The Tsunami of Grief

How are you doing?  I don’t think I’ve ever been asked that question so many times as the last few months, because there’s nothing else to ask really.  So how am I doing?  I have no idea.

People send me things about grief coming in waves, or ship wrecks or any number of other water based metaphors but actually it feels like a tsunami.

I remember the Boxing Day Tsunami – watching it with friends in a very solid lighthouse built into the rocks on the coast of Devon.  It seemed surreal to be sitting so close to the waves whilst watching footage of their potential.  And yet here we are again.

The thing about tsunamis is the bit before the wave.  A monumental rupture happens, hidden underground, miles away and unseen – but the wave doesn’t come straight away.  First there is the drawback.  It’s the moment where all the water gets sucked out to sea, where the power builds.  It’s the part where the fish are left flapping on the beach and no one can quite work out what’s going on.  And it’s the part that people see.

When Fred died the overwhelming feeling was one of quiet and calm, another mother described it as ‘a weird sense of lightness’.  The anxiety and trauma are sucked away and you’re left with an empty beach.  It’s the empty beach that holds the funeral.  It’s where people turn up to look at the fish. A gentle space for you to catch your breath.

Because you know what’s coming, and you know that you are going to need to run.

The sheer overwhelming force of it is not something you can withstand, there’s no high ground, it can only be survived.

And what’s left is the sheer devastation, and there’s nothing you can do but look at it, or the missing pieces.  It’s impossible to know what to do, when everything that you know has been taken away. 

Cancer didn’t just take away my child, it took the rest of my life with it.  In the 10 months of his illness that was what my life became, and all that went before it slowly disintegrated.  Work became impossible, I gave my office back, I gave up hobbies, I didn’t see friends for months.  And for the nearly half a year required in hospital I have up my bed, and my home.  Like The Happy Prince, I gladly gave it all, but it means there’s nothing left.  People ask about getting back to normal but normal disappeared a long time ago.

So you’re left with wreckage, and bits of your old life scattered around you, and a massive, massive hole. In many ways, Covid has not helped this as even the flimsiest of things to cling to have also been taken away.  In other ways, it really has helped because they probably would have been swept away anyway, and at least I don’t have to see them being enjoyed by other people across the bay.

When JFK was assassinated, Jackie Kennedy refused to change out of her suit.  “No’ she whispered fiercely ‘let them see the horror’.  That is going to take time.  Time for the toxic waters to recede, and to recover from the sheer bloody exhaustion of it all.

So that’s where we sit, repairing, taking in the vast expanse of it.  “Just an empty room, full of empty space, like the empty look, I see on your face …” and nobody can bear to finish the next line.

Nobody else saw the shattering that happened out at sea, and people are suffering their own damage, but people come and sit, and look at the wreckage with us.  They don’t try to clear up, or concrete over or turn up with new plans.  We just sit.

I asked the person in charge of the churchyard what I was supposed to do about Fred’s grave.  The grass had died in the summer sun and it looked a raw ugly mess.  “You let it be a mess” he said, “until the spring, when we can look at how things have settled”

And so that is what we do.

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