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  • Writer's pictureClaire Sandys

Think or swim

My Why audio version of this blog available here.

Chris and I recently got back from 10 days in Tenerife. We didn't mention this on social media or the podcast because apparently robbers are real social media sharks and will immediately come and burgle your house and take your mediocre, not that valuable possessions, if they know you’re abroad. You’ll be pleased to hear we managed to avert that disaster.

Holidays aren't just a luxury for us, they've become a vital part of our ‘coping with childlessness’ strategy. And even as I say that, it sounds a little entitled because I know not everyone can afford to just up and leave the country to process, but it's one thing that, over the years, we've put a 'priority' sticker on. So you rarely find us ordering takeaways, we don't buy coffees or food out much, we have few hobbies and our spending is minimal and considered - so we can have holidays.

I'll be honest, when I say this I imagine a host of people sort of rolling their eyes at the way I explain why getting away is so important for us. And I think it's because over the years I've had so many negative comments and responses to the news we're going away - 'alright for some', 'wish we could do that', 'must be nice to have that freedom', 'that's not an option for us with a two year old' (even though I just want to point out that on holiday we're often surrounded by people with children of every age, I don’t say that of course, that would be rude!). And then there's the common response when you tell people you can't have children - 'at least you can have a lot of holidays' or ‘at least you can go away during term-time’.

The reason holidays became so important for us is that we realised it was the only time we were fully able to get perspective about where we were in life and what we wanted to get out of it. Our line in the sand, where we accepted it would be the two of us was made on holiday, our chats about work, finding new purpose, losing friends, strained family relationships, how we felt around children (or having children, not having children), the arrival of babies in the family, family Christmas’, being alone as we grow older, all these discussions were easier to have on holiday, far away from our day-to-day reality, and we knew if we didn't get away at least once a year to go through this process, we'd suffer for it, and ultimately so would those around us.

Now I just want to pop a bubble that might appear, before it balloons. I think, judging from the comments of others and being around childless people, there’s a misconception that just because you are childfree or childless (a debate for another time) there’s the assumption that you must love and indulge in the freedom, space and luxury of holidays. Because it’s just that easy. This is most certainly not the case and I’ll quote two very different people on why I want to say this, firstly, Katie Elliott from this week’s Let’s Chat… episode of The Silent Why:

I remember distinct moments in my life where absolutely everything looked on paper as if it was perfect, and I was hopeless on the inside. Katie Elliott

And secondly, the actor Jim Carrey:

I think everybody should get rich and famous and do everything they ever dreamed of so they can see that it's not the answer. Jim Carrey

I know both of these statements to be true. Well, not the ‘rich and famous do everything you dreamed of’ bit, but I do now understand where he’s coming from a bit more. I also know that although money doesn’t buy lasting joy, it can buy a lot of short term happiness which does make life a bit easier to process! So I’m not feeling too sorry for the rich folk.

I’ve sat in beautiful hotels, or on a stunning beach (not Jim Carrey type stunning, but stunning none-the-less), with nothing at that moment to do or think about, seemingly what most people dream of, and I can tell you, that if you don’t have peace, contentment, hope or joy on the inside, it doesn’t matter where you put your physical body, or what you buy to distract yourself, nothing changes how you feel inside. As I’ve said before, it’s a mistake to confuse quiet with peace. In fact if you have a hectic life with work, kids, family or pastimes, and when you stop to rest from it, or have a day doing something wonderful, you can honestly say it feels amazing - then you have more in life than most. Because for many of us, it doesn’t matter whether you rest, stop, go away, sunbathe, take a day to yourself, or go to a spa, if you’re grieving, if you’re lost, if you’re lonely, if you’re confused, if you’re hurt, if you’re disappointed - it goes with you, and in the silence, it can actually get louder.

