Finding words

Fran Hall

I think I understand now why the sea is so often used as a metaphor when talking or writing about emotions.

When I’m trying to understand how I’m feeling, the descriptive words in my mind are almost always found in analogies to do with the oceans – the waves, the storms, the undercurrents, the sense of going under, of staying afloat, of drifting, of floating, of swimming against the tide, of sinking, of drowning, of being unmoored, of being ‘all at sea’. All of these words richly describe those invisible emotional states in such a simple, comprehensible way, painting pictures of feelings.

Just thinking about the sea, the endless oceans, the emptiness, the richness, the depths, the mythology – it fits exactly with the moods and emotions and feelings that are part of living with grief, allowing me to describe my state of mind to myself, in a way that makes sense.

The sea represents the enormity of everything – the huge, unknowable expanse of waters that stretch away to the horizon, the power and the mystery of the sea – all this correlates exactly for me with the vastness of the unexplored feelings that surround and subsume me.

I can explain myself to myself by thinking of my life in the context of water, water representing the depths of emotions that I have experienced, am experiencing.

Perhaps if I write it then it will make more sense. It might be helpful, both reading it back myself, and also for others to have a glimpse into how it is being me, being grieving, right now.

You will have to come with me in my imagination as I explain it.

This is what it’s like. Here is my sea analogy of my life.

Imagine a beach. A beautiful, sunny, sandy beach. It’s as if, for years, for my life, along with everyone else around me, I have been wandering along this beach, through the shallow waters, wandering the edges of the beach where the wavelets splash and sparkle in the sun, the waters rhythmically coming and going, trickling pleasantly over my feet. Around me, everyone else is doing the same. Wandering in the shallows. Laughing and playing, smiling as we pass each other. Living life in the sun.

Occasionally a bigger wave might come, surprising me and unbalancing me a little, perhaps un-footing me as the sand beneath my feet suddenly felt less stable, but then a few more steps and the gentle lapping of the water resumed. On I went. This was how life was.

When I fell in love with Steve, he joined me on my metaphorical beach. We wandered along together, hand in hand, feeling the waves of life gently sloshing over our feet, steadying each other if there was a rogue push or pull or splash from the water, from troubles or problems. We did this for years, easy together, happy together, strong and steady together, loving each other, laughing, enjoying being alive. Wandering in the shallows.

And then one day, things changed. He was diagnosed with cancer. We were suddenly wading through deeper water together, much deeper. We’d somehow left the shallows, those sparkling splashy carefree wavelets, without noticing. We were suddenly waist deep. This was suddenly different. Still holding hands, still walking together, still supporting each other, still catching each other when we stumbled – but there was a new sense of separateness from others, from the rest of the world still splashing happily, back in the safety of being on the beach. We were apart from everyone now. Everything had changed.

Suddenly we were a little further away from land than everyone else, sensing colder undercurrents brushing past us, beneath the surface. We were still at the beach with everyone else, but we were not quite with them now. The waters around us had a different feeling, more urgent, swirling more strongly, pulling a little. I held tighter to his hand as we got used to being further out to sea as we walked on. Steady, together, but no longer so carefree.

You do get used to it, being deeper in the sea. The darker emotions of fear. You get used to the chill, your stride lengthens a little to compensate, your feet find solid footing under the water. You keep going, walking through your life. Wading through the water. You allow yourself to notice where you are and note that you’re not still paddling in the sparkling froth on the sand, you’re in a quieter place, a lesser-known place, a little unnerving in its strangeness. And if you lift your eyes and look around you, you remember the immensity of the ocean stretching beyond. How deep it is. How unknown it is. You don’t want to think about that, it’s too huge, too incomprehensible. So you carry on being in your new depths.

But then suddenly everything starts to change. Waves arise in the distance and bear down on you, the currents around your legs strengthen and grasp you and drag you, and you feel a sense of panic beginning to grow as you suddenly realise that you’re in danger, you’re both in danger. And you hold on for dear life to the hand of the person you’re with, the warmth and tightness of your grip giving each other strength and hope, even as the waters pull you further away from everyone else oblivious on the shore. Further and further out you go together, helpless as you’re pulled, clutching each other tight, heading to the unknown, to certain death, as they say.

And then it happens. Quicker than you can comprehend. An enormous wave thunders relentlessly towards you and crashes over you and tears your hands apart and tosses you under the surface and steals him away instantly, dragging him into the depths, never to be seen again.

That’s what it feels like, looking back now to when Steve caught Covid and suddenly became so ill and then died. It was as if a tsunami came roaring in to my life and swallowed everything that I knew, ripping everything apart, tossing and turning and hurling me upside down and around and around and churning me out into a different landscape.

The sheer feeling of horror, of fear, of desperate searching and casting around and surfacing empty handed and alone and bereft is palpable and real. This is what haunts my dreams and wakes me with my heart racing. This memory is visceral, the dreams are allegorical and vivid and full of deep, deep loss and helplessness and despair.

And now it feels as if I am standing alone, in the sea, deep, up to my neck. Buffeted below the surface by powerful forces that pull and push and drag. Great waves of grief come and go. Sometimes the waters recede a little and I feel freed and lighter, and then they rise again, and I am back, trying to keep upright and stop myself from drowning. Occasionally I get pulled under, down, down, down into smothering depths of emotions that threaten to overwhelm me. Mostly I am just balancing, on tiptoe, trying to withstand.

Back on the shore, far in the distance, the sounds of laughter are carried on the breeze. The people there don’t know that one day they too will be where I am. Pulled out to sea, gone as far as I could go with Steve, before he was gone forever. I don’t know how to get back. I don’t know if I want to go back. I don’t think I can go back. I have to stay here, feeling the force of the sea of emotions. As far as I could go with him – this is where my new place is.

I have to learn to get used to it, to being smacked around the head by loss, to having mouthfuls of salty sorrow forced on me, to being pulled under the water by despair, to coming up spluttering and gasping for breath every time I go under, to defiantly keep living in these new deep waters of emotions I never wanted to discover. I’m furious and terrified and dreading the time ahead of me swirling with the currents that surround me.

If I look around me, there are others. Alone. Deep out to sea, standing in their grief, their depths, their quiet. Pummelled and pounded invisibly under the surface. Standing brave and strong and resistant and silent. Getting used to where they are now. The lonely survivors.

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Julie Oakley
Julie Oakley
5 months ago

So beautifully written that my heart aches. I’ve said myself in recent days “we are keeping our heads above water”. But in truth we are wading in the shallows. Sending love always xxx