I didn’t have to put much effort into healing until my brother Derek died. There had been heartbreak in saying goodbye to my grandparents, my aunt and my uncle. Even after all of the miscarriages, I knew I would survive. I felt, and still feel deep pain from those losses, but until I lost my lifelong friend and only sibling, I had never considered that I couldn’t recover, or heal, from what was in front of me. He was only 29, one week from his 30th birthday.
Three years, almost to the day, of my younger brother’s sudden, but not-so-sudden passing, I still have days where I feel like I am drowning. This week, leading up to the anniversary, it seems as though I am, once again, bracing for a particularly wicked gale.
I’ve used a water analogy a lot in the past several years to describe my journey through grief. I write a shortened version in sympathy cards and I find myself sharing the parallel when I’m trying to be empathetic to someone’s pain while also providing some hope.
You see, when your heart is first shattered, you feel like you’ve been dropped in the middle of a raging ocean without the ability to swim. You cannot navigate your surroundings. It is so dark, you are panicked, you are in shock and you cannot manage to keep your head above the relentless waves. You are taking in water and you think it might be easier to just stop fighting and sink. You know that it would be less painful.
That first storm is the worst one. It lasts longer than you think you are capable of surviving. You scream and cry and swallow water and flail and gasp for air, and you are consistently engulfed by towering waves. After some time, without being able to pinpoint the catalyst, you slowly find yourself emerged more than submerged, and it seems that you have figured out how to tread water! It is still really exhausting. You don’t want to be in the ocean any more. You’re scared of what’s beneath you in the black unknown depths. You yearn for the comfort you’ve lost. You search and search for a clearing in the sky. Some light. Somewhere.
Eventually, you become proficient at treading water. You occasionally feel the warmth of the sun on your face and it is not so bitterly cold, all of the time, anymore. Maybe one day you see a dolphin and it makes you happy. It feels strange to smile. Maybe the next day you have an encounter with a shark. The shark day takes you back to the beginning, out of the blue, and you feel for a while like you’ll never make it to land.
One thing is for sure, all of this treading water has made you strong. You don’t always feel strong, because you are so tired from the unwanted journey, but you cannot deny that you’ve grown. You still don’t know when the next storm will hit, and you’re triggered by rain and lightning, and you know that you’ll find it hard to stay afloat some days, but you don’t focus on those things as much as you once did. Instead, you prioritize learning to swim. And if you can swim, you just might be able to use your newfound perseverance and endurance to find the footing you crave.
In trying to navigate your way back to familiarity and some semblance of comfort, there are big waves. You learn to ride them. You are accustomed to the water now. You continue to swim because that is all you know. Muscle memory, if you will.
Here is the thing: if you make it home, or wherever you go, your experiences have made you a different person. A resilient person. An adaptable person. A unique person who is the only one who can hold all of the things which only you have experienced. A compassionate person who can guide others through a perilous riptide. A strong person who chooses daily to survive whatever sea rages inside of you.
The water journey that you once hated and feared, has steered you to who you are now. The tide on the shore does not stop going in and out and the waves continue to roll. These are the things that cannot be changed. But the way you view your old foe and the memory of the trial you endured together can bring you to acceptance of the way things are, and even, on a calm day, to peace.
In memory of my brother Derek Dresback, with the deep blue eyes; lover of the vast and powerful ocean.