Maybe there ARE stages of grief after all – and one is a tsunami.

The great wave off Kanagawa - after Katsushika Hokusai
The great wave off Kanagawa – after Katsushika Hokusai

Gay McKinley now definitely believe that there are stages of grief and she describes ‘the tsunami of grief’ stage as one of them. She has written about her deep insights into grief in her two previous articles, shared to our newsletter readers and then here on the Good Grief! website.

Gay was a counsellor and psychotherapist before she retired. When she and partner David were travelling together in Italy in 2020 to celebrate their mutual 70th birthdays, he died suddenly.


I now definitely believe that there are stages of grief. 

Not in any theoretical or psychological sense.  We all do grief differently and in my opinion there are no stages or tasks of grief that will work for everyone.

But my own personal journey definitely has had – and still has different stages.

After the sudden death of David in Italy there was a rather numb and robotic stage while I worked out how to bring him home.  Then there was my busy, ‘doing’ stage of organising his farewell service and wake and looking after others.  When all that was done and dusted the reality of living my life without my soulmate, my Anam Cara, hit me like a tsunami.  My Tsunami of Grief Stage.

The Tsunami of Grief.

These waves of grief would hit me, and I mean REALLY hit me, unexpectedly, suddenly, drowningly, anywhere, anytime.  Wave after wave of grief when I couldn’t breathe, would sob uncontrollably, and think there was no way I could ever survive this.  The storm was relentless.

My younger son, also called David (Dave), used to be a long-line fisherman.  He told me (long after the event thank goodness) of a time he was fishing out from Eden when a catastrophic and unpredicted storm hit. They were far out at sea.  The skipper of the boat put out a Mayday call, but it was too dangerous to send out any other crew.  They were on their own.

The skipper told my son and the other crew members that they were going home and that they would do it one wave at a time and for however long it would take.  Some times in that journey they literally had to go further out to sea, further away from home, to be able to ride the particular waves.  They did indeed survive and when they were coming into port at Eden, it seemed the whole town was there waiting for them with all lights blazing.  I cannot think of this story without becoming emotional.  And so very grateful to that wise skipper.

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One wave at a time.

So, here’s the thing.  One wave at a time.  Just one. 

When I would feel the tsunami coming, I eventually learned to brace myself, and go with the flow.  I learned that the overwhelming feeling, just like a rogue wave, ebbs eventually.  The waves of grief continued in their relentless attacks; but they came, and they went.  I learned to deal with them ‘one wave at a time’. 

As Jon Kabat-Zinn says: “You can’t stop the waves, but you can learn to surf”.

We don’t feel grief if we don’t love.  And the greater the love the greater the grief.  I knew when David died therefore, that I was going to be in for a doozy of a grief ride.  I am meant to feel powerless and pummelled.  And breathless and drowning.  But I am also meant to notice when, for now, the wave has passed.  I am meant to live my life as the waves ebb.  When they flow, I ride them.  I think this is Good Grief!

More from Gay.

Gay McKinley
Gay McKinley

Gay has shared other thoughts besides those about The tsunami of grief.

Gay’s article in ourJuly 2023 newsletter, Moving from ‘feeling crazy’ to Good Grief is published as ‘When Grief Comes Unexpectedly Calling’, on the Good Grief! website.

Gay’s article in our September 2023 newsletter, One day at a time – Un giorno alla volta, ‘Very New Grief – the First Days’, on the Good Grief! website.


Jon Kabat-Zinn is an American author who has written many books to help develop mindfulness.

Find out more about his first book: Wherever You Go, There You are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life.

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