Life’s a beach, or so I’m told. Paradoxically, death may draw many apt analogies from this image.

This summer, my work was humming along to the tune of vibrant pulsing music, much like a beloved beach getaway. My client load, lightened by family vacations, left breezy spaces in my schedule for unpacking course development and writing projects that had been tucked away for a while and for unfolding new ideas I had been eager to examine in the full light of day.

The sun shone brightly down as I played with the projects like beach volleyballs in the ocean, keeping each in the air with my respective co-teachers and co-authors until they skidded across the water before me with large splashes of inspiration, ready to be passed, set, and attacked in turn with greater intention.

And then, I woke up one morning this week to an email informing me that a buddy of mine who has been battling brain cancer for more than a year is now in end-of-life care. In cruel and rapid succession, thirty minutes later, I learned by telephone that my mother-in-law died peacefully in her sleep the night before, after her own two-year fight against cancer. Despite the battles my loved ones had been fighting, the news of these events was both sudden and unexpected, like going for that ball in the water and falling off the sandbar that I didn’t even know I was on into the depths of the ocean, scrambling to find solid footing again.

Anticipatory grief was launched from the American side, where my buddy is from, and was amplified by the full force of the shipwreck of my mother-in-law’s passing on the Swiss side, where I now live. It has been two and a half years since my last family loss, my maternal grandfather, my last grandparent. I remember that it hurt to lose him – an enormous, ocean-sized bucket full – but I had forgotten how ravaging grief feels in the moment it is felt. Until now.

Grief is often described as coming in waves. I had forgotten how bone crushing and soul squelching the break of those tsunami-sized waves feels until I received news of these recent events. Gasping. Sobbing. Roaring. Crashing. Crushing. Overtaking. Undertowing.

The former lifeguard in me recognized the drowning person’s combat, wordless and writhing under the weight of the wave of grief, struggling to keep her head above water, breathing in fits and spurts. Time is different in that space and place, seemingly at a standstill in the struggle to get to the surface, to figure out which way is up again. Until grief, finally deciding to subside... leaves the body limp and devoid of form or feeling, like seaweed tossed upon the shore both as an afterthought and as a reminder of the power of the wave that has (temporarily) receded.

I am still on this sober beach, lying on the sand in the ebb of the tide in the interim between my mother-in-law’s death and burial, her demise and our ceremonial remembrance of her. I am experiencing the void of losing her and the unbearable anticipation of the loss that I know is still coming – the next hard wave that will hit when I want to pick up the phone after work to pass the commute home in her company – only to realize that I will never be able to do that again. I am also in anguish about what I cannot see coming – how I will react to the funeral rites I will experience for the first time as a family member in Switzerland. I have attended funerals here before, but not for someone within my family.

Despite my full integration into this Swiss society I’ve called home for over a decade, the subtle differences in rites and rituals here contrast from those of my home Appalachian culture and signal my otherness, and aloneness, to me. Certain differences in the timing of things and in how the ceremony is performed are culturally and painfully dreadful to me, like skidding against hard rocks at the bottom of a crashing wave without choice or conceivable resistance to the process.

Thus, documenting my feelings, resonances, and imaged analogies while I am still in the throes of fresh grief will serve to remind me, the healer that is hurting, that it is important to let people feel what they feel, to ask them to describe their resonances in whichever directions their sensations take them, to explore what grief and loss mean to them and how it is expressed in their culture(s), and to bear witness to their pain and struggle without trying to fix what is ultimately unfixable.

I will sit with my pain and accept it as the old acquaintance it is, letting it accompany me on this voyage to the beach and home again in the full consciousness that the length of this journey is unknown and impressible. I will also bear in mind that, at some point, I will not remember it as vividly as I feel it in this moment, and I will try to take some small comfort in that. I will eventually be able to feel the warmth of the sun again, despite its continued shining. And, when I sit as a counselor with grieving families, I will not soon forget – and will never minimize – the impact of the roaring waves of grief that cover them until their seas eventually calm again, even if just temporarily.

File under: A Day in the Life of a Therapist