I’ve recently been contemplating the way we relate to challenging, battering emotions. After spending some of the December holidays body surfing in the ocean, it feels like a wave analogy is particularly apt for the times we are swept off our feet with the intensity of life and the pain we feel. This idea formed into words when I was asked to be funeral celebrant at the memorial service of a friend’s mother. Bereavement is one of the inevitable hardships of living a human life. Grief is one of the most powerful, life-shifting, emotions.
The greater our love for someone, the larger the wave of grief seems to be. As this wave rises out of the calm of the sea, we act from our instinct of threat. The wave nears its peak and we can’t bear it a moment longer; we try to swim from it, we turn our heads to distract ourselves, and then get swept away, tossed and tumbled, bruised and battered, onto the shore.
Rationally, we know it is futile to try to escape from the vast force of the wave, yet our emotional confusion means we forget that we have a choice. What seems so counter-intuitive is to dive deep, to give ourselves completely to the power of the emotion. In the case of grief, this can feel as though our heart has been crushed and our intestines knotted. We may feel disembodied, nauseous, our mind tangled or spinning. The idea of giving into this suffering is too frightening to contemplate, yet we grow more and more exhausted by trying to hold those waves at bay.
If we accept the wave, the grief, and dive into it, then that powerful energy is able to move through, and beyond, us. Tears become healing waters, washing us clean through the power of the sea. We may even find a deep place of calm, a timeless sense of equanimity; washed free of regrets, of sadness or despair. The immeasurable nature of our sorrow can transform into an immeasurable capacity of compassion for others, while they are tossed and tumbled by their own waves. Indeed, once those waves have crashed around us, we may even be left experiencing the foam, those bubbles of joy that pop up to the surface: the joy of having loved someone truly, and deeply, of having appreciated their goodness as well as their struggles.
As a friend, or partner, to the bereaved we wonder what to say, what to do, to make them feel better. Less is so often more. Holding the space, maintaining our own equanimity and presence, so that there is no need to fix the pain, or avoid it, can be a powerful act of compassion. Our simple presence can provide the safety net for them to be deeply moved in the power of the wave. We can show simple acts of love and kindness, like preparing food or allowing them to reminisce, and when the grief is pouring through our loved one, we stand beside them, a physical or metaphorical hand on their back, reassuring them that they can go through this rite of passage.
In many families, children move away from home, or travel overseas, and become used to being apart from their parents. Death, though, is a different type of parting; it is a powerful rite of passage where we shift from the role of child to that of adult or parent. To begin with, it may feel that our loved one is gone from our lives forever, yet with time and the healing power of tears, we may begin to sense that the very essence of that person is now inside of us, with us all the time. There can be an internal shift, where they no longer feel lost to us, but that they are now with us wherever we go, and whenever we bring them to mind.
Love is the partner of grief: joy is the wife of sorrow. The one allows the other to exist, like day and night, summer and winter. We do not need to oscillate from one emotion to the other; we find we can hold these seeming opposites together at the same time. Part of someone who dies lives on in the babies they have, or those that will be born, as well as the mark they make on their friends and families. This is the intertwining of life and death; this is the joy and sorrow of impermanence.