Getting Through Grief When a Fisherman Passes Away

*This is a guest post by licensed therapist Christy Leigh on grief. (Photo: Pierre Bamin)

“Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here’s the proof that I paid the price.” -Glennon Doyle

About a year ago, I began dating a commercial fisherman. I knew absolutely nothing about the world of commercial fishing, so I set out to do what any good psych-nerd would do, and I researched the heck out of it.

I researched the industry itself, and I can proudly describe the difference between gill netting and purse seining; thank you very much. I searched for any tiny shred of information I could find on how to be in a relationship with a man who lived such an exciting, dangerous, and complicated lifestyle, which is how I came across Megan and this amazing blog.

The relationship, sadly, is no longer intact. But what has remained is my interest in this incredible industry and the amazing community.

There is this sense of family and camaraderie here that I never expected, and that has perhaps been my best take away from that relationship. I have stayed in contact with Megan and kept up with the blog and this cool community of people. I am a therapist by trade, and when Megan asked me to collaborate on a post about grief, I was grateful for the opportunity.

Photo by George Hiles

My Story of Grief & Loss

Grief and loss are something I know a lot about both personally and professionally. I found that regardless of how much schooling I have or how many textbooks I have read, the experience is always the best teacher.

Every single difficult personal experience gives me a much deeper understanding of the human experience than any amount of formal education can do. Sometimes amid a difficult life experience, I can reflect, dissect, and understand the emotional processes taking place.

Other times, I am a straight-up shit show, just like every other human being, and there is absolutely no method to my literal madness. I have experienced the death of grandparents and elderly family members, but it wasn’t until I experienced the death of a close friend, a peer, a 21-year-old boy in college that I really began to understand both mortality and grief. The shock of life taken both suddenly and too soon is almost incomprehensible for the human mind.

Years later, my brother-in-law died in a drunk driving accident at the age of 26, and I saw loss impact my family, my children, and an entire community; I experienced grief that took over my whole world. My now-ex-husband and I ran into his brother at a Halloween party at the local Elk’s club less than two hours before his death. We were tired and headed home to our two-year-old twins. We met him at the door on our way out. He was clearly drunk and already belligerent as he was entering the bar. We didn’t want to get into a fight with him (he was notoriously difficult when intoxicated), so we just left. We walked away. A few hours later, we got the dreaded middle of the night knock on the door. He was gone.

Loss is just like that—a sudden shock, a blow that you never expect to happen. From what I know of the commercial fishing world, that knock on the door, that call, that worry is always a possibility. The stress and anxiety that come with having a loved one who does a dangerous, high-risk job are constant. Even in my short relationship, I experienced the overwhelming fear that accompanies being the recipient of a 3 am text reading, “That was literally the most dangerous day of fishing I’ve ever had.”

While my research shows that the industry works hard to ensure all fishermen’s safety, as you all well know, accidents and death are still a daunting reality. It is easy to believe that the entire community grieves when a loss occurs in such a tight-knit community. How do you support one another? How does the family who experienced the loss and the crew members and commercial fishing community at large grieve losing one of their own?

I have heard people say that grief comes in waves, and honestly, I don’t think there is a better description. After the initial shock, preparations, and sorry, life returns to “normal,” yet nothing feels “normal” at all.

The best professional insight I can offer up is an understanding of grief and stages of grief. Grief is deep sorrow, often caused by death, but not always. Grief is what remains in the aftermath of love. Grief is how we experience and express loss.

The stages of grief are known to be universal, shared by all humans. The paradox lies within the fact that while we process grief in the same manner, grieving itself is an experience unique to each person. It’s as though we can say, “I understand what you are going through, but I also have no idea what you are experiencing.”

Photo by Ravi Pinisetti

The Stages of Grief:

Denial/Isolation: “This can’t be happening. This isn’t real.” Denial is an initial reaction to shock and a way to rationalize our overwhelming emotions. It is automatic and the way the human brain copes with news that is too intense to process. We cannot hear the words spoken, nor can we comprehend the facts. Denial is the first big wave of grief that hits when we get the news of loss.

Anger: Anger emerges when we are no longer able to stay in denial and are forced to feel the loss. Anger is a primary emotion (meaning one of the six emotions we are born with) and serves to protect us when we are most vulnerable. Anger is not rational. It may project upon the person one lost, others surrounding us, or even inanimate objects. We often feel shame or guilt for our anger, and this makes us even angrier.

Bargaining: “If only I would have… I could have stopped it”. Bargaining is our attempt to go back in time and change our behaviors/make different choices to change the outcome. Of course, this is not possible, which makes the process an even more painful vicious circle. Guilt overtakes us in the bargaining stage as we convince ourselves there was something different we could have done to save the person.

Depression: Depression is the deep sorrow we experience with grief, the loss materializing, and consuming us. Depression often sets in full force after the “dust has settled.” When the arrangements have been made, relatives have gone home, and life is supposed to return to “normal”. Depression from grief is circumstantial, but may also become clinical and long-lasting.

Acceptance: Accepting that the loved one is gone forever is extremely difficult and is sadly not a gift afforded to everyone. “It never gets better, but it does get easier” is a phrase I have used to describe the acceptance stage of grief. That loss and void may never be filled, but human beings are resilient, and we can learn to cope and have happy, full lives, even after the loss.

While everyone goes through all of these stages in the grieving process, no everyone goes through them in a linear order. I like to think of them as a circle rather than a line. And at any point, you can jump from one part of the circle to another.

There can be additional stages because, as previously mentioned, grief is unique to the individual. There is no right or wrong way to grieve and pushing yourself or someone else into the next stage before it is natural will cause more pain and frustration. When it comes to grief, like most difficult experiences in life, the only way out is through.

The people I have known from the commercial fishing industry are passionate, headstrong, and love what they do. Not only the fisherman themselves but the partners and loved ones as well.

I can only imagine that when one of your own is lost, you band together with fierceness, strength, and love abounds. I am ending this post with the same quote I began because I believe it represents the passion and love that I have witnessed, even in my limited involvement with this community:

“Grief is love’s souvenir. It’s our proof that we once loved. Grief is the receipt we wave in the air that says to the world: Look! Love was once mine. I love well. Here’s the proof that I paid the price.” -Glennon Doyle

Christy Leigh, MA, LPC
Instagram: @trauma.queen.christy
Facebook: Trauma Queen Christy

*This post is intended for informational purposes only. It is not a substitute for one-on-one professional medical advice, diagnosis, or treatment. If you think you may have a medical or mental health emergency, call your doctor immediately or dial 911.

Have you experienced the loss of a loved one? How are you able to move through grief? Please share in the comments below to help others who may be suffering.♥️

Most of all, you are not alone! Learn how Jenny Gore Dwyer from Deadliest Catch mourns the loss of her husband, Pat:


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