Surviving Grief Is Similar To Riding Ocean Waves, Unpredictable Yet A Reality
Christmas is my favorite time of year. My heart would fill with joy seeing the gleam and sparkle in the eyes of my children as they raced down the stairs to see what Santa had left.
But this year was different. It was my first Christmas morning as a divorced parent, and my children were still with their father with plans to arrive here around noon.
I awoke to a feeling of tightness in my chest as the sadness of waking up without my children filled my heart. I lay in bed with my hand on my heart, taking deep belly breaths to help me relax, when suddenly a sense of joy swept over me as I remembered that my parents were visiting. I found new energy and headed downstairs for coffee.
Mom was up and could immediately sense my sadness. We talked a little about how I was feeling. Then she recommended we start preparing our Christmas dinner, which was a welcome distraction. I was grateful to have her and dad with me as I created new memories and grieved the loss of old ones.
After the turkey was in the oven and the presents were wrapped, Mom and I headed out for a walk. We walked for a few minutes and then I noticed something that caught me off guard. Mom was breathing quick little breaths, similar to the ones she practiced when her cancer symptoms first appeared eighteen months prior.
My heart sank and anger welled up inside my body. Over the previous few months, I had enjoyed a calm break as Mom had been in remission. I had allowed myself to develop a false sense of security that I was in control and she was healed. And here were signs that she was sick again. It was not something I was ready to face.
We finished our walk mostly in silence and returned home as the children arrived. I stepped away to the bathroom to cry a little and breathe deeply.
I pulled myself together and returned to the living room to open presents with my children. We shared the remainder of the holiday time experiencing new places and taking in the joy of the Christmas season, through the eyes of a five and seven year old. But all the while, I couldn’t help but think, would this be our last Christmas together?
We lost mom a year and a half later to cancer.
After losing my mother and then my sister unexpectedly last year, I have learned that grief has its own timing and shows up in different forms. Surviving it is similar to riding ocean waves, unpredictable yet a reality. Some days when we think we are not able to handle one more transition, another one starts to take shape. Whether it is learning to cope and live without your mother or struggling to find new holiday traditions in the wake of a divorce, life comes at us in waves.
One thing is constant: We all experience some type of loss from time to time, causing us to grieve in different ways. The question is: How long are you going to let grief get in the way of feeling joy each day? Will you let the waves surprise and define you, or accept the unpredictable timing and level of impact through coping skills?
Grief is a tricky thing, especially around the holidays. Here are some techniques that I have found helpful based on the situation and the way you approach grief.
Some of us have suffered a loss that we are not willing to share with others or feel like we would be bothering our friends if we did. In these moments, when you’re grieving alone, I have found that being still and breathing is helpful. The key is to practice this for longer than you want to. Count each breath in and out. While we are human beings, the pace of our lives have led us to be more like human doings, with a focus on doing. If we are willing to be still and sit with the feelings, sometimes we are able to release some of the pain, but only if we are patient.
Some of us experience a situational type of grief, which usually comes with some type of warning or notice. This can include a job transition, a friend who moves away or the terminal diagnosis of a loved one. Like breaking waves, we see the trending nature of this change building up. Fear tends to magnify the impact, so in these moments, I have found preparing and practicing to be helpful. Imagining yourself already through the transition and feeling the new normal will dissipate some of the fear. With the fear gone, you will recognize that you have time to prepare and the gift of choosing to share an act of love or asking your loved one questions about things you may not know.
Some of us experience more sudden, shifting type of grief that disrupts our lives with a loud splash, similar to waves crashing into the beach with a force that spills water out into far directions. In these moments, coping skills may lessen the magnitude of the loss and anger at the unpredictable, enabling you to function and make it through an hour, then a day and so on. One of my go-to coping mechanisms is this saying “right now, I am…” — fill in the rest of the statement with what you are doing in the moment, such as putting one foot in front of the other. Over time, coping skills build perseverance and help to dissipate the anger and grief.
Our loved ones that pass away are in a better place, free of pain and suffering. The key is to remember how they would want you to carry on without them. Don’t harbor sadness and possibly regret. Instead, sit with the sadness and practice letting go.
When waves disrupt all that you used to know, relax and embrace them, for without the waves, nothing would ever change. And if nothing ever changed, there would be no butterflies.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR: Rebecca Whitehead Munn, MBA is a general manager of a healthcare services business for an employee-owned boutique consulting firm. She has a BBA in marketing with a minor in psychology from the University of Texas at Austin and an executive Masters of Business administration degree from the University of Colorado. She leverages her expertise as a certified HBDI professional through all of her interactions to inform expectations and guide communications. In her spare time, she enjoys spending time outdoors with her two teenage children, friends, and chocolate lab, Coco, practicing yoga, snow skiing, golfing, and entertaining. She has lived in Nashville, Tennessee since 2005. You can read more from her in her book “The Gift of Goodbye: A Story of Agape Love.”