Do you remember that time you were swimming at the beach, and you got clobbered by an unexpected wave? It seemed to come out of nowhere. Knocked off your feet and pulled under by its surprising power, you struggled to the surface, and came up battered and disoriented.
This is how grief sneaks up on me sometimes. After three years, I might think that I’ve figured out how the loss of my 20-year old son fits in my life, but then it can all fall away for no apparent reason. Sure, I expect to miss him during holidays, around milestones, or in special places. But sometimes, without warning, I have a moment, an hour, a day when I feel overwhelmed and not quite right.
As I have battled to get my feet back under me, I’ve learned a few lessons, including:
Notice the signs. The feelings often start without clear markers. I’m not sleeping well. I’m edgy, foggy, or distracted for an unidentifiable reason. I may even experience physical symptoms like fatigue or achiness that seem more like I’m fighting a cold. The lack of clarity about the cause can be an indicator itself.
Don’t fight the tide. When this hits I try not to force myself to get back on track, or at least find time to follow where the feelings lead. This isn’t always immediately possible, and just like someone who gets the flu the night before a work deadline, I might need to push through the symptoms. And just like someone with the flu, I pay the price in how wrecked I feel when I am finally able to slow down.
Look for the undercurrent. At some point I realize that my unexplained miasma is really about losing my son. I notice patterns that were previously hidden – like when or where the feelings made it to the surface. New insights shift my perspective, and the amorphous feelings coalesce around the sadness, anger, or loneliness of grief. And there’s often a physical response too – of course tears – and often a sensation of release from pent up pressure. It’s a relief to finally put a name to the feelings so I can face them directly.
Allow time to talk or not. The only way to feel better is to go through (not around) the feelings, and that takes time. I find a way to hit pause, to reschedule the meeting and put off the chores. It’s impossible to predict what combination of solitude and support will feel best, so I prefer if someone follows my lead if I want to talk. I might want to browse old photos, or listen to his favorite music, or just share stories with someone else who loved my son.
Relax with distraction. Recovery is part of the process, so I look for things that feel restorative. Soaking in the quiet on my porch, immersing myself in a cooking project, or watching a soothing episode of “The Great British Baking Show” – these work for me. For my husband, it’s playing piano, or working in the yard, or taking out the kayak.
Rinse and repeat. It’s important to remember that this wave of grief is a temporary condition, not a permanent setback. In speaking with others who’ve traveled this path, I’ve learned that these unexpected interludes are not an unusual phenomenon. These moments will become less frequent over time, but they will probably never go away. I guess that makes sense – my son is forever part of me, so the pain of losing him will never really leave.
Most days I feel like I’ve learned how to carry grief in my everyday life, and I have gotten used to the idea of happy and sad sitting next to each other in my heart. But this is process, not a destination. There’s nothing to “fix”, so there is no ideal end to achieve. And while I can predict the general flow of the tides, I accept that the specific shape of each wave is unknowable, and I’m ready just to ride them where they take me.
Caryn Anthony is a nonprofit consultant and executive coach from Silver Spring, MD, and is also a volunteer member of the Patient and Family Advisory Council for Children’s National Medical System. She is the author of “Any Way the Wind Blows,”—a blog geared for families raising a child with a significant medical condition. Her writing has also appeared in The Huffington Post, Grown and Flown, and Modern Loss.