“We don’t grieve in a bubble,” my bereavement counselor tells me. She’s been advising me on grief, not only as an experience but as a process and opportunity for learning.

There has been no way to talk about the death of my father late last year without framing it within 2020’s overwhelming and worldwide losses. Because I’m not in a grief bubble, as my counselor has said, I’m not isolated from others and their pain. Grief looms larger, becomes cumulative. We build grief debt, as some have called the build-up of loss upon loss upon mounting loss.

Bubble has become a sort of word du jour. We’ve been steeped in COVID support bubbles. COVID-minimal communities like Taiwan as “bubbles of normality.” The housing bubble. Tiny bubbles in the wine we drink to cope. The bubble of international stock market prices. For many, the bursting of the American-dream bubble. Microbubbles related to lung function in COVID patients, a subject of much new research.

My father died of a burst bubble—sort of—an aortic aneurysm that had been growing undetected. Medical personnel had said he wouldn’t survive any corrective surgery, vulnerable as he was at 97, should something serious develop. Nor would he tolerate an MRI or other diagnostic procedures. It was lose-lose; we’d kill him if we tried to save him, and he’d die if we didn’t.

He’d grown averse to going to the doctor a few years before and to going out at all. We failed to get him past the back door to his sunny back patio for his last birthday. He’d begun seeing bizarre sights: oak trees marching out his front window, undulating lawns like seas of molten green glass, swaying telephone poles.

“It’s wild,” he told me, in one of our last phone calls. “Everything is on the move.” It was safer in the house—something he could manage. His own bubble of normality.

Bubbles are not forever. They escape from water in a glass when temperature and the air/water interface favor expulsion. In whitewater, bubbles are made of turbulence and water crashing over rocks. They surface from below and pop. Some amphibians encase their eggs in foamy nests to keep eggs and larvae moist and alive. Once the young are born, the bubbles are no longer needed. They dissipate.

In Grand Canyon river guiding, we understood the meaning of boils and bubbles as surface expressions of underwater phenomena. The mushrooming of current in eddies signified crammed-in current and could be hell to row across. We learned which eddies we could charge across with a few oar strokes and ride over with ease.

The bubbles along the mid-right side of Lava Falls marked a reliable line to a safe run but one that was still super exciting and full of surprises: boats on end, chances of surfing the bottom waves, always a danger of being bucked into the river, but the best chance of making it. I suffered the tossing-off more than once, though the perfectly set-up boat finished just fine. It was the best I could do under the circumstances.

But those who doubted the bubbles, disbelieved them and took last-minute strokes, would run too far left into the flipping ledge hole. Or they’d wash too far right, toward the big, black rock—an infamous chunk of basalt once featured on the cover of Life magazine.

I doubted the bubbles once and had the only bad run in Lava Falls in ten years of guiding Grand Canyon. Of course, a ton of people were watching. After that, I became a true believer in the bubble line as a natural phenomenon to trust and keep on trusting until proven otherwise. I’d seen shorter-timeline changes in the Canyon, rockfalls and new boulders washed into rapids; the bubble line would change someday, but maybe not in my lifetime.

As my father’s swelling vessel had to burst and with it end his life, today’s mounting grief debt won’t grow forever. The community in which we feel pain may be as big as the world, but it will evolve, too. What happens next no one knows, but maybe we’ll see an arc of change in line with natural systems with which we live. With grief and isolation comes the rising of things as bubbles through water, failing to surprise us even as they do.

Subscribe to my occasional newsletter for news of my forthcoming book, Swimming Grand Canyon and Other Poems (Finishing Line Press, 2021). And find my 2020 Nautilus Book Award Winner, The Oasis This Time: Living and Dying with Water in the West (Torrey House Press, 2019), at your local bookseller, Bookshop, Indie Bound, Barnes & Noble, and Amazon.


  1. Beautiful, Becca, as are you! The fact that this has been a hard time for everyone world-wide does not negate the power of personal loss. I feel you!

    • Thanks, Kat! I appreciate it a ton. And just last night, I couldn’t put down my Advanced Reader’s Copy of your amazing new book, Desert Chrome. I re-read the passages about the deaths of Rebecca, Craig, and Ed (this is my second time through the ARC). So beautifully written—I admire your courage on and off the page—and can’t wait for the book’s release.

  2. Such a powerful witness to the overwhelming waves of grief that come with the loss of our fathers. I recently looked through a series of photos taken during my dad’s last year with us, and we were so blessed to have a dad who still retained most of his marbles, even if his body had faltered to where he couldn’t stand and walk, and was confined to a wheel chair. But of all times to lose a father, this particular epoch has extra layers of grief attached to it–with so much being upended in our lives, so much “normalcy” fallen by the wayside, and then this foundational loss. So very, very sorry.

    • Dear Jeannine! So great to hear from you. My heart goes out to you as you continue to grieve your dad. You’re so right — surrounding losses, then foundational loss. It takes time, time, nature & love & time. Huge hug and power of the mountains to you!

  3. Wonderful interpretation of your grief. The loss of a parent is devastating in many different ways. How we cope with it sets the tone for the rest of our lives. You are steering toward the right direction.

    • Laura, how wise you are. How we cope sets the tone for the rest of our lives. I know you speak with experience and I treasure your comments. And you!

  4. Grief. AFGO – another fucking growth opportunity.
    Will you share a poem or story I can take to Colorado River in April ? I will read by the fire.
    18-day trip launching April 2- My first commercial trip. Tour West – with Larry Stevens of MNA. Love to you & Paul

    • Hiya David, wonderful you’re getting down the river again! Say hello to Larry. Let me look at my poems as I’d love to send you something . . . thanks for asking! Love to you and Grace & I appreciate your comment. Yeah — AFGO!

  5. Your grief through the loss of your father as well as the loss of so many lives because of Covid-19 bring to light the many inconsistencies of our world; that we have not found ourselves, that we are still striving to be as human as possible, and that we shall continue to feel grief and pain because of our inhumanity to each other.
    How wonderful to read your blog. Although the danger of Covid-19 is beginning its downward slide, I realize that it will take many more years before a cure will be discovered. Take care and find your smile.

    Lilia Westmore
    March 17, 2020

    Lilia Westmore
    March 17, 2020

    • Hey Lilia, thanks for your comment. Yes let’s stay as human as possible. We don’t know who we’ve become through all these changes, but we know they’ve been huge. Warmest wishes to you today. Becca

  6. There has been far too much loss in this bizarre year. Yet, your essay is a gift received by all of us who have lost a loved one. Our lives gravitate, much as we try otherwise, to the bubble line; that equilibrium where we “go with the flow” to grieve what is lost. A head space that always gets me back to the center. This essay was lovely, Becca. Thank you.

    • Kenny, great to hear from you. Yes a terrible year–and as I think of your garden and the land you and your kids have been tending near the coast I have to smile. Thinking of you and the bubble line we share. Love to Annie, Amber, and all, Becca

  7. Beautifully written, Becca. Thanks for sharing this.

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