Florida is a good place to grieve
Discovering the healing powers of sweat, tears, and the sea.
I’ve lived in Florida—and my beloved house—for six years. I spent the first two of those years with Jamie. I spent the next two years living alone, navigating life as a young widow. And I spent these last two years living with Billy, growing as a family.
Now, my time as a Florida resident is coming to an end. Billy and I are in the process of selling our home and will be moving to Georgia to be closer to family. No, we don’t know yet where we’ll be living. No, we aren’t sure how to move during a pandemic, and with a baby. Yes, we’ll figure it out.
Most people think of Florida as a place to either vacation or retire. It’s home to Disney World and The Villages, Margaritaville and Mar-a-Lago. It’s a state that no one takes too seriously and the rest of the country loves to make fun of. It is not a place that you associate with grief.
That is, unless you lose someone dear to you here.
Those of us who have gone through a life-altering loss know that the places where we mourn are forever etched in our memories by the markings of sorrow. For me, that place is Florida—a state I never anticipated moving to, much less becoming a widow in.
Not long after Jamie died, I received a journal with an Isak Dinesen quote on its cover: “The cure for anything is salt water—sweat, tears, or the sea.” Throughout 2017, I carried that journal with me everywhere and thought about that quote often. If salt water was the cure, then I lived in the perfect place.
One of the songs I played over and over in my heaviest days of grief was “Someone Great,” by LCD Soundsystem. It’s a perfect song about death, one that some dear friends sang a beautiful cover of at Jamie’s memorial. There are so many lyrics that resonate, but the one I thought about most often was, “The worst is all the lovely weather / I’m stunned it’s not raining.”
Florida is the Sunshine State. And St. Petersburg, where I live, is nicknamed the Sunshine City—boasting an average of 361 days of sunshine a year. Jamie died on a beautifully sunny and warm February day. Practically every morning following that day, I’d open the blinds, stunned to see blue skies and lush palm trees. The environment could not have been further away from my dark and gloomy mood.
Eventually, I decided to embrace it. Instead of hiding away in my house, letting myself be swallowed by grief, I forced myself to get outside every day. I took long, rambling walks around my neighborhood and wandered through nearby parks. At some point, I discovered the magic of the beach cry. I started documenting my outdoor excursions with the hashtag #FloridaIsAGoodPlaceToGrieve.
Even in the midst of total despair, I would recognize how lucky I was to have the opportunity to mourn in such a beautiful place. If even for a second, I’d look up and remember that, yes, life is worth living, and ok, maybe not everything is awful.
The more I thought about it, the more it made sense that Florida—a state surrounded by the ocean—would be an ideal place to grieve. People often describe grief as coming in waves. It’s an apt metaphor. One moment you’ll be floating along, aware of the sadness around you, but navigating it all just fine. Next, you’ll be slammed by the rush of feelings—gasping for air and desperately trying to gain your equilibrium before the next wave hits.
One of my favorite descriptions of grief comes from this iconic Reddit post, written by a commenter who describes himself as an “old guy”:
In the beginning, the waves are 100 feet tall and crash over you without mercy. They come 10 seconds apart and don't even give you time to catch your breath. All you can do is hang on and float. After a while, maybe weeks, maybe months, you'll find the waves are still 100 feet tall, but they come further apart. When they come, they still crash all over you and wipe you out. But in between, you can breathe, you can function. You never know what's going to trigger the grief. It might be a song, a picture, a street intersection, the smell of a cup of coffee. It can be just about anything ... and the wave comes crashing. But in between waves, there is life.
Somewhere down the line, and it's different for everybody, you find that the waves are only 80 feet tall. Or 50 feet tall. And while they still come, they come further apart. You can see them coming. An anniversary, a birthday, or Christmas, or landing at O'Hare. You can see it coming, for the most part, and prepare yourself. And when it washes over you, you know that somehow you will, again, come out the other side. Soaking wet, sputtering, still hanging on to some tiny piece of the wreckage, but you'll come out.
Before Billy, baby, and I leave Florida, we’re spending a few weeks at the beach—a working staycation that gets us out of the way during house showings, and gives us an opportunity to say goodbye to the state we’ve all called home. We decided to stay on Anna Maria Island, which feels wonderfully full circle—it’s the first beach where I brought my salt water journal and started to write about grief.
I’m giving myself permission to cry here if I need to. I’m planning to take plenty of walks on the beach, looking for the spot where I spread Jamie’s ashes here years ago. Even though the water is chilly, I might take a dip in the ocean. Preparing to leave Florida has brought up a ton of emotions for me—sadness and gratitude and everything in between. I’m honestly having some trouble processing it all, but I have high hopes that some sweaty exercise, cathartic tears, and ocean waves will help. If I learned anything here, it’s that salt water cures all.
Florida is a good place to grieve. It’s a good place to live. It’s a place I’ll miss very much.
p.s. It’s been a while since I’ve moved somewhere new. Do you have any tips for navigating this transition? What has helped you when you’ve made a big move? Reply to this email, leave a comment, or send me a message. I’ll feature a variety of responses in Friday’s subscriber-only newsletter—a good place for grieving, learning, connecting, and growing.
See you on Clubhouse?
Tonight at 8:00 p.m. ET, I’m joining a group of incredible humans on the audio-only app Clubhouse to share stories about the loved ones we’ve lost and create a space to talk about grief. If you’re on Clubhouse, I’d love for you to join us.
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So many of you shared Tuesday’s post. Thank you! And so many of you, like Madeline, were comforted to know that there was a name for the emotions you have been experiencing.
Remember: Word of mouth goes a long way in the newsletter world! Thank you for telling others about My Sweet Dumb Brain.
My Sweet Dumb Brain is written by Katie Hawkins-Gaar. It’s edited by Rebecca Coates, who will miss visiting Katie in St. Pete because of all the cool things to see and do there (especially the Salvador Dalí Museum and the shuffleboard club!). But is SO excited to have her back in Atlanta … soon!
I read this with such excitement for you And Billy and small one... but also some sadness that you won’t be just up the road, sadness for a year of missed nights out, where we could have gotten to know each other better while listening to Billy perform live. At the same time I know living an ocean away from family has been really hard for me, especially this past year. And I have a feeling it will be a supportive nee beginning for you both. Hell we all need as much support as we can get right now.
My advice after selling almost everything we own and moving continents - is it’s just ‘stuff’... and it’s ok to let go of it. I realised most of my ‘stuff’ was linked to other seasons of my life and I was holding into it with all my life. Original art, books, high school paraphernalia, so much jewellery! I was embarking on a new season and so much of it, almost all of it made no sense to carry around with me anymore. So I gave away more than half of my original art collection to friends who loved the pieces. Threw out school year books and donated hundreds and hundreds of books and jewellery . We arrived with 6 suitcases and 22 boxes, including the art works I felt still fitted this new season. my biggest take out - it was so cathartic letting go of all that stuff. Who would have known? And guess what I have missed none of it! Except maybe a really cool wine opener I really wish I had packed!
I've read that waves piece before. So beautiful. Enjoy the move! Being close to family when you have a kiddo is priceless.