I have spent a lot of my life at the beach. Our family has a cabin that I have had the privilege of spending my summers at. Three years ago, I spent the summer there with Ben. He was two, he was healthy – or so I thought. We spent hours, days, and weeks playing, throwing rocks and walking the shore. I had no idea that two weeks after our return to Seattle we would be checking into Children’s Hospital. Fast forward to 2010. I am spending many of my days on the same beach with a different two year old. We are throwing rocks, looking for crabs and wading into the same water that is now his brother’s grave. It is an irresolvable tension.
Ryan, in his two year old way, has been having a difficult time “controlling” the water. The other day the waves kept coming and he wanted the water to be still. He stood on the shore shouting, “Stop waves! Stop! Don’t do that!” Then he turned to me and said, “Mom, make the waves stop!” I laughed and then sighed…“Ryan, Mom wishes she could make the waves stop.” Oooooh how I wish I could make them stop.
Like the tides at our cabin, there are waves to grief as well. In those first days, weeks, months and year of Ben’s absence they were so powerful, so forceful, that they would literally knock me off of my feet. They came in succession – one after the next – like being caught in the breakers in Hawaii, unable to get back to the shore. Each time I would come up gasping for air, only to be pulled back under again. They were terrifying. It was like being in purgatory – you felt like you were dying, and yet you didn’t – as if you were having cardiac arrest over and over. You cry, you shake, you try to breathe, you beg for your child, for release from this pain. I would lay in a fetal position and just cry, “Beeeeeeeeeen” – my only prayer. I thought I was literally going crazy. The worst ones for me could only be quieted with valium.
I still experience the swells of grief, but they seem different now – they aren’t always as volatile. Perhaps the biggest difference is that the waves themselves don’t scare me anymore. They are not shocking to my system. I don’t fight them, nor panic when I feel them coming. You don’t always know what will set them off – a picture, an event, something insensitive someone says, a little boy wearing Lightning McQueen shoes or just because. But it seems I am getting more accustomed to their ways. I simply let them come as they will and ride them out. Like the natural tide system after the crash the waves get smaller. And eventually they return to lapping – the sadness ever present, even if I am experiencing a reprieve on the shore. For the stages of grief are not linear, as Elisabeth Kübler-Ross led us to believe. They are circular. One after the other, sometimes all at once, each one repeating itself over and over, never fully resolving. It is the pattern of the ocean – rise and fall, in and out – it is the pattern of grief. The rocks can tell you. So can any parent whose child has been taken from them.
As Ryan gets older he will learn that the sea has a mind of its own, you cannot control it. I am learning this too about the Sea of Grief. I am learning just to be thankful for the moments when the waters are calm and this new life seems manageable. How I long for the day when my grief and longing for Ben will no longer exist. When the waves will forever be stilled. When I can walk hand in hand with both my boys on the shores of heaven. But that is a long way off it seems.
Until then, Ryan runs. He smashes shells violently, as only a boy can. He heaves a log into the water, thus creating his own waves. And we continue down the beach…