How sea swells and resilient friendship helped photographer and Teva Explorer Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer seek healing. Words and Photos by Abigail LaFleur-Shaffer.
My soul friend Kodi (a.k.a. my dog), gently nudged open the bathroom door with his nose. He knew I was crying in the bathroom; this had been a familiar scene to him years before when I was navigating a divorce. Kodi placed his head between my knees allowing me to hug him and weep. This was a moment I had hoped to avoid for a long time. Hello grief, my old friend.
Aside from confiding with those close to me, this is the first time I am openly sharing my experience. Last spring, as the world came to an abrupt halt during the COVID-19 pandemic, daily life had become a way of surviving. In the midst of the global pandemic, I was cohabitating with an emotionally abusive partner. I endured it—on top of the weight of the global crisis—but it took me months to recognize the abuse. With the help of therapy, supportive family and friends, and online tools, I found the courage to kick him out early last fall, thus making room for grief, my new roommate.
Facing my grief uncovered layers of loss: the loss of being in a relationship with someone I cared for and trusted, and a sense that I had lost my sense of self. I had traversed this emotional terrain before—after a divorce years ago—and in the years following, I spent a lot of time with my “professional best friend” (my therapist) to grow into someone I was proud of. I had found a home within myself. But after my breakup, I saw someone that was anxious, scared, small, distrusting of others, mistrusting of myself and my judgment. Some days I feel as if I hate this current version of Abi. Other days I remind her she is just as special as the one that came before, if not more. She endured emotional abuse and the grief that has come with it.
I needed a change of scenery. As soon as I completed my COVID-19 vaccinations, I boarded a flight to Oahu to reconnect with my dear friend Tina. The last time I was facing life-changing grief in the wake of my divorce, Tina was there for me as part of my process. When Tina unexpectedly lost her partner in a tragic accident last year, I offered my virtual support from the mainland. I hoped to expand that support by being there for her in person, too.
I found myself opening the door to that same ol’ white Tacoma being greeted by Tina’s familiar smile, in a familiar magical place. She hugged me and it felt like home. Being with Tina reminds me of the woman I was when I first met her: grieving and letting go, hands and heart open, and confident in receiving what was next for me.
When I think of Tina, I fondly think of her steadfastness. She faithfully reminds me of my own strength and ability to persist—to see the Abi she sees in me. The Abi that can brave the unfamiliar ocean to share in and experience surfing with Tina, her favorite activity. The Abi that charged waves and caught some of those waves. Tina reminded me not only that I can do it, but that I will do it. I can see those pieces of who I once knew, slowly adding to the mosaic that I have been and will continue to become. I hope to be the same friend for her as she has been for me.
From left, the Original Universal in Haze Aragon and Hypnosis Macaroon.
We all need that one person in our life that is willing to navigate deep waters with us and Tina is that special friend for me. We spoke about our personal experiences with grief and how grief evolves over time.
“I think grief stays with you,” she shared. “The more you think about what actually happened, and what you have lost, the more you will experience sadness. I’ve learned over the last few months that it is important to honor the feelings you have but to also figure out ways to not let grief overcome you or your day. So instead, I remind myself to make new memories, and enjoy the new experiences I have to the fullest. It’s definitely not easy. Grief is a process and it’s different for everyone, so it is important for people to uncover the ways they find true joy, in order to get through the hard times.
“For me, grief comes in waves, just like the ocean waves I love to surf so much,” Tina tells me. “Nature and the ocean have been two of the most important healers for me, apart from my friends and family. Surfing is one of my favorite things to do and I am grateful for how it’s helped me through the healing process. I use the time I am out on the water to appreciate my own body and having the ability to enjoy such an amazing activity. I’ve always known that I am lucky to live in Hawai’i. Since experiencing this tragedy, I understand the importance of community and nature even more. I’ve learned through the grieving process that it is important to do things you love, and to do them every day, because you never know when your last day may be.”
While our circumstances with grief are different, I believe Tina and I share similar healing processes. We’ve both found healing in Mother Earth and in our communities. Being on the waves with her, knowing that she was experiencing a similar journey through life—and also sharing that with me—deeply encouraged me.
We slipped off our sandals, toes in the sand, the various shades of blues in our gaze, and we stepped into the ocean. Tina was on her longboard and me (land-locked Abi) on the soft top board, our arms guiding us over waves and tasting saltwater on our lips with every paddle. A sea turtle poked its head out of a wave and a second turtle swimming gently next to us underneath the ocean’s surface; the waves and wind enveloping us, goosebumps forming—it was all a reminder that I’m alive. We are alive.
Just as we were experiencing the waves of grief, Tina and I experienced healing on the ocean waves; it comes and goes, it ebbs and flows. What I love about observing Tina surf is how she moves with the earth. She is one with the ocean, allowing it to carry her as she navigates each wave. Each wave is unique in its own way, unbeknownst in what it will throw at her. That’s a part of being alive in this one life we live.
I’ve learned what matters is whether or not we choose to charge ahead and ride unforeseen challenges and triumphs like an ocean wave. Life is just as mysterious as the ocean: deep, dark, and intimidating. But I can’t have it both ways. To experience the joy of the ocean, I have to jump in—fully accepting the unknown. Life is just the same and I’d rather swim in the depths of the ocean than wade in the shallow end.
I’m still in the thick of my process and wanted to share resources that are currently helping me in my journey.
- Ask trusted family or friends for a therapist recommendation or try an online tool like Better Help.
- Inclusivetherapists.com was recommended by a dear friend of mine. She gave me this hot tip: make sure the therapist includes “sliding scale” in their options for more affordable pricing.
- Welcome Home by Najwa Zebian
- Self-Love Workbook for Women: Release Self-Doubt, Build Self-Compassion, and Embrace Who You Are by Megan Logan.
- Inward by Yung Pablo. Poetry has been a deep healer for me in the past, and I believe it can continue to be for not only myself, but also for others.
- Psych2Go on YouTube. Their videos on specific topics helped me identify what I was experiencing towards the end of my journey and it contributed to finding confidence in myself to speak out loud about the specific moments, actions and feelings that pertain to emotional abuse.