Grief can be overwhelming, whatever its cause. Clarissa Moll shares her hard-learned navigation principles.
Oceans of Emotions: Keeping Your Head above Water When Grief Swells
By Clarissa Moll
My New England home sits just eight miles from the Atlantic Ocean and, admittedly biased, I think it’s one of the prettiest places to live. Our family loves sand between our toes and the brisk wind off the water when the sun beats down.
Living this close, though, we’re also well aware of the ocean’s power. Waves batter sea walls in winter storms, and residents must move to higher ground. The surf my children ride can surge to sweep swimmers away. The ocean is both scary and startlingly beautiful. When I think about my life with grief, it isn’t all that different.
Three years ago, my husband died unexpectedly. Left to parent four children on my own, I often felt like I was drowning. Like a swimmer caught in a riptide, I looked frantically toward a peaceful shore I couldn’t reach—the life I’d lived and loved before. I wasn’t sure I’d survive, let alone thrive again.
Over time, I’ve found that, like the ocean, grief’s waves can also bring beauty and unexpected joy—a capacity that can feel both awe inspiring and terrifying. As I’ve learned to swim in the sea of sorrow, these three principles have helped me keep my head above water and anchor myself in God’s goodness when grief swells.
When to Float
God graciously designed our bodies to experience a wide range of emotions—to love, to feel anger, and even to grieve. However, when you are drowning in sorrow, it’s hard to fathom that this capacity could truly be a gift. In these moments, I’ve learned that it’s time to float.
We know that God sees every tear, so we can make time and space for our sadness and feel its depth. We can acknowledge our pain by simply letting grief be. We can lean back and ride the waves. God’s promises will buoy us as we fill our lungs with his sustaining word—I will not forsake you (see Isaiah 41:10), I will not let you drown (see Isaiah 43:2). What a relief that we don’t need to fight to keep our heads above water! In grief’s exhaustion, we can trust that God will faithfully support us.
When to Paddle
There’s a reason inflatable tubes aren’t a great idea at the beach. Safe in a pool, an inflatable can carry you far from the shore if you’re floating in the ocean. The same is true for our experience with grief. In grief, there is a time to float and a time to swim. To survive, you need to learn the difference.
When life gets hard, we all need to create space in our lives to rest. Over time, though, floating can leave us feeling unmoored. We’re not sure where we’re going, and we begin to lose our sense of direction. The ocean of our emotions can carry us farther and farther away from where we hope to be. Before the waves drag us into deeper waters, it’s time to hop off and start to swim.
Whatever stroke you choose, paddling through grief means leaning in, pushing forward, and engaging your loss instead of running away. Whether you return to work, make home-cooked meals again, or commit to shower daily, you can pray with the psalmist, Lord, establish the work of my hands (see Psalm 90:17). With practice, you’ll discover that your muscles become stronger, more accustomed to the force of the waves around you. This resilience is God’s gift!
When to Sound the SOS
An old Breton fisherman’s prayer begins, “O God, thy sea is so great and my boat is so small.” Sometimes our sorrows feel like that, don’t they? As much as we float or paddle, there are days when the emotions in the ocean of grief can be daunting. When those moments arise, I’ve learned that it’s time to sound the SOS. This international maritime disaster signal shouts desperately, “I can’t do it on my own!” When grief feels isolating, this can be hard to admit! God created us for interdependence, and we experience his hope and peace when we embrace the care others offer. The emotional tempest of grief is always best survived in the company of others.
Like tugboats that pull big barges into harbor, loved ones can assist us with reorienting and anchoring in life’s most storm-tossed moments. They carry us through sorrow to quiet spaces where we can repair and rebuild. When the waves of sadness threaten, companions bring us rescue and hope. We are not alone.
If you’ve lost a loved one, grief eventually becomes part of the landscape of your life. One day, though, as Revelation 21:1 tells us, there will be no more sea. As you swim through your own sadness, let this truth bring you hope. The harbor we find now in God’s presence is just a foretaste of the ultimate rest we will enjoy when God stills this world’s sorrowful waters forever.
Clarissa Moll is an award-winning writer and podcaster who helps bereaved people find flourishing after loss. Her recently-released book is Beyond the Darkness: A Gentle Guide for Living with Grief and Thriving after Loss. Clarissa's writing appears in Christianity Today, The Gospel Coalition, RELEVANT, Modern Loss, Grief Digest, and more. She cohosts Christianity Today's Surprised by Grief podcast and hosts The Writerly Life, the weekly Hope*Writers podcast. She holds a master's degree from Trinity Evangelical Divinity School and is a frequent guest on podcasts and radio shows. Clarissa lives a joyful life with her four children and rescue pup, calling both New England and the Pacific Northwest home. Find her on Instagram at @mollclarissa or at clarissamoll.com.