Why Grief Comes in Waves (and How to Navigate Them)

by Anna Christopher

Life, as we all know, is fraught with profound highs and numbing lows. The journey we embark on, wrapped subtly with countless emotions, forever shapes us as individuals. It was during one of these heart-wrenching sojourns that I first encountered grief – a silent, insidious emotion that lurks in the deep crevices of our hearts, manifesting itself unexpectedly.

Grief is a powerful yet often unfathomable emotion until we experience it ourselves. The loss, the yearning, the profound sense of absence do not merely sting; instead, they lacerate, leaving deep, invisible wounds in their wake. But grappling with grief has also allowed me to elucidate its unpredictable, non-linear nature. Unlike joy or frustration that present themselves head-on, grief is different – it comes in unpredictable waves.

What does “grief comes in waves” mean?

When we talk about grief and coping with a loss, we often use the phrase that “grief comes in waves.” But what exactly does this metaphor mean?

When you first encounter a significant loss, grief sweeps over you like a tsunami—an enormous wave that completely engulfs and upends your life. Everything, from your daily habits to your perspective on life, is clouded by its overwhelming presence. It’s a wave so powerful that it just takes your strength to keep your head above the water. During this time, simple tasks like eating a meal, making a phone call, or even getting out of bed can feel like an uphill battle.

As time passes, the waves don’t exactly leave, but they begin to change in frequency and intensity. Some days, you might only be hit by small waves, barely noticing their impact as you move through your daily routines. Other days, a large wave might knock you off your feet. This wave might be set off by anything—a piece of music that calls to mind a shared memory or a scent that was uniquely theirs. Suddenly, you find yourself gasping for air, overcome with the intense reality of your loss.

As I handle my grief, I’ve learned that these waves are not a sign of regression, but part of the complex, non-linear process of grieving. I recognize that there isn’t a ‘quick fix,’ no orderly step-by-step guide that will lead me back to how I was before the loss. Instead, grief comes in waves, sometimes unexpectedly, and I must learn to navigate these waves as they come.

However, with each passing day, you find yourself growing in resilience. Each wave, no matter its intensity or timing, brings with it an opportunity to confront the sense of loss, to remember, and to further heal. These waves become a testament to your love and continue to hold for the one who has left.

Causes of the Waves of Grief

Understanding these triggers is not just about bracing oneself against the surge of emotions; it’s about giving one the tools to navigate the unpredictable seas of grief.

Anniversaries and Special Days

Birthdays, anniversaries, holidays—these are days that were once filled with joy and companionship, but after a loss, they can serve as stark reminders of who’s absent. I learnt this first-hand when I was celebrating my first birthday without my dear one around—it was supposed to be a happy day, but instead, it felt as though a wave of grief had washed over me anew.

Moments of Silence

Have you ever noticed how silence can be deafening? Moments of quiet and solitude often produced some of the largest waves of grief. During these moments, I found that thoughts and longing for the departed were given a platform to take the stage, triggering a heightened sense of grief.

Seeing familiar objects, photos or visiting familiar places

Objects and locations drenched in memories can become triggers. In my experience, simply driving past our favorite restaurant or stumbling upon an old photograph in a drawer stirred memories and strong emotional responses. Each encounter with such tangible remnants of our shared past delivered a fresh wave of grief.

Initials, Smells or Sounds that remind you of the loved one

As senses are closely connected to memory, certain smells, sounds or visuals can precipitate a surge of grief. For me, these sensory associations were often unpredictable and caught me by surprise—ranging from the scent of her favorite perfume on a passerby to the sound of her favorite song playing in a store.

Major Life Events

Major life changes, such as moving houses, starting a new job, or getting married, often open the floodgates of grief. The absence of your loved one during these moments makes you wish they were by your side, sharing the joy, excitement or nervousness. During my graduation ceremony, despite the joyous occasion, I experienced one of these waves, missing the presence of a proud loved one cheering me on.

How to Surf the Waves of Grief

Just as every surfer cultivates their methods and techniques, everyone has unique ways of dealing with grief’s waves. I would like to share some of the strategies that have worked for me, hoping that they might offer a glimmer of light to those in the midst of their grief journey.

1. Acceptance

Acceptance has been a fundamental part of my journey thus far. By understanding and accepting that grief does indeed come in waves, you allow yourself the permission to feel these waves fully – be it sadness, anger, guilt or deep yearning. You learn to grasp that a wave does not mean you’re regressing but merely that you’re human and mourning a loss. Embracing this truth has been arduously therapeutic for me.

2. Expression

Expressing my feelings, rather than bottling them up, has been incredibly cathartic. This can take many forms, such as art, writing, talking to a trusted friend, or even a grief counselor. I found solace in journaling. It provided a safe, personal space where I could freely pour out my thoughts, fears, and reflections, helping me process and better understand my feelings.

3. External Support

Leaning on those around me who cared and offered their support was often the buoyancy aid I needed on some of the more challenging wave-filled days. Whether it’s connecting with a family member who understands your pain, reaching out to a compassionate friend, or participating in a support group with people sharing similar experiences, having someone to lean on can make all the difference.

4. Professional Assistance

Sometimes, the waves might feel too overpowering, threatening to carry you off to sea, and it’s during these moments that professional help can truly matter. I was initially hesitant to turn to a mental health professional, perceiving it as a sign of weakness, but I soon discovered it was far from that. Their expert guidance and evidence-based techniques allowed me to regain more control over my grief journey gradually.

5. Self-Care

Lastly, but by no means least, taking care of my well-being has been instrumental. Exercising, eating right, getting appropriate sleep, and taking time for relaxation and mindfulness may seem trivial amidst the towering waves of grief, but they can significantly help improve resilience and emotional strength. Integrating yoga and mindfulness into my daily routine has helped bring mental clarity, peace, and increased resilience to handle the waves gracefully.

Final Thoughts

Embracing the truth that “grief comes in waves” provides a new lens through which we can accept and understand our feelings. It enables us to ride the waves – neither suppressing grief nor letting it engulf us. In this tender balance, healing, growth and acceptance can truly take root.

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