When Joy Breaks Through Grief

“Dolphin Play” by Lisa Baechtle

In 2010, eighteen months after my husband died, I longed for relief from constant sorrow, so joined three friends for an adventure to Gasparilla Island, Florida. Instead of sunshine and warmth, we faced unusually cold, cloudy weather, a little too much like home in Western New York. The wind off the Gulf pierced my winter coat and deflated hope.

I tried to hide my despair. I tried not to cry so I wouldn’t ruin the vacation for my friends. Everything felt wrong, especially me. I was the worst of travel companions.

Beach weather we wanted / Ebyabe, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=11911346

At my lowest point, one woman suggested we ignore the weather and drive to the end of the island to the state shore. The parking lot was empty and so was the beach. I pulled my hood over my face, eyes squinted, looking down to avoid blowing sand. My friend walked ahead, so I followed, turned in on myself, sunk in despair.

And then she shrieked.

I lifted my eyes and saw her jumping and pointing to the churning sea.
Dolphins by the hundreds, breaching, leaping, entering the bay.
Arched glimpses of bliss before disappearing under the gray sea.
Then more and more, reaching for light and diving deep again.

Yogoyo.com, Gulf of Mexico Dolphins

We squealed and jumped and hugged.
Together in a waking dream.
Tears rolled down my cheeks.
The cold wind didn’t matter now.
We watched for 15 minutes, or was it an hour?
Then the dolphins vanished like a fading vision.
The sea was cold and gray again.

But I’d seen them. I’d felt hope.
Watch life, those dolphins said.
Joy can surface any time.
Unexpected beauty or delight. A loving hug. A flash of glimmering light.
The delight of play was possible. Even close.
Ecstasy breaching wild rough waves.


Friends in the good and hard times

With the friend who saw the dolphins first in a different time and place











My friends loved me patