What a Kayak Taught Me About Grief

By June 11, 2021Article

No matter the kind, grief is often an experience we wish we could press “fast forward” on.  It reminds me of an experience I had a few years ago at a family cottage on Manitoulin Island. 

This place holds many special childhood memories for me. I close my eyes, and I can immediately see the rocks skipping off the dock, taste the perfectly charred marshmallows and feel the minnows nibbling at my ankles by the dock.  I’ve especially enjoyed reliving some of these simple pleasures over the years as I see the wonder and joy they bring to my own children.

A few summers ago, the kids had been begging to go kayaking. I agreed and it was decided that it was my 5 year old daughter’s turn first.  Since she was too little to paddle her own kayak, I put her in a second kayak and tied ours together so I could “pull” her.

We were about 1/2 mile down the lake from the dock when I tried to turn and somehow in a flash, I was under water and the kayak upside down.

Thankfully we were still close to the shore where it was fairly shallow, but the rocky bottom of the lake made it difficult to gain good footing. It didn’t matter though.  I was so determined to flip that kayak, dump enough water so that I could get back in and paddle us back to the dock.

Otherwise it would take WAY too long, and I am NOT one to waste time. 

I started by using my hand to try to scoop out the water.  But I could only get less than a cup of water out of the boat at a time.  No, that wasn’t going to work.

Several times I tried hoisting myself up on top of the boat but only managed to flip it over again every time.  I tried hopping on from behind.  Ouch!  That one hurt.  I tried scooching my way to the seat from the front of the kayak.  That didn’t last long.  Maybe if I could get closer to the shore?  But no, that didn’t work either.  It didn’t get shallow enough for me to step in, and it was overall too rocky.

Twenty or so minutes of this went by.  I was cold and beginning to tire.  I thought “Okay.  If I can’t paddle back, I’ll swim back.” Of course I’d only have one arm as the other hand would be holding the kayak handle, but at least I’d swim faster than I could walk.

Yet again, my plan was unsuccessful.  Swimming allowed me to go a BIT faster, but the kayak kept slamming up against my hips and legs.  It wasn’t long before my ears also began to ache from the cold water.

Back to walking.  The long way.  I couldn’t press “fast forward”.  I couldn’t speed up the process.  There was no way I could get around the work of simply putting one foot in front of the other to make the long journey home.  And since my daughter was uncharacteristically quiet, I had time to think…

And I began reflecting on how my experience mirrored the hard work of grief. 

Loss comes in many forms: 

The loss of a loved one through death.

Loss of a job.

Loss of a relationship or identity.

Community or faith loss.

And of course the multiple losses we have all gone through over the last year and a half with the Covid19 pandemic.

But no matter what type of loss we go through, too often when we’re hurting, we look for the easiest way out.  Why wouldn’t we?  We are used to going through the driveway to get the fast food or taking the pill to get the fast cure.

So why wouldn’t we try to push fast-forward when we’re experiencing the unpredictable, messy wretchedness of grief?

We try to push the “easy button” in lots of ways. Sometimes we choose to numb the grief with food, alcohol, entertainment, social media etc.  Maybe we even throw the pain on someone close to us in a weak attempt to try to lighten our own load.

But the reality is, in some way or other, we are all half a mile or more away from whatever “dock” we’re searching for.  And though these ‘avoiders’ can have their purpose for a short time, they usually only serve to slow us down from the work we have ahead of us to move towards healing.   

So in closing, I want to invite you to consider a couple of questions:

In what ways might you be avoiding the journey your grief is asking you to walk?

Are there difficult emotions that keep trying to rise to the surface that you’ve been stuffing?

What might those feelings actually say if you gave them a seat at the table?

Does the dock seem too far away? Or completely invisible? If so, taking one step at a time can seem as futile as a drop in the ocean.

But unfortunately, it’s been my experience (and many who I’ve served over the years) that there are no shortcuts.  So rather than wasting time trying to push the non-existent fast-forward button, why not instead grab your paddle and take another step?

Perhaps that step is giving yourself the gift of an afternoon date with your journal (which can often serve as a great “emotional mirror”). Maybe you decide to text your friend and ask for the name of that therapist or resource she’s been raving about.  It could be as simple as the first step of admitting to yourself that you really are grieving.

You may not reach your dock tomorrow, but one day, you’ll look behind you with gratitude for how far you’ve come.

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