
  • Don’t say “Time heals all things.”
  • Don’t make other people sit with the griever for you. You do it. Get down in the pit with them, and sit in the dark with them. You can do it. 
  • Don’t say, “I know how you feel”.  This may betray how they feel. 
  • Don’t use condescending and cliche phrases like, “He’s in a better place.” 
  • Don’t judge any person for how they grieve. Men, women and children grieve differently.  A person who is not crying does not mean they are not grieving. 

Helpful

  • Ask them how are they doing? Be prepared for the answer and don’t ask if you’re not.
  • Listen more, talk less. 
  • Ask for specific needs. Be prepared to see it through. 
  • Prepare for the waves of pain. They come unexpectedly; hard and fast.
  • Relate with your own pain.
  • It’s okay to sit in awkward silence. It’s even more okay to try to break the silence with something funny. It may even be welcomed. 
  • Hug. Be patient. Know that this will forever change this person. Now is the time to practice unconditional, positive regard for another person. 
  • Say, “I don’t know what to say except that I am hurting for you.” 

The purpose in helping someone grieve is to prevent them from drowning in their own pain and loneliness.  Being intentional with how you help someone grieve is the difference between helping begin the reconstruction of a new meaning versus effecting their journey to find purpose in their life.  Jumping out of the safety of your boat and choosing to swim toward the uncomfortable, toward the griever, is ultimately the best showing of a willingness to connect soul to soul. 

Helpful Resource- Lessons of Loss; A Guide to Coping, Robert A. Neimeyer

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