Grief comes in waves. You might be familiar with the popular concept of the five stages of grief. They are…

  1. Denial
  2. Anger
  3. Bargaining
  4. Depression
  5. Acceptance

And what do we do with anything expressed as “stages?” In our modern, western culture, we treat stages as purely linear. We turn the stages into steps to be accomplished, and we assume that once we’ve worked past the anger or exhausted our bargaining energy, those stages are over and we can move on.

When Elisabeth Kubler-Ross wrote about these stages, she was doing so out of her research and work among people dying of terminal diseases. She was helping people accept their own imminent moments of death. Her work was ground-breaking and highly valuable to the field of psychology.

It wasn’t her fault that the rest of us applied her ideas to every kind of grief imaginable. We often accept the mistaken, common notion that when we’ve lost a marriage, a career, or a loved one, we simply need time (which is supposed to heal all wounds) to work through the stages of grief and then we’ll be back to feeling normal again.

But grief doesn’t work that way. At least, not the kind of grief I’ve experienced.

Grief Comes in Waves

I’m convinced that grief comes in waves. When our family relocated to Southern California for a year, we found ourselves surrounded by beauty. Our favorite place to hang out was Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach. It’s hard to find a place on earth quite as colorful.

Treasure Island Beach in Laguna Beach, California

We all loved it. Except for Ella, my daughter. The waves in Southern California crashed on the sand in a way that intimidated our then-eight-year-old little girl.

We’d been to the beach before, but in the Gulf of Mexico where the waves never reached more than a couple of feet in height. Ella hung back near the cliff away from the water’s edge in spite of my passionate reassurance that the large, curling waves wouldn’t get her. I even launched into a spiritual diatribe about how God had set the boundaries of the sea and that the waves wouldn’t approach us as far up as we were on the sand. So she reluctantly camped out on our blanket with her Mom and baby brother while I headed down to the edge of the surf.

One particular wave hit me harder than I was expecting and I turned to see my family happily hanging out. The wave had been high, but not high enough to threaten their dry and peaceful spot. And then I turned toward the ocean again and saw the next wave, at which point I knew I’d have to eat my words about God and his boundaries.

This second wave rushed around and past me and aimed itself at the families soaking up the sun. I couldn’t yell loudly enough to warn them, but Angie, seeing what was coming, quickly scooped up the car seat in which our Sam was sleeping just in time to watch a foot of water soak our towels, flood our beach bag, and send Ella running back to the cliff for safety.

That wave ruined our cell phones, but more importantly, it also dashed my hopes of getting Ella to venture out into the water with me. Grief sneaks up on us like that, too. We assume we’ve ridden out the season of anger or depression only to be smacked out of nowhere by another wave of unexplainable, relentless sadness. And that sadness manifests itself in all kinds of strange ways.

Grief returns again and again to threaten our sense of stability and security. It reminds us that we’re vulnerable. That life is unpredictable and uncontrollable. And that everything we enjoy here in this life is temporary.

Learning to Surf

The beaches of the Florida panhandle are quite different than those of Southern California. The waters of the Gulf pose their own danger, but usually in the form of rip currents that can’t be spotted easily.

Perhaps the most alive I’ve ever felt was on one of our family vacations to Destin. My friend, Jeff, and I managed to leave the kids behind on the sand and we ventured out with bodyboards to surf what waves we could find. While we were out chest-deep focusing on the horizon, someone changed the flag to red to alert the public that the surf was particularly rough for the region. (Disclaimer: I suppose I should officially issue a warning that you should never bodysurf in the Gulf when a red flag is up… but we did.)

For the next few hours, Jeff and I bodysurfed wave after wave after wave, each one hitting us hard enough to knock us off our feet, steal our sunglasses, and leave us scrambling to find our footing again. And each time it happened, I laughed. I laughed like nobody could hear me. Because they couldn’t. Because the ocean was trying to shut me up with its roar.

The key to fun body surfing is to line up with the wave and lean forward at just the correct angle and at just the right moment to allow the energy of the wave to carry you, board and body, until your nose and forehead grind to a stop in the sand in the knee-deep part of the water. Then you blow the salty water out of your nose and mouth and go catch the next one.

What I’ve learned about grief in the last few years is that you can fight it, or you can surf it.

When I fight against grief, no matter how firmly my feet are planted, I’m always knocked off balance. Grief has its way with us and demolishes any illusions of self-sustained stability and strength. When I’ve been at my worst, it’s been in my moments of fighting against grief, shouting my lungs out at it and commanding it to stay back and to leave me alone.

But when I learn to welcome grief, to allow it to carry me where it wants me to go, I find peace. I don’t ever get to tell the waves of grief how often they can come at me, or how strong they get to be. I don’t get to predict the strength of the undercurrent that threatens to sweep me from my firm footing. All I get to do is welcome the wave, try to measure its strength, and respond by releasing my sense of control over it.

Maybe you’ve lost a loved one. Or a career you spent decades building. Or a marriage you really believed would be intact until one of you died. Or perhaps you’ve lost your faith or walked away from the religious tradition in which you once felt rooted.

Whatever losses we absorb in life, grief is the reality that follows. And yes, grief comes in stages, but the stages repeat. And they refuse to stay in order. And just when we think we’ve arrived at the paradise we call “okay,” we get knocked down again, and okay feels like an unreachable destination.

I certainly can’t promise that you’ll ever face a wave of grief that brings you joy and laughter or makes you feel truly alive in the face of the threat of death. But I can assure you that the more you learn to welcome grief and, as one pastor I know used to say, “hug your pain,” the more you’ll grow in your ability to stand firm and enjoy the peace and beauty of the life that surrounds you.

Photo by Jeremy Bishop on Unsplash.