The Grief Tsunami

Saturday, September 15, 2012

I may have declared that “my grief is well diminished” just a few sentences and days ago, but clearly grief is not finished with me!

I have all sorts of metaphors bouncing around in my head. I have awakened with a hangover, not from drink but from crying. I’m tired, headachy – the almost-a-migraine kind, with pressure behind my eyes; I thought about staying in bed, but I fell asleep so early last night that I am not want to hang out. I am “half a bubble off” – as in the carpenter’s level when the object is slightly askew regardless of how it appears. This is one of Dave’s favorite sayings we used throughout our years. Half a bubble off is a great descriptor to my last couple of weeks if I look closely. It is even more evident in my recent consciousness as I ignored my own statements apologizing for not being myself, or having lost patience, being too curt and direct, or wondering why I wasn’t remembering what I had done or not done in the day. I refused to honor the voice in my head that said I should cancel a personal meeting to which I could only show up, but not pay attention, much less emit love. These are not earth shattering moments that come out of being human, but not very good decisions that leave me vulnerable to feeling not so perfect once again. Is it possible to feel simultaneously old and like I’ll never grow up at the same time?!

The metaphor that really resonates this morning is the one reported by others who travel this road before me. It is the Grief Tsunami.

I’m not usually taken by large or dramatic gestures in my life. I tend to keep my boat on an even keel over the swells that go up and down. So to consider a tsunami, the grand-daddy of powerful and destructive waves, seems a bit dramatic. Yet, the grief washing over me this week is very real – and very tsunami-like.

Anticipating the big dates like holidays, birthdays, weddings, etc., during loss are often the toughest. I anticipate the anticipation. (I like to be prepared.) I recognize the feeling. I understand academically. I’ve experienced and learned.  I roll with the swells. This week I prepared emotionally for our anniversary and Dave’s birthday. I wrote, I planned a small recognition for family who wanted to share. I was doing what I thought I needed. And actually I did. But some things are not predictable.

The Grief Tsunami

If a tsunami is spurned by an earthquake or landslide deep below the ocean, who can predict when and where it actually will surface? Death is our earthquake. We always live with the possibility of a tsunami roaring in. We may be in its path, or move to safer ground, if only temporarily. Some waves may dissipate out to sea or the thrust sends wave after wave toward land. How close or far away from the epicenter can impact the experience. Aftershocks may start the cycle all over again.

This week, grief hit me like a personal tsunami – seemingly out of nowhere yet I watched it come ashore. I began to see the swells grow larger and come closer. I watched and denied. I could only stand with nowhere to go. Running would only delay the event. Will this drown me? Can I let myself go into the flow so I can surface more easily taking me where it does? How many other waves will follow? What do I cling to until help arrives? Can I get myself out safely on my own? I shudder at the magnitude such a disaster can affect on people whether figurative or actual.  The thought takes my breath away.

Birth Day

What I didn’t anticipate this week is the emotional bond to Dave’s birthday. His birth day. As his wife and friend, this is the one day every year that I would ritually focus about him and his life.

As people close to me acknowledged our anniversary, and even I as paid silent tribute to us on Tuesday, this day was not so much a grief trigger. Not because it isn’t an important date, but because our marriage was every day of the year. That’s how we chose to celebrate. Our anniversary date wasn’t a big or really even a small production. We laughingly called it the day to renegotiate the contract. The other 364 days were the more important. This is the grief I feel every day in incremental losses and gains. I ride these swells daily.

But as the day wore on, my attention turned to the rest of the week, getting to the grocery store and buying the cake mix. Everything else on my mind was about working and creating, managing my life and care. I continue to seek out my new rhythm. I like the focus on others.

And then the unexpected tsunami. I first cried about 9/11. I started getting rushed to get through things. Just get through it I’d think. The next appointment. The next task. The next cry. The emotion just keeps coming. As soon as I thought I was through, then another wave would wash over me. I’ve learned over the last couple of weeks three people I love dearly face their own significant surgeries in the coming days. Add waves of anticipated loss of health and helplessness. We are each on our own, bobbing up and down unable to really help the other in the moment. Wildfires ravage our state’s forests and threaten homes and lives. The smell of smoke drifts from hundreds of miles away into my open windows. Americans are killed senselessly half way around the world. Another family forced into shock as the nation mourns.

Wave after wave. Without owning it, I still take it all personally.

