Jeannie slumped forward in her chair, her forearms on her knees, her eyes fixed on the few square feet of carpet between her shoes and mine.  She had been away for the weekend and had driven through the early morning hours to get back to campus for a 9:00 class with mandatory attendance. When she got to her apartment, instead of being greeted by her best friend/roommate, another friend was waiting for her with news that the roommate had been tragically killed the night before.

Within the hour of hearing the news, Jeannie was sitting in my office.  Few words were spoken in the first several minutes.  She was dazed, alternating between sobbing and sitting in silence.  After awhile, there was only silence, though every minute or two I could see her fighting back tears.

“It comes in waves,” she said just above a whisper.

“Yeah, I can tell.”

“What do I do?”

“When the next wave comes, just go with it.”

Within seconds, the next wave came and she doubled over in sobs.  I held my hand on her shoulder.  After a minute, she sat up, blew her nose, and was silent again.  The next wave came a few minutes later.  She rode out several more waves over the next half hour, each as intense as the last.  There was nothing else to do in that session but to go with each wave as it crashed upon her.

By the time we met again the next morning, Jeannie was beginning to put words to the thoughts and feelings that continued to sweep over her.

I have heard the metaphor of waves used often in describing the thoughts and feelings of grief that have no words.  I have experienced my own waves.  It’s as though our minds know how much we can handle and send that to us in waves.  Then, when we think we will drown, the wave subsides; we catch our breath, and wait for the next one.

Sometimes we can brace ourselves against the waves and postpone their fury for days, months, even years.  Karen’s mother had died several months before I met her.  The death was sudden and completely unexpected due to an undiagnosed condition.  Because her father and her sisters immediately fell apart, Karen determined she could not afford to.  She took on the role of the strong one, taking charge of all the needed arrangements.  Following the funeral, she took time away from her graduate studies to stay at home and take care of others.

That Tuesday morning, now several months later, back at school and getting ready for class, she picked up her hairbrush to make the final touches before heading for class.  She made the observation, “My mother gave me this brush.”

At that moment, the wave she had avoided all those months broke over her and she crumbled.  A few hours later in my office, we allowed the waves to come and go, and we began dealing not only with her grief but also with her confusion of “Why now?”

In the early stages of grief, when the shock of our loss breaks over us in waves, or later when they surprise us, it is important to honor what’s happening.  We are being presented with the reality of the situation in portions we can handle.  The wave can stun us, can take our breath away, can knock us over, but then the wave subsides, allowing us to catch our breath.  When we can eventually recognize this process as important and necessary, we can go with the waves rather than fighting them.  We can allow them to come, to crash, to choke us, to leave us feeling powerless, and then subside.

Going with the wave doesn’t take the pain away, but it does take away some of the fear that we’ll drown.