The nature of the ocean both awes and terrifies me. The same body of water can be serene and picturesque one day, beckoning beach goers to splash in its refreshing surf as the sun warms their skin. Yet, within hours the same rollers that lapped playfully at your feet as you wiggled your toes in the sand can become violent and surge with walls of water that threaten to destroy anything in their path. They say that you should never turn your back on the ocean; waves can surprise you. When they catch you off guard, you can lose your footing. The waves of grief are no different. This is perhaps the reason waves are the most common metaphor used in describing the grief process. In fact, so much has been written about the waves of grief that I almost chose to not to address it in my blog. However, I realized the reason so much is written on the topic is because understanding this very real part of grief is essential to moving forward in the process.
The initial wave of grief can feel like a tsunami and leave you virtually crippled with its wrath. Overwhelming waves continue to ravage you for what seems like forever. But, as you move forward and begin the arduous task of rebuilding your life, the waves vary in frequency and intensity. It is important to understand that the continual rolling of waves is part of the nature of grief. Some days you anticipate their coming and are prepared to deal with them. Other days, just when you thought you might be finding your sea legs, a rogue wave comes crashing in, undermining your balance and sweeping you off your feet once again. Movement is at the heart of grief. It may trick you into thinking it’s over, but it’s there. Always moving. The emotion comes and goes, comes and goes, comes and goes – just like the waves of the ocean. There is no avoiding the waves, so it is best to learn how to surf them.
Several thoughts have occurred to me as I think about the ocean and waves. First, I find it fitting that waves are sometimes referred to as “breakers.” In the beginning, the grief waves do break us. Then, just as you are starting to recover, the relentless breakers pound once again and threaten the fragile patchwork of our shattered heart. Secondly, when breakers rush onto shore they generate a large uprush and backwash of water and sand; this seaward-flowing water/sand mixture is pulled strongly into the next breaking wave. Beachgoers feel like they are being sucked underwater when the wave breaks over their head – this is undertow.
When swimmers encounter strong undertows, the tempting thing to do is to push towards the shore in the hopes of breaking through the current. This is actually a terrible idea, as swimmers can tire themselves out before they reach the shoreline. The best thing to do is to swim parallel to the shore, testing for a weak point that will allow the swimmer to get back to shore. Bathers will be tumbled around roughly, but this return flow only goes a short distance to the next breaking wave. It will not pull you offshore into deep water. If a swimmer tires, he or she should tread water and float in the hopes that a rescuer will arrive soon.
Herein lies the grief lesson. Don’t try to fight the wave. They will happen and fighting against it will only wear you out. When you feel a wave of grief swelling, let it come. Experience the feelings. Let the tears flow. It’s the most healing thing you can do.
“There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a sign of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently then ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief… and unspeakable love….” – Washington Irving
Some waves can be anticipated. For example, we can expect birthdays, holidays, anniversaries and other special days to be triggers for strong emotion. But other times we may be taken completely by surprise. It has been over 2 years since we lost our son, yet the waves still roll. Some bring pleasant memories, but others hit with full force. A few weeks ago I had the opportunity to attend a charity fundraising dinner. I had no idea what to expect but was looking forward to an evening with friends who shared my heart for the organization. After placing our silent auction bids, we very purposely maneuvered our way through the sea of tables so we could be near the front. The first musician walked out and the unexpected wave hit me full force. The young performer had been on stage at the Oklahoma Opry the same night our son’s band had played shortly before his death. I felt my heart race and my stomach churn. I found myself wanting to run away from the evening I had so looked forward to. By now all 175 tables in the beautifully decorated ballroom were occupied making an inconspicuous escape impossible. Our coveted front row seat became a trap. There was nothing to do but ride the wave. I took a deep breath and called on my Rescuer.
Yes, we have a Rescuer!
A Rescuer who spoke the ocean into existence and told it where to stop.
“I place the sand as the boundary for the sea, a perpetual barrier that it cannot pass; though the waves toss, they cannot prevail; though they roar, they cannot pass over it.” – Jeremiah 5:22
A Rescuer who calls you out upon the water and pulls you from the drowning wave.
The gospels give us a beautiful account of this. In Matthew 14:22-33 Jesus sends the disciples ahead of Him so that He could be by Himself and pray. This motley crew of ordinary men find themselves embattled in a storm that suddenly arose late in the night. Their boat was beaten by waves that were created by the fierce wind. The frightened disciples looked up to find their Savior walking out to them on the water. The always zealous Peter asked the Lord to command him to come to Him on the water. At the command of his Rescuer, “Peter got out of the boat and walked on the water and came to Jesus. But when he saw the wind, he was afraid, and beginning to sink he cried out, ‘Lord, save me.’ Jesus immediately reached out His hand and took hold of him.”
When Peter felt himself sinking, he was afraid that the wind and the waves stirred up by it would engulf him. But this very fear that was due to what his eyes saw and his heart forgot made him instantly remember and turn to Jesus with the cry, “Save me!” And, the response of the Rescuer was immediate!
With a few quick steps Jesus was at Peter’s side. With only one hand He grasped Peter’s body in order to hold him up. The saving for which Peter cried was a physical deliverance from the raging waves. The saving Jesus granted him was so much more – a physical deliverance, but also a spiritual restoration of his faith. At the touch of Jesus’ hand Peter again stood upon the water which held him up as it had done before.
God will come to us during our time of need, reach out His hand and lift us up. Cry to Him when the waves assault. This Powerful Rescuer is the same Gentle Shepherd who invites us to walk beside still waters with Him as our guide.
“He leads me beside still water. He restores my soul.” – Psalm 23:2-3
This is the vision I use when the “breakers” rush in. Oh the peace and rest that comes from following my Shepherd beside the still waters of a quiet stream. I picture myself rolling up my pant legs and dipping my toes into the refreshing, cool water. I see myself sitting down on the bank with Him. We will look across at the tender green grass of the pasture that lies near and watch His lambs frolic. He will take me by the hand, wipe my tears and tell me how much He loves me. My soul will be restored!
What will the ocean of grief bring tomorrow? What emotions will come and go? I don’t know. I might feel gratitude for the time I had with my son, or I may feel anger that there wasn’t more. A memory might trigger joy or it may bring pain. I’m pretty sure I’ll be tired because this grief thing is exhausting. So, I don’t know what tomorrow will bring, but I do know that I’ll be okay. Why? Because I know that I can call to my Rescuer, the creator of the oceans, and He will stretch out His mighty hand because He loves me.
“When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers they shall not overwhelm you…Because you are precious in My eyes, and honored, and I love you.” – Isaiah 43:2-4