As much as he loved water, Mitchell was always nervous about the ocean. I remember watching him walking out into the surf just past his ankles, putting his hands on his little hips and thinking for a few minutes. There he stood with his cute little Star Wars shorts and swim shirt, thinking about the adventure that lay at his feet. The waves were small but still intimidating to him because his muscles were weak and uncoordinated. The cold surf would brush up against the bottoms of his shorts and he would hold his ground and giggle as he wrestled with his watery opponent.
He wasn't that interested in going out much further and I often asked him why – to which he would respond with a half-smile and he would look in the opposite direction. It wasn’t until he was home under hospice care when he finally told me why he was afraid: sharks. When he finally told me I briefly chuckled, then my eyes welled with tears and I kissed his forehead and hugged him and said “Oh, son, how I love you. I would have jumped in front of any shark to keep you safe.” Feeling emboldened by my willingness to protect him, he then asked if we could watch Jaws together.
Before I lost my son I thought I could empathize with those who might have lost a child. But I soon discovered I was merely dabbling in phonetics and wordplay and that there is no word in the human language that can adequately describe the pain of that kind of loss. I want my son back so badly sometimes I feel like I’m drowning in a sea of grief and sorrow.
I have become a student of grief and am learning how to swim every day. Along this difficult journey I have discovered that grief feels much like wading in the ocean with its many, many currents: sometimes there are peaceful warm moments, other times powerfully sad undertows, plenty of rain, cold pockets and occasionally crushing waves of sorrow that leave you disoriented and scrambling to breathe.
I have observed others, who grappling with their own profound grief seem to be drowning while fighting the powerful emotional currents. While I am new to this loss, their struggle is intensely familiar to me … and I feel like I know those currents all too well.
At least for me, I am learning to allow the currents of grief and sorrow run their course. Like a swimmer who encounters a powerful rip current, thrashing about and fighting the current will waste energy and pull you to the bottom of the sea. But relaxing and allowing the current to take you, as painful and scary as it seems at the moment, keeps you near the surface and conserves energy for that swim back to shore when the current has passed. Managing grief is not much different.
Before Mitchell passed away our hospice nurse offered council on managing grief. She was quick to point out how some people tend to medicate their sorrows with various addictions. Her council was to allow grief to take its course, in a healthy way. There is no pill, no drink and no preoccupation that can save you from grief. As Robert Frost once said, ‘The only way out is through’. And, in truth, shortcuts are only a mirage.
But alas, all of this remains wordplay. For the truth is, treading the sea of grief is bewildering. It is cold. It is lonely beyond measure. There is more salt in my tears than all the waters of earth. And somewhere out there … far into the horizon, even to infinity, my son lives. Every part of me longs to see him and hug him once more. And as I look to the captain of my soul and swim how I ought, I will find him again. But the sea of grief remains vast … how deep I know not … how treacherous yet, I know not. I only know that I’m not drowning … and for now, that will do.