Staying Afloat in Waves of Grief

Twice in four days I turned for a last look, once knowing I would never see her again, the other wondering if this was my last glimpse of him.

Two weeks ago Thursday night, my wife Gaye and I saw Caleb, our son, for about 30 minutes. We hugged, walked and talked. After being absent without leave for eight days from the recovery house the plan, negotiated with the Recovery team, was for him to return to the facility the next day. We gave him $40 for the ferry and incidentals. The conversation ended with a playful exhortation to send me some more writing.

“You have a public waiting to hear from you!”

Friday we wondered until, at day’s end, it was clear that he never made the trip.

We have not heard from him since.

Saturday Gaye had a commitment to teach Godly Play.

All that day, I fought the kind of nausea that just bubbles, not enough to merit a diagnosis of sickness but enough so that you don’t feel well. The cruise was in choppy water.

I lay on the couch watching Netflix but, at day’s end, could not remember the name of the movie, or two, perhaps three? Memory fuzzed out by the worry that always plays in the background like white noise on television with no clear reception.

My body felt cooked a la dente, not exactly a wet noodle but also without much internal strength. The lawn needing cutting and I had a list of errands I wanted to complete, but I could not rise to perform the trivial tasks.

The week contained other hard news.

Jelly, the pet dog, for ten years, of our daughter, son-in-law and three grandchildren, was discovered to have cancer. The vet was to come to the house Sunday morning. We were to take the kids.

After they had written their letters expressing all the things they would miss about Jelly, had their final time of petting and saying good-bye we headed to the park while the parents awaited the arrival of the veterinarian. I watched our eight year old grandson pet her and whisper something in her ear, knowing the vet would arrive in a few minutes to administer the final drugs.

I struggled.

And I was surprised. I am not a dog-person, barely interacted with Jelly. I’m allergic to dogs, have an unfortunate history of being attacked as a child.

Still, the presence of emotion was undeniable.

I wondered if, empathetically, I was merely tuning into the sorrowful state of the family. I hate to see my children or grandchildren sad, even though I know life is more than a peaceful, easy feeling.

Still, something more.

The classic Kubler-Ross stages of grief, denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance, while so valuable in other instances, did not seem to fit.

As I pushed the stroller carrying one-year-old Reese, I realized various streams of grief were flowing together like creeks into a river. The night before I had found myself thinking more than usual about my Mom and Dad, even though both have been dead many years.

Curtis J Carley Photo (CCO)

The river of grief was rising and flowing fast. I worked on identifying the tributaries, finally acknowledging the common thread between Jelly and my son. In both cases, the narrative was that we had lost someone dear and integral to our life.

In the case of my son, the loss was not of his physical demise - although we are still terrified of fentanyl; the damage was to the hope for a new and abundant life that seemed so close two weeks previous. I cherish the times I have with the man he is when he is clean and sober. To have that swept away broke my heart.

I fought for my footing, clinging to branches of gratitude, trying to heed the wisdom of Pat Schwiebert.

“Our job as grievers is to learn how to be thankful for the experiences that keep us close to our departed loved ones without being tortured by those experiences….

The trick is to let such triggers become opportunities for you to continue to do your grief work, without making you miserable.”

I did not arrive at the “opportunity stage” without a struggle.

Grief is unpredictable work. The ground always seems to be concealed by the muddy rush of emotion, triggers hiding like roots on the river bottom and the ever-present possibility of being knocked off-balance by floating debris of sight, sound or smell.

The Loss Foundation 360 says on their blog that “grief is not a stationary journey, it has constant ups and downs, and is an unpredictable path, sometimes with changes in emotion from hour to hour.” I can give testimony.

Grief is hard work.

As we accompanied the kids to the park, I wondered, “Would I rather not go through this?” My sore throat and leaking eyes seem to vote against the experience; yet, I think not. I would choose to grieve.

Although it may seem strange to say, I welcome the grief. For, if nothing else, it reminds me how much I love and what I value.

Cover photo by Adam Bendjaima on Unsplash

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