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.
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
cliché suggests. Others choose to face grief head on. But completely hiding from grief tends to be a difficult option. Stephen
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
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.