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Play It Through

Surfing on a sea of grief

Some types of pain and suffering are unique to each person I meet. Others are shared. Grief is something which affects everyone at some point (probably multiple points) in our lives. This year I had my own experience of grief.

I cycled through my own stages of grief and mourning (Kübler-Ross, 1969); the anger, the despair, the fear for what would now change. I thought about Storymaking in Bereavement where Alida talks about a four tasks of grief:

“(to mourn for:
• the past
o as it was,
o as it might have been,
• the imagined future which won’t be,
• the possible future we could have had if only the past had been different).”

Paraphrased from Gersie, A. (1991). Storymaking in Bereavement. London: Jessica Kingsley Publishers. Page 29.

I struggled with how to let go of not only ‘what was’ but of ‘what now could never be’.

A stormy sea and a lighthouse

Many people talk about waves of grief and this really resonated with me. Liking metaphors as I do, I began to expand on this imagery: Grief felt like being in the sea during a storm. The waves hit me from every direction and drag me under, turning me around until I am no longer sure which way is up. Sometimes it feels like just staying afloat long enough to gasp for air is all I had the energy to do. Sometimes part of me wasn’t even sure I wanted to survive if it meant living with the loss.

Being trained in human psychology meant that a part of me was able to analyse my own feelings as they emerged, but the knowing and understanding did little to ease the intensity of the feeling. Being a dramatherapist, having written a dissertation on loss and endings, I felt like I was in this stormy sea with a surf board which, I knew, should technically be able to ride these waves. Only problem? I have never surfed. Theoretical learning is important for therapists, I do not want to have to reinvent theories and approaches when I can stand on the shoulders of so many excellent therapists and mental health professionals who have gone before me. But the difference between theories and experience are large. I had experienced loss before, this new loss re-triggered many of those other losses. This particular loss was also a different kind of intensity; it could not be explained away by past experiences or words in a book.

But this surfing imagery stayed with me. I was rocked by wave, after wave or different emotions; including some very intense and unexpected ones. I know what these waves are, I know this surf board of knowledge can help me, I also know that right now I just have to weather the storm a bit until the sea is calm enough to get onto the surf board and begin to try to learn how to surf.

I committed myself to learning how to surf in this troubled sea of grief. Not living near the sea meant that the way I did this was not actually a water based learning.

I went to my own dramatherapy and found ways to comfort the parts of myself which were hurting. I created a ritual to help with letting go of a particular aspect of the grief which was painful.

I engaged with nature based healing, I removed my shoes and began walking around the park barefooted, wanting to feel grounded and connected to the earth instead of swept over. As I walked I noticed the intense beauty of nature; however dark and disorientated I felt, the flowers of spring all around me were calling me back to my senses.

I went to yoga, breathing deeply and moving my body with strength, stamina and balance even though at times I felt like I had none of those qualities available to me.

Still the image of surfing stayed with me. It felt like my own waves were becoming a little less stormy. Like I mostly knew which way was up. Like it was now at least calm enough to begin to think about how surfing might work.

I found myself watching surfing videos on YouTube during quiet times. Tips for beginners: how to pop-up, how to stand, how to catch a wave… So many opportunities for mistakes, to misjudge a wave, to lose balance , to wipe out. So many tips too – keep a wide stance and low to the ground, point where you want to go and keep your eyes forward, paddle harder than you think you need to.

In my own grief I was beginning to see the metaphorical waves coming and was trying to move with them. Between waves there were also moments of calm when I could float peacefully.

On my commutes around London I began to tube surf; remembering something my applied theatre tutor Steve Farrier had said over a decade ago about tube surfing helping us to connect to our bodies. Could I let go of the rails and trust my body to move with the train motion? Sometimes yes. Sometimes the unexpected jolts would cause me to stumble.

Sometimes jolts in life still caused me to stumble too. A show at the Edinburgh Fringe festival (not one I blogged about) confronted me unexpectedly with my grief and suddenly it was like I was back in the storm again feeling so angry and sad all at once.

These new waves were still painful, but they came less frequently and I learnt how to recover quicker. I could begin to talk about the grief without feeling so overwhelmed. I no longer felt like I wanted to drown in the sea of grief; there was too much life which I still wanted to live.

When I had the chance to go to Cornwall for some dramatherapy training in September I extended the weekend to a weeks holiday. I booked to visit The Minack theatre, one of my favourite places, and I booked two surf lessons at Sennen Surfing Centre.

Waiting for a wave on the surf board on the left.

I did OK. I did catch a few waves, mostly with a helpful push from the instructor, once or twice without. I did pop up and ride some waves too. I did fall off many times. My instructor said some waves are just tricky, too steep or too choppy. As I stood on one wave I watched myself being hurled towards another student and unable to stop the collision. Other waves I rode for a while until they left me behind because I did not have the speed to ride them all the way to the beach. I swallowed some sea water. I did keep taking my board back to where the waves were breaking. I did get back on my surf board and keep trying.

As I left the last surf lesson, I walked back to where I was staying via Lands End and triumphantly thought to myself “I have done it, I have learnt how to surf on the sea of grief”. I found myself looking out to sea with tears in my eyes. “No” said that inner voice, “you are still learning, but that is ok”.

Learning how to surf does not mean you learn how to control the waves. Even the best surfer will wipe out sometimes. That is OK. I have been learning how to live with grief. I have learnt how to be compassionate to myself. I have put several things in place to look after my own mental health at a time when I felt more vulnerable. Grief can be both OK and not OK at the same time. As intense as they have been, I know my feelings this year are normal human responses. More waves will come. Some I will be ready for and will ride. Some I will think I am ready for but will misjudge. Some may still catch me unaware. I have this surf board of knowledge, I have this body which is more resilient than I realised. I will continue to get back on the surf board and keep trying.

As for actual surf boards – I may need to book more seaside holidays in future; perhaps with another couple of lessons I could improve my paddling, learn how to turn and accelerate with the waves.

[Many thanks to Alan Harris photographer for generously sharing the two surfing photos with me and allowing me to publish them]

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