“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.
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