they say that grief comes in waves. and for me, that has been true. but no two waves are the same. sometimes waves are rhythmic and predictable as they come and go. that kind of grief is the easiest to deal with – you know it’s coming and you know it will go. sometimes waves become so tiny you can barely see them. they make silent and subtle ripples along the surface of the water. that kind of grief gets deep inside of you, and although it’s imperceptible, it’s there. leaving its marks on the surface of your life. and sometimes waves become huge and terrifying, unpredictable and violent. that kind of grief picks you up high and slams you down hard, pounding you with the intensity of a tsunami.
grief for me has come in many waves.
i’m writing this post on the porch of my family cottage, listening to the waves on the shore of lake michigan. this is a place of significance to four generations on my mother’s side, built by my great grandparents in the 1930s. a place where i spent most of every summer as a kid and teenager, making an escape from the intensity and heat of washington d.c. and a place that came to embody my grief after my father’s suicide.
i have idyllic memories of the cottage as a child. my mom, sister and i would go to michigan as soon as school got out for the summer. we would spend weeks here with my aunt and cousins, playing all day on the beach and roasting marshmallows around campfires at night. we hunted for raspberries in the woods and went out to a soda fountain for hot fudge sundaes with my grandpa. the best times of all were when my dad would fly in and spend two whole weeks with us. my whole family was together and i felt safe. happy. at peace.
that all changed after my dad’s death when i was 13 years old. his suicide rocked my whole family. the wave of grief came screaming towards us and left us all – uncles, aunts, cousins, mothers, fathers, daughters, sons, brothers, sisters – absolutely stunned and absolutely shattered. he died in may and in june we still packed up the car and drove up to the lake. but this time it was only my sister, my mom and me. as soon as we walked in the door my mom sank into a chair, sobbing. my little sister, just nine years old at the time, sat on her lap and held her as she cried. i stood next to them and looked around the cottage, the walls echoing with the sound of my mother’s cries.
as summer after summer went by i began to dread going to lake michigan. our home life was so destabilized by my father’s suicide and driving to a cottage in the middle of the woods seemed to underscore just how alone i felt. while i didn’t recognize it at the time i began having panic attacks as we got closer to the date of our departure, crying and begging my mom to let me stay home. the answer was always no. going to the lake took me away from my friends, away from my support network for several months at a time, and it terrified me. unbeknownst to my mom i had almost daily check in phone calls with my therapist because my anxiety was off the charts.
for my mom, the cottage was a safe place that reminded her of her parents and grandparents, an oasis from the torrent of grief for my dad – and i understand that. but for me it felt like one of those spooky fun houses at a carnival – everything looked the same but nothing felt the same. the cottage that once had been full of family and laughter felt so empty to me now. it was just the three of us and the absence of so many beloved relatives left a pit of sadness in my stomach that wouldn’t go away.
i remember one summer in particular, towards the end of high school. feeling overwhelmed with panic and sadness i walked down to the beach alone. it was an overcast day and the wind whipped around my body. i looked up and down the shore and not a person was in sight. lake michigan looks more like an ocean than a lake, and i stared out at the steely gray colored water, tears streaming from my eyes. i felt so small and so terribly alone. i wanted to scream but i didn’t. instead i sank down and curled into a ball, pressing my face into the sand as i cried.
as i reached my mid-twenties i stopped going. i didn’t make a conscious choice to stay away, but year after year began to pile up that i didn’t go back. i had too many painful memories of those first ten years after my dad’s death wrapped up in that landscape. too much loss. too much pain. too many times i didn’t want to go but had to. too many times i wanted to run away but couldn’t.
whether i meant to or not i gave myself seven years of space. and this year i came back. surviving a major episode of depression and anxiety shifted something deep inside of me. i have finally begun to process my father’s suicide. i have finally allowed myself to accept that i live with mental illness. i can come back to the lake again because i’m ready and able to face the pain. i can feel it and know i won’t shatter. and i can come back to the lake again because my heart is open to its beauty, to its story, to its love. the waves of grief are washing over me again. this time they are carrying away some of the pain and creating space for healing. i deserve to love this place again.
i’m not a very religious person but i have always loved the hymn “i’ve got peace like a river.”
i’ve got peace like a river
peace like a river
peace like a river in my soul
as i listen to the sound of the waves lapping at the shore, i am reminded that the lake has been there for hundreds of thousands of years. through every stormy and every sunny day. the waves have come and gone and will continue to come and go. before my dad was born and after my dad died. before i was born and as i sit here tonight. on my worst days and on my best days. ever changing and ever constant. and i feel a sense of calm and comfort when i think about that.
i want to be like lake michigan. with peace like the lake in my soul.