The rattling wheels beneath me echoed my nerves. My dad sat to my right, both of us pinned by the long bar in our laps — a cruel reminder we couldn’t back out now. My back pushed against my seat as we lifted higher and higher. I could see my favorite ride, the Sea Dragon, rocking like a metronome below me, becoming smaller and smaller in my view. The rhythmic “dum-dum-dum-dum” could very well have been the sound track to a horror movie, as my heart threatened to lodge in my throat. My stomach would follow suit shortly.
The pressure moved from my back to my seat as I surveyed the stunning view below. Knowing the moment would in a second come to an end, I braced myself for the free fall. And just as I anticipated, my stomach lodged into my throat and I couldn’t breathe. Panic swelled in a way my 9-year-old body had never felt before. After what seemed like minutes — though likely only seconds — we leveled out and my stomach returned to its normal place, my pulse calming.
It was my first roller coast ride. For years I gaped at the signature hill on the Starliner at the Miracle Strip Amusement Park in Panama City Beach, and finally I mustered the nerve to ride.
A few years later, and a few inches taller, I sat in a similar seat — this time on the new ride at Silver Dollar City called Thunderation. By now I had been on my share of roller coasters and I knew what to expect. I trained myself to hold my breath before the free fall and my stomach would stay in its place.
Up and up we went. As the pinnacle approached, I held my breath and closed my eyes. Then, we descended — though not for long. For some reason, we only fell slightly before taking a hard turn. I let myself breathe again and I instead braced for the sharp curves and rough ride. I didn’t expect this at all.
Instead of one big fall, I faced sharp turns and my bones rattled. I could breathe, sure, and I suppose that was a plus. But the rough ride shook me up.
My teenage years well behind me, I sat in front of Chili’s waiting for a friend. A beautifully warm day, I basked in the bright rays of sun, soaking in their warmth. Contentment pulsed through me, as I thought about how grateful and happy I was at that moment.
The opening door to my left drew my attention. A grandmother held the hand of a redheaded little boy — just the two of them walking to her car. “Why do you want to go to the Dollar Tree?” She cooed. “I want to buy some TOYS,” he insisted with hope and excitement.
As she buckled him into his car seat, my beaming face was soon drenched, downpours of grief washing over me on this beautiful sunny day.
My mom and dad had kept my children during their preschool years while I worked. Flashbacks of my mom taking my little redheaded boy on errands and fun days ticked through my brain like a slide show. Memory after memory assaulted me and I couldn’t stop thinking of those blessed days, never to be again.
I can probably count on my hand how many times I’ve cried like this since my mom died last March. I still can’t quite understand why grieving for her has been so different from what I had expected.
Unexpected Journey of Grief
In many ways, I can compare the reality of the Starliner and my expectations of Thunderation to my grief. I expected one thing, only to experience another.
Like the little girl scared out of her mind of the big fall, I deeply feared the unknown of losing my mom. I watched my husband walk through indescribable darkness after he lost his dad. Thinking my grief would look similar, I held my breath, braced myself, and even closed my eyes.
In the months leading up to Mom’s death — after we brought in hospice — I felt like I was going up that big incline on the Starliner, fully expecting to fall rapidly and hard after I lost her. Then I expected those little mini-hills afterward until eventually I would settle in and the grief would slow almost to a stop.
Instead, I found myself on a journey through grief that resembled Thunderation. I still climbed that dreadful hill, but instead of the big fall, I experienced a little one right away. Thinking the “big one” would be a little further down the road, it never really came. Instead, I felt whipped around by the unexpected, having no idea what would come next.
Instead of one big expected fall, my shade of grief has rattled me and taken me to unexpected places. I never have had to hold my breath for the big fall, and I guess that’s a plus, but I have felt sore from the emotional ups and downs and twists and turns along the way.
Many days the view is beautiful. Memories come along as sweet reminders of my mom and how blessed I was to have her. But without warning, a grandmother and her redheaded grandson walk by me, jerking me expectedly to a place I never saw coming.
Big Hills & Sharp Turns
It was a poignant reminder that we all handle loss differently. And what we expect to feel may look quite different from what we actually feel.
As one still grieving the loss of my mom, I’m learning that while I may not experience the big fall, I need to expect the sharp turns.
And as I walk through grief with those around me, I am learning not to expect anything at all, but instead to give grace that their ride may not look like mine. But no matter which roller coaster our grief resembles, it’s always good to have a friend beside us.