Out to Sea and Back Again

What I didn’t expect to hear in my head was Dave’s promise to a little girl that he would try his best to live to be one hundred. That’s what he really wanted as much for himself as for Leah. He tried so hard to achieve it.

I was unprepared for the beautiful and heartfelt words declared on Facebook from this little girl who is now a woman in her own right:

Happy Birthday, Dad!

I sure miss how you always kept me up-to-date on pop culture, and watched The Soup and Chelsea Lately with me. Every time I see an ad for Hillbilly Hand-Fishin’ I laugh and think of you and your appreciation of the absurd. I miss sitting in your office and ranting and raving about life, the universe, and everything (of which the decided answer was always 42). I miss your guidance, your listening, your perspective, your undying curiosity, and your equally undying sense of humor. Your spirit is unlike any other and I carry it with me every day.

I love you, Dad. Happy Birthday on the other side, until we meet again!

There is no better way to express my pain than through the eyes of our girl. Because she is such a blend of the two of us she is the avenue for how I hurt the most. Now I cry that they don’t get each other and all the expected conversations and questions and answers and the joy of growing through life together. I hope and embrace the thought that he somehow can see how she has a resolve to thrive in the midst of her missing him. I cry that I don’t get my biggest fan to cheer from the sidelines just because he loves me for me. I cry that I don’t have his witness and counsel at each turn on my road forward. I simply wish I could commiserate with him about the state of the world “going to hell in a handbasket.” He was so capable of comforting all of us. I would like that comfort that no one else can provide.

As this wall of water, this flood of tears, begins to recede (maybe), I find myself looking all around. My path underneath me is not so defined, edges washed away by the brief pounding. I think I will just have to stand here for a while as I get my bearing. I have to seek out how to get back on my marked road again. Maybe I am to give myself permission to just slow down a bit and remember.

The Truth Be Told

There are two items of note I have learned over the last two years that come back to me time and time again:

  • I always cry at the truth. I cry at my most deeply held beliefs regardless of the joy or pain it causes. I cry in response to anything that strikes those chords.
  • Love is always the lesson.

The truth here is that Dave gets no more birthdays. When cancer is a fact of life, as it has been for us since 1989, every single birthday candle added is the gift, literally, of the year. Another birthday represents the what was, the what is and a chance at what may be. This year ends with what was. The cake I baked this year didn’t have any candles. There was no light, no flame. There was no happy birthday.  There was no singing. And that makes me cry.

But I also cry for the truth that there is still love. There would be no tears if there wasn’t love. Because, as I also know deep inside,  the lesson is always love.

4 replies
  1. Cathy
    Cathy says:

    Thank you for this beautiful description of what grief feels like. It seems to come and go and never knowing what the trigger is.

  2. BonnieW
    BonnieW says:

    Currently my PC is ‘sick’. But I can get the above email on my iPad and Phone. Sometimes I can answer, and sometimes I cannot! Have not yet figured that out.
    Quickly I am a 69 yr old widow of Barry, a beloved teacher of Maths and Sciences for most of our marriage. I have great support in my grief from his former students. I struggle with the grief or lack thereof with my children. I also have 9 grandchildren, teenage or young adults, who also remain silent. He was such a popular teacher and so well known throughout our County, City, and State for his awards, and coaching sports that took State and National Awards, that I still hear stories almost everywhere I go….it is 4 years and 4 months now. I added your FB site a few weeks ago, and I ‘like’ many many of your comments. I would like to stay caught up with you on blogs, emails, and FB site, because I identify with every word you wrote in this blog here. All of it! The Out to Sea and .back Again and Truth Be Told could have been preened by me. I feel I need as many friends, even cyberspace ones, who identify with me in this pain, loss, aloneness, and sometimes just suffering. The question days,,,”why get out of bed”….but not needing anymore sleep days you described perfectly too.

    I do not wish to bore you, or take time away from you, I just want to say Thank You.
    Bonnie Walker

    • Joan H
      Joan H says:

      I am so glad to hear that sharing my experience supports you in your loss. I too was married to an educator and recognize how the stories from his students is priceless. This is your proof that he is not forgotten. I hope that brings you some peace.

      Please keep exploring this site for information and ideas. In particular you might appreciate reading You Are the Expert as we often walk alone with others in grief.

      I am here! You are welcome to reach out anytime via this site, the Navigating Grief Writing Community (best place) or Facebook with your questions and comments.


Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.