This holiday was no different and a chunk of it was spent processing things and coming to the sad conclusion once again, that life isn’t as we planned, and dare we say it, we’re disappointed. Not an easy thing to say when you build your own life to a degree. And since we got back I’ve found myself mentally returning to one place in particular on holiday where I felt I had blissful moments of complete joy, where everything came together to make me feel somewhere else, someone else and just a bit free. It was the local beach to the hotel we stayed in, just south of Los Gigantes and Puerto Santiago on the west coast of Tenerife.

I love a beach when we go abroad, there’s something about the sun on my back, the sand under my feet, and walking along the edge, to just help me leave all my baggage behind for a few moments. However, this beach was different. For a start it had black sand, which meant everyone on it just looked dirty, like they were covered in soil, and my brain struggled to see black where it expected yellow. The next thing was the sea - I think it might be my favourite sea ever, for one very unusual reason. It made me laugh. Every day. For 10 days.

Now the North Atlantic Ocean isn’t especially known for its humour, to my knowledge. But in this little beach area, he was having some fun, and I loved it.

The colour of the waves as they broke was that icy, vivid blue, turquoise colour that you’ll find in spades if you google ‘cool icebergs’. Sandwiched in-between the dark blue of the deep water, and the pure white spray as the waves broke, was this pale, electric blue, that I just couldn’t capture on my phone in the way I wanted to, but was just so stunning.

But most of all, the sea was basically insane, and this is what made me laugh.

On day one we arrived, as the unsuspecting newbies that we then looked out for everyday afterwards. We took our flip flops off and headed to the edge of the water, enjoying it lap over our feet. It was exactly the feeling I’d been imagining since we booked the holiday a few months ago. Then, without warning, a huge wave came in and hit my legs at a force I was not expecting, soaking my front and shooting up the beach towards those relaxing on towels at, what they thought, was a safe distance. This was humorous if you were far enough away from the chaotic waves, however, if you were in the sea on the edge of the waves breaking, you ended up under the wave and the pull of the tide as it retreated sucked many more unsuspecting people back into the sea further than they wanted.

Now, I’ll preface this with saying, it can be a dangerous beach and we saw a lady get rescued when it turned cos she couldn’t get back in. There was a lifeguard there for a large chunk of the day and he didn’t relax much. But, all that danger aside if you’re not heeding the warnings, once you worked this sea out, it was so much fun to watch people try and best it, in various ways, that the entertainment was something I’d have paid for.

One cocky lad decided to jump at the wave as it broke and threw his chest forward into it, expecting to break through the wave and feel it around him as it passed. The reality was that he hit a wall of water far greater than his chest and it pushed him back five feet and threw him under the foam of the crashing water. As the sea retreated, a sign to us more familiar with it’s movements that it was coming back with force, we grinned as we saw new people, fully clothed, follow it to just get their feet wet. Moments later they were either running back up the beach as the huge wave headed towards them or if you were really lucky they’d have turned their back to it as it returned, meaning they got clobbered up the back of the legs with water far deeper than they expected. We saw people get thrown down onto the sand, people on their hands and knees getting sucked back in, clawing to try and get back up again before the next wave broke over them. People walking toddlers in the shallows, quickly lifting them up as a wave shot in suddenly which would have engulfed the child. People on towels at a safe distance suddenly wet as the sea sprinted up the beach for a one-off wave. Big waves crashing littered with the heads and arms of people who hadn’t positioned themselves correctly in the sea. It was a mixture of scary, fascinating, hilarious, stunning and mesmerising.

This sea was in charge and it was going to play with people and put them in their place whenever it wanted to, and no one could argue with it. It was like watching a person, and one who knew his strength and power, and ability to enthral, entertain, bless, and humble.

I’m not sure if you’ve watched videos of 100 foot waves or seen giant waves in person, but there’s something incredibly mighty, powerful and terrifying about the sure strength and volume of such a thing. You can’t help but feel small, weak and in the presence of something that would take your life without a thought. And for people who believe in a God, it gives you a taste of just how big that being must be, if this is merely something He created, the equivalent of the pot to the potter.

