The Ocean of Grief

It's 5:13am on November 18, 2022. The body knows. It remembers, it wakes me up with a tightness in the chest. I search for my inhaler. It can only do so much.

Over these past four months since Viggo died, I've experienced my grief as an ocean. My own private ocean. Sometimes it feels like a private ocean on a lonely planet where I am the only inhabitant. 

Sometimes I can step into the river of grief, that great rushing river that connects my grief to the grief of all the bereaved throughout all of time. The river is overpowering, communal, ancestral, bottomless. I belong there, too. The river of grief gives me perspective because it brings me into contact with the grief and loss of others, it reminds me I am not alone, it pushes me along and does not let me stay stuck in one place.

The river is a transcendence. Not a transcendence of my grief but a transcendence into all grief.

But this post is about my ocean.

When Viggo died, I felt myself suddenly dropped into the middle of an ocean without a life vest. North, south, east, west---no land on the horizon. Here, there is no linear time or space. No footing. No form. Just endless endlessness.

At first I was sure I would drown. The wind and water would kick up at unpredictable moments, and I would go under. Down, down, tossed on currents, pummeled by relentless waves. People would ask me how I'm doing. They would think I was sitting there on the couch in front of them, drinking my tea. As I rolled underwater, I would say, "I'm riding the waves."

There are people who visit me in my ocean, who actually realize I'm there. They paddle up to me in their little canoes, or drift by on their rafts. But they cannot enter my waters, and I cannot climb into their boats. Herein lies the separation. This grief is mine, and as much as they sympathize, they cannot touch it. This grief is mine, and as much as they want to rescue me, I cannot be "saved." 

I am a stronger swimmer now. I can go grocery shopping while treading water, mostly effortlessly. I can see the beauty in the night sky overhead. I can do the things, most of the time, from my place in my personal ocean. I can dream about the nonprofit I will start in Viggo's honor. I can make connections with new, amazing people as the vision grows. I can feel so much gratitude I think my heart will burst.

Now, when the waves kick up, when I find myself deep beneath the surface, I mostly know I will not drown. I mostly just recognize the familiar feeling, the loneliness from the world and the communion with my love for Viggo, and I don't fight it. When big swells rise, I let myself be lifted up, and I dive under and through the tops of the curling waves. I've learned to float efficiently, conserve energy, go with the flow. Most of the time. There are still moments when I lose all perspective. When I just want my 10-month-old baby and not this ocean and these empty arms and a meditation space where his nursery used to be. When I hate the world and refuse to come out from under the covers. There will always be those moments.

Four months ago right now, Viggo was already leaving us. His airway had collapsed and nothing the doctors, nurses, and respiratory therapists did could open it back up. At least that is the theory, because no-one really knows why he died when he died. His death certificate says "Trisomy 5p Syndrome." A syndrome of which so little is known, so little is written, it's baffling that this could be a cause of death. 

I remember waking up in his PICU room from my sleeping place on the vinyl couch. Theron had been in the chair next to Viggo, but now he was up, hovering over his little bed, his tiny body. All the alarms were ringing. In the ICU, alarms ring and you silence them, you look at the baby, you adjust the lede on his chest or hand or foot. Still shaking off sleep, I said, "Is this for real?" But before Theron could answer, I knew that it was. As I stood up, I heard, I felt, I sensed, I knew, He's leaving now. It was happening, and it was happening fast.

Lots of other things happened, people and equipment and medicines and alarms. A disbelief that none of it was working. Both of us talking to Viggo, holding his feet because that was the only part of him we could access as others worked on him. It was so similar to his first code in April, but it felt different too. This time, he had been sick for nine days in the PICU already. He was weak and likely had the beginnings of pneumonia. He needed neurosurgery. He had his first seizure, which I didn't realize, while all this was going on. I just heard the doctor saying, "He's arching, he's arching!" and I couldn't understand why she was holding him in such a strange position.

When it became clear what was happening, my mother instinct did something I didn't know it could do. I wanted everyone to get away from my baby. I wanted to hold my baby. I wanted to take all the things off his face that weren't working anymore. 

My mom got there and saw what was going on. She asked if we could move to a better place for this. There was a Transition Room on the PICU, built with the generous donation of another family who had lost two children. It didn't look like a hospital room. I could feel the sacredness of the space--a space to honor the spiritual event that is death--without monitors, alarms, and medical staff. The king-size bed with a sage green sheet. The battery-powered candlelight. The window covered with a birch forest. The backlit ceiling panel with an image of the cosmos.

This is where Viggo died in our arms. While we sang to him. And told him it was ok. And how desperately we love him. When we took the scuba mask off his little face, he just sighed. It was like a sigh of relief. He died in moments. It was the easiest thing he ever did.

I don't know if I'll ever leave my ocean to walk on dry land again. I don't know if or where the land is. I don't think that is necessary, because I'm learning how to live here. And because, somehow, I'm with my son here. If I ever "leave," it will be because I have figured out how to carry the entire ocean inside me. Today, I will look at the sky from under the water. It's one of those days, and that's ok.

Floating flowers in the river at Viggo's funeral.


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