Freedom to Grieve

Protecting grief from "closure," consumerism, politics, and other cultural distortions

Learning to Float in Grief

We need to learn how to be comfortable in grief without drowning.

When my children were little, they did not want to put their faces under water. During swimming lessons, I watched as their wonderful coach gently worked with them to get more comfortable. First they blew bubbles and then gradually put their heads further in the water. It took a long time, over several lessons, before they were able to bob up and down freely. Their coach was an experienced swimmer, who competed in college and had been teaching swim lessons for years. He said that 90 percent of learning to swim is figuring out how to be comfortable with your head under water.

I don’t know enough about swimming to comment on the 90 percent, but I can say that once my children were finally willing to put their heads under, they soon loved the water.

Not everyone takes so long to get comfortable with water. I witness many little kids jumping in the pool with no care in the world (as their parents scramble to get them because they are in over their heads). But the principle holds: most people enjoy swimming more when they are comfortable with their head under water. Until you can get your head down, it is hard to swim or float. If your head comes out, your body goes down and you start to sink. When immersed and relaxed, you begin to realize that you will float, and over time you start to appreciate freedom in the water.

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It is similar in learning how to find joy in the midst of grief. Wade into the pain (like getting use to the cold) until you feel some warmth. Face the pain long enough to be able to look around and see that joy and life remain. You can learn to float while immersed in grief.

How do we get comfortable with grief? There is no one right way. Often, time helps, but it does not guarantee complete healing as the cliche suggests. Others choose to face grief head on. But completely hiding from grief tends to be a difficult option. Stephen Colbert agrees.

Famous for his character on The Colbert Report, what many people do not realize about this funny man is how intimately Stephen Colbert knows grief. When he was 10 years old, his father and two brothers were killed in an airplane crash. More recently his mother died. In interviews, Colbert shared his thoughts on grieving: “The interesting thing about grief, I think, is that it is its own size. It is not the size of you. It is its own size. And grief comes to you. You know what I mean? I’ve always liked that phrase, ‘He was visited by grief,’ because that’s really what it is. Grief is its own thing. It’s not like it’s in me and I’m going to deal with it. It’s a thing, and you have to be okay with its presence. If you try to ignore it, it will be like a wolf at your door.”

Colbert said he learned from his mother lessons about embracing pain: "What she taught me is that the deliverance God offers you from pain is not no pain — it’s that the pain is actually a gift. What’s the option? God doesn’t really give you another choice.”

Susan also knows grief. Her parents, husband, and a son have all died. She maintains that you can have grief and joy at the same time, but you can’t run from the grief. “The secret is you don’t hide from yourself emotionally. I think that if you hide, you’re more dead than you are alive. And you can never ever experience the same level of joy and happiness that you will experience if you don’t fully understand and recognize that when grief comes, you invite it to have coffee.” Laughing, Susan adds, “You might not ask it to stay for lunch, but you invite it to have coffee.”

You need to learn how to keep your head under water to enjoy swimming; but you also need to learn when to come up to breathe, so that you don’t drown. You have to watch out for undertow, waves, rocks, and other people crashing into you. You have to know your limits so you don’t go too deep or too far, tread too long, or get too tired. It is helpful to be with others when swimming so that someone can help if needed.

The same is true for grief. We need to learn how to be comfortable in grief without drowning. Watch out for the undertow. Be careful about other people pulling you under. Learn your limits and know when to come up for air. Moments of laughter and joy help us catch our breath.

Immersing ourselves in grief long enough to discover that we can float gives us more freedom to feel the joy and love that remain. And in both grief and water, it is best not to be alone.

Nancy Berns, Ph.D., is an Associate Professor of Sociology at Drake University and the author of Closure: The Rush to End Grief and What It Costs Us.

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