But one of the things that really interested me was the lifeguards ability to know when the sea was going to turn, way before anyone else did. One day we were there, the sea was seemingly behaving itself and trundling in and out quite pleasantly. When suddenly the lifeguard started blowing his whistle fiercely, indicating everyone should get out of the water immediately. We were looking around and watching the scene, but even as far out as we could see, nothing looked sinister. Within a minute the sea had turned and the waves, which must have been about ten feet high if you were stood on the seabed, started crashing down and rushing up the beach. Everyone was out by this stage and stood to watch the scene unfolding before them, taking photos and video of these gorgeous waves and they crashed along the rocks on both sides into the bay. Then not long after, it calmed, and people were swimming again. And I was left thinking - ‘how did he know?’

Grief is often linked to the sea, as is faith, and it seems to be a metaphor for a lot of things in life. Being in too deep, staying in the shallows, being out of your depth, treading water, dipping a toe in, waves of emotions.

Like the famous quote I’ve mentioned before:

Grief is like the ocean; it comes on waves ebbing and flowing. Sometimes the water is calm, and sometimes it is overwhelming. All we can do is learn to swim. Vicki Harrison

There are many analogies I could pull out around loss and the sea, and as I watched those waves a lot of them washed around my mind. Grief is a force out of our control (for the most part), you have to learn how to go with it, it has the ability to lap at your toes or knock you off your feet, calm your head or flow over the top of it threatening to drown you. It can be beautiful, it can be hard to watch and scary. When the sun shines on it there are moments when it reflects colours in us nothing else can, when the sky is grey it is dark and threatening. But rather than major on all that for this blog, I thought I’d just create some time for you to think about the sea and where you are right now on your journey with loss.

If you were to picture a beach, or body of water, where are you in relation to that, in life now? Are you on the edge terrified to even get in? Are you dipping your feet in but taking it slowly? Are you wading in gradually sensing the temperature change as the water reaches up your body? Are you stuck at a certain point? Have you charged in, diving straight through the crashing waves like the lifeguard we watched? Are you swimming confidently? Are you trying swimming but tired? Do you need to build up your strength? Are you confidently swimming to the horizon? Are you treading water? Are you lost? Are you jumping straight off the rocks? Are you out of your depth? Are you drowning? Are you pulling someone else from the water? Are you helping others stay afloat? Are you encouraging those that are scared? Is what you’re clinging to, to keep you afloat, healthy? Where are you? What do you need?

It’s good to think about these things, and process where we are and what we need, but ultimately, to fully enjoy life, we have to get in the water (metaphorically). Like Vicki Harrison said, we have to learn to swim. And some of us do that willingly, building strength before we need to, some of us have had no choice and are doing it to survive.

I really believe we can prepare for some aspects of grief and loss. You can’t avoid it, everyone faces it at some point and when you do, you can sink or swim, or maybe you can think before it happens, to enable you to swim better when it arrives. If you have someone spotting you from the beach when that 100 foot wave of grief arrives, if you have built your strength to swim, if you have confidence no matter how deep or rough the water there are people there to help you if you let them know you need it, then you stand a better chance of surviving those huge waves of loss eventually.

And that’s what all our podcast episodes are built around, helping others to prepare for loss by either listening to those that have been through it, or building the tools to cope with it and help others through it (that’s what the Let’s Chat… episodes and tools are there for too).

I’ll finish with the perfect exchange that Karen Blixen wrote under the pen name, Isak Dinesen, in the Seven Gothic Tales:

‘Why, yes,’ he said, ‘I know of a cure for everything: salt water.’ ‘Salt water?’ I asked him. ‘Yes,’ he said, ‘in one way or the other. Sweat, or tears, or the salt sea.' Karen Blixen/Isak Dinesen, Seven Gothic Tales

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