How The Ocean Teaches Me To Navigate Grief and My Disability

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I’m learning the importance of paying attention to the signs of grief, those approaching waves, so I’m more prepared to navigate them.

By Carolyn Hinds

Watch wuh yuh doing. De sea ain’t got nuh backdoor” is a phrase every Bajan child would hear as we stood on shore, preparing to race headlong into the waves and shades of blue of the ocean surrounding Barbados—our island home.

Before I went to see Lulu Wang’s The Farewell last June, it had been a while since I last thought of that old Bajan warning. For some reason, however, it was the first thing I thought of as the credits rolled and tears ran down my face. I was crying. Not only because the story and performances resonated with me, but also because two things happened to me in those moments: I heard the warning in my grandmother Matilda’s voice—who died from cancer over fifteen years ago, and I realized how much I related to the story of grief. As I stood in the theatre’s lobby discussing the film with two of my friends, I realized for months I had been grieving the fact that the tumor growing in my head could possibly be cancer. At that moment, it dawned on me that, on an emotional level, I had never fully accepted my diagnosis of Multiple Sclerosis (MS)—which I had received two years prior. Trust me, it was a very surreal time.

In the following days and weeks, I became consciously aware of my moments of grief in a way I had not been before. At first I was resistant to labeling what I was feeling as grief because I told myself I hadn’t lost anything. I was still “healthy”—relatively speaking anyway—and then one day during a particularly intense headache, I suddenly started sobbing. Not from pain, but at the thought that my life wasn’t what I thought it would be. I never imagined I would be living with a chronic illness that could potentially make me severely physically disabled. The possibility of having a tumor growing in my head on top of that left me with only one thought: “Can a girl catch a break? Damn!”

At that moment I finally acknowledged I had been cycling through what we all know to be the 7 stages of grief for years: 

  1. Shock and Denial.
  2. Pain and Guilt.
  3. Anger and Bargaining.
  4. Depression.
  5. The Upward Turn.
  6. Reconstruction and working through.
  7. Acceptance and hope.
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My favorite place to be is the beach. It doesn’t matter where I am in the world, once I step into the ocean, I feel at home. However, despite my love for it, I know not to let my guard down and be swept away by the currents. I learned that whether I’m swimming away from the shoreline out into the deep, or just floating on the surface gazing at the clouds, that I must pay attention lest I be swept away by the currents. So it’s fitting that I thought of myself as drifting in a sea of grief and didn’t even know it. I didn’t know that I had yet to accept that I was (am) living with a chronic illness and how it affected me physically, mentally, and emotionally. 

I know using the ocean as an analogy for grief is weird, but it makes sense. Did you know that waves travel in sets, and one of them is sets of seven? Each stage of grief is like those seven waves. Just when you think you’ve gotten past one, here comes another to test your ability to stay afloat and survive.

Throughout 2019 I watched many films, and unintentionally but maybe serendipitously, many of them were about people who had cancer, brain tumors, or were experiencing grief. Out of these, the ones that had the most impact on me, aside from The Farwell, were Coming Home Again by Wayne Wang and Makoto Nagaisha’s We Are Little Zombies. 

In Coming Home Again, Chang Rae (Justin Chon) is the sole caretaker for his ailing mother (Jackie Chung) who is dying from stomach cancer. As he makes preparations for the family’s New Year dinner, he reminisces on the stories she told him about her life while teaching him how to cook traditional South Korean dishes. For Chang Rae, grief is a constant in his life, but he doesn’t allow himself to express his rage, sadness or fear because it would be a waste of energy, and because his mother needs as much as he can give.

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In The Farewell, the family is keeping a cancer diagnosis from their matriarch, Nai Nai (Shuzen Zhao); not out of malice, but because of concern for her well-being. They want to shield her from the emotional turmoil that knowing she’s dying would cause her, and I understood and agreed to a certain extent. Nai Nai’s daughter-in-law, Lu Jian (Diana Lin), tells her daughter Billie (Awkwafina) that “when people get cancer, they die,” and the refusal to even mention the word “cancer” is their way of maintaining what little control they have. They believe that verbally acknowledging the cancer would bring on the person’s death, and this is something I’m all too familiar with.

Growing up in Barbados, I was taught by example that we—Black people—don’t really talk about grief as it relates to situations outside of death. We’re perfectly fine showing how we feel once our loved one has passed on, but we don’t express it for any other situation. We were taught that once we’re adults, we have to—and need to—be strong and keep going about our daily activities because “crying won’t solve anything.”

Barbadian culture is heavily influenced by Christianity, and Bible passages are used to dissuade people from discussing certain things. Far too often I heard “There’s life and death in the power of the tongue” (Proverbs 18:21). While this is helpful because it’s encouraging the reader to think positively when faced with difficult situations, it’s not positive or helpful to deny how we feel, especially when it comes to things like grief—depression as well, but that’s another story for another day. The fear of “speaking things into being,” as my mother would say, can be harmful because it dissuades the worried person from expressing that worry, thereby causing them to internalize their fears and feel isolated.

In The Farewell and We Are Little Zombies, a film about 4 teenagers who form a bond and rock band over their inability to express grief after they all suddenly lose their parents to variously tragic circumstances, there are moments where the characters are discussing the difficult situations in their lives, as others are saying or doing something that occasionally draws the audience’s attention. 

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In the background, funny—and at times, absurd—events are happening, showing how ridiculous life can be even as it seems to be falling apart. The characters know what’s happening, but they ignore it and carry on like everything is fine. Even when it really isn’t. Though these moments are humorous, they made me question what good it serves us to pretend that we’re okay? For the longest time I was afraid to tell my friends and family what I was feeling because I thought there was no point to it. I thought telling them about the abject terror, anxiety and anger I felt about my illnesses would only burden them, so I denied how worried I was. I pretended everything was okay. Even after I had the craniotomy to remove the tumor and replace part of my skull with a titanium mesh, I kept saying I was fine. As I waited for the biopsy results to come back, I smiled and laughed when on the inside I felt like I was standing on a beach where the waves were slowly washing away any stability I had.

Like the characters in these films mentioned, I kept being bombarded with all these emotions that ranged in intensity from gentle swells that I only noticed once they had passed to waves that would come with such force I felt as though my breath had been knocked out of me, leaving me in a state of anxiousness for not knowing when it would happen again.Though I’m still coming to terms with living with MS—and the worry of another tumor occurring—I’m learning to take and give myself time to accept the changes. Just as I learned to swim with my grandmother’s caution echoing in my mind, I’m learning the importance of paying attention to the signs of grief, those approaching waves, so I’m more prepared to navigate them. I hope that by sharing this, others might be more aware of their own grief brought on by whatever situation they may be facing, and to let them know that it’s okay to feel the way they do, and hopefully find ways to navigate it.

Carolyn Hinds is a Barbadian film/TV critic, journalist, writer, podcaster and avid tweeter: @CarrieCnh12. Carolyn writes about her love of film and how it shapes and helps us to connect with ourselves and the world. Having lived in Toronto since 2009, she has embraced her identity as a Black woman, Barbadian and immigrant living with Multiple Sclerosis, and in turn speaking up about issues related to these and how they are portrayed in media. Carolyn’s writing can be found on various outlets such as AtomTickets, ComicsBeat, SYFYWire, The Root and (the webhost for her podcast.).