On Riding the Waves of Grief

Waves (2019)
Waves (2019)
Screenshot: A24 (YouTube )

In the summer of 2011, I took my very first out-of-country trip to Cancun, Mexico with my family. I relished in the warm wetness of the Caribbean Sea, as the saltiness tickled the space between my toes.

2011 was also rather significant for me since it was the year of my “Big Chop.” After years of shuffling from perm to natural and back to perm again, this was the moment I gave up the creamy crack forever. It was a transition. It was a little death.

Wrapped in a mixture of overexposed and free feelings, I joined my big sister, niece and cousins in greeting the incoming waves at the beach, waiting to be swept away. Only half of us could swim (I was in the half that couldn’t), but we all took the thrilling risk of wave-jumping. The first few waves came toward us like a gentle breeze, gradually building as we leaped and laughed. Then, the big one approached and a rumbling mass of ocean scooped my body into its drenched fold.

In a split second, I felt like I was drowning.

Rarely does a movie leave me transfixed in my seat and completely speechless during the closing credits (I typically lean over to my movie partner and whisper initial thoughts about what we’ve just experienced). But, Waves did.

In a split second, I felt like I was drowning.

Critics of the film have said that it felt like two different movies. However, to me, it perfectly displayed the dichotomy of life after a tragic loss. Though it may not connect with all audiences, it connected with me. More accurately, it gripped me by the throat and exposed a wound I hadn’t given the space or time to tend to.


Waves swept me up in its current and left me exposed to the vast, panoramic movie theater’s audience. I felt like all of Sunset Blvd could see the shattered girl behind the enduring facade.

“I think there’s such a stigma behind it because we’re taught to be strong...because why wouldn’t you be strong?” the film’s co-star, Kelvin Harrison, Jr. mused to The Root in a phone interview back in December 2019. “There are so many occasions where we’re being conned, tricked, manipulated and disrespected. So, it is important for us to have an armor, but when does that armor [start to] work against us? When does it become our weakness? When does it stop allowing us to exist, really feel, really connect and really allow ourselves permission to fail?”


While Harrison was responding to my question about the rare beauty of seeing a fully-realized young black man’s vulnerability onscreen, this quote can also be applied to the pressures of a strong black woman.

That movie and that quote served as a denouement to what had been one of the most lachrymose years of my life.


April 2019.

I can still hear the piercing screams of my older sister after I told her our beloved auntie had died. She had been rushing to the hospital in the southwest suburbs of Chicago, where my auntie struggled for her last breath. I can still hear the wails of my big cousin (my aunt’s daughter) as her son (my younger and closest cousin who was visiting me in LA at the time) abruptly hung up the phone because he couldn’t take it anymore. I can still hear the pacing of his feet across my studio apartment, as he juggled the flight times and prices to get back home as soon as possible. I don’t even think the sun had risen at that point. Or maybe it had, and I just didn’t feel its light and warmth that morning.


A week or so later, I hopped on a plane to cover the 2019 Tribeca Film Festival. After all, I still had work to do. Plus, it served as my favorite temporary salve: distraction-based avoidance. Though I likely did my job—and did it well—I was a shell of my former self for the entire run. It was like I had become an apparition, watching myself schmooze with Manhattan industry players, coast along on the city’s subways and interview various celebrities.

Cut to a few months later: it was July 2019, a week or so before my birthday.

“What the fuck? What the fuck? What the fuck???” This is what I repeated over and over into a void when a mutual friend told me that one of my best friends had died. Before I collapsed into tears, that is. Before I gathered myself to tell a slew of other folks the news. My initial connection to Los Angeles, the one who soothed my anxieties about the huge transition I had made almost 5 years ago…was gone. And I was set to head to Barbados for Cropover in a few days. I almost canceled. Yet, this particular best friend, who was probably the biggest fan of my carnival shenanigans would’ve wanted me to go. So, I did. I had the time of my life. Still, amid the soca and bacchanal, part of me still felt like that apparition.


Today is day 50-11 of self-isolation. A few weeks ago, the younger cousin I mentioned earlier told me that he hadn’t had to sit and stew in his grief quite like this before. The lockdown has forced us all to sit still—and with stillness comes the long-buried feelings that are too taxing to manage.

Much like the waves in Cancun, the waves of grief ebbed and flowed as I navigated each day with the mantra of “life continues” at the forefront of my mind. I coasted along with occasional bursts of anxiety, frustration, melancholy, irritation, frenzy and lethargy. Eventually, though, those waves came crashing down with an intensity that made me collapse: physically, emotionally and spiritually.


It all happened on a random day that I cannot specify—since coronavirus has brought a sense of calendar fog along with its many other stressors. But I know one thing: a tidal wave of grief smacked my soul and left my body astray on the island of my bed. The tears came like a monsoon of memories and mourning.

In a split second, I felt like I was drowning.

I’ve climbed each rung of the grief stages like a Mortal Kombat totem—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—only to be knocked down to “play” the game again. Grief never fully leaves you; it acts as a maddening companion who pisses in the Kool-Aid at life’s cookout. With each day, however, I’m separated from the fresh intensity of it and blessed with a bit more strength to process. It’s a process to process. One day at a time. One moment at a time. One life at a time.


I still can’t swim, yet I continue to ride the waves.


Thotline Bling: black girl supremacy

wow. this was beautifully written. i love the metaphor you weaved throughout. the repetition of this sentence, in particular, stuck with me.

perhaps because it’s something i have felt far more times than i care to remember?

grief and i go way, way back—since i was a toddler—and suffered the first of many devastating losses in my life.

oh yeah, i am well acquainted with the mourning. those times when you can’t see or feel the sun’s light? as zora neale hurston once said, “i have been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked out all the pots.”

but you’re so right: take it one day at a time.

and while grief never completely goes away, you won’t always feel like you’re drowning.

in my experience, grief is a cyclical visitor rather than just the stages elisabeth kübler-ross theorized.

sometimes it’s triggered by life events (graduation, wedding, childbirth, milestone birthdays...) or sometimes—when you least expect it—a song playing in the store or the background of a film will wash over you.

whether you feel a twinge or caught in the undertow, don’t ever be afraid to speak to a grief counselor or go to a support group. i’ve done both at various times.

through it all, i have learned to ride the waves by stopping to take stock of what it is i am feeling, who i am missing, and what that moment is teaching me.

but ultimately, “grief reminds me of how loved i was. and how much i loved.”