Waves Of Grief Can Last An Entire Lifetime

by Elaine Roth

When I sat to write this piece, the theme I had in mind to write about was that grief is a lifelong battle. I thought maybe I’d write about how grief doesn’t disappear after the year of firsts is done, which is what I had naively thought after my own year of firsts ended, or how there is no cure for grief, despite how often I’ve subconsciously searched and hoped for one.

I thought maybe I’d write about how I’m crawling into my fourth year as a young widow and a person intimately acquainted by grief, and that I’m still not free of my grief. The heartache is still there—most days as nothing more than an extra deep inhale against the now dull pressure on my heart—but today, as something more. Today, the grief is heavy and an extra deep inhale isn’t enough to ease the pressure, which has turned sharp and jagged.

But as I sat to write, I got stuck on the word “battle.” Because I didn’t feel like I was battling grief today. Despite turning my phone to “do not disturb” and canceling plans, despite scrolling through old emails and digging in boxes to retrieve memories, despite heartache and heaviness and a pervasive sense of despair, I didn’t feel as though I was battling.

A battle is at heart antagonistic. It’s a conflict between two opposing forces. And my grief isn’t an opposing force. I’m not trying to fight my grief, to vanquish it, as I might have done in the earliest days of grief. I’ve learned the more I battle with it, the harder it attacks, because grief is patient and demands to be felt.

Instead, I’m learning to co-exist with grief. I’m learning to accept it and find grace for it. Because though grief isn’t a lifelong battle, grief can be a lifelong experience.

There’s an oft-used analogy when it comes to grief: that it comes in waves. The waves come fast and furious in the beginning. They are wild and huge and unrelenting. All of your time and energy is spent just trying to claw your way out in order to get a breath, find some light. And then slowly, without warning, the waves begin to lose some power. They come less often. They grow smaller each time they come. The grief waves are less heavy, less intense. You can breathe through them. You can still see light.

Huge waves come still. Once in a while, whether triggered by a memory or the date on the calendar or the change of seasons, a huge wave clobbers you and drags you down just like those first wild and vicious waves, but the time between every wave, big or small, begins to lengthen. But the waves never truly stop.

And, if given the choice, I wouldn’t want them to.

That might sound like an odd thing to say—especially as I’m writing while currently submerged in a grief wave that was triggered for a reason I can’t quite pin down. But grief is the last connection to your loss, the last connection to that life that was ripped away from you without your permission. Grief is a reminder that you loved deeply, that you still love, and that you are living and loving despite losing.

I write often and publicly about my grief. At the same time, I frequently struggle with whether or not to write publicly about my grief. My husband passed away nearly four years ago, and some part of me thinks I should be over my grief, that people will judge me for the grief waves that still come so many years after my loss. Other times, I think I need to write about my grief, and I need to share it, because otherwise people will think I’m over my grief—and like I said before: my grief is my connection to my loss and I don’t want to be finished with it. I don’t want others to think I’ve finished with it, either. The reality is: maybe it’s time to stop caring what other people think about grief.

Grief is so largely misunderstood in our culture, and unless you’ve lived it, it’s hard to understand how grief and joy, and looking toward the future while holding onto the past, can coexist. But they can. And they should. And no one should shame anyone for how they are or aren’t feeling grief. Some losses you can’t just “get over.”

I started this essay planning to write to the theme that grief can be a lifelong battle. The truth is, it’s not a battle. More than that, I can’t even say for sure that grief is lifelong. I’ve lived with it for four years—and in the grand scheme of things, four years is hardly any time at all. And yet, I feel confident enough to say that the waves will always come, even if only as ripples with long breaks of calm water in between. The waves will come for a lifetime.

But I can’t be sure.

I can only be sure that if given the choice, I wouldn’t take anything less than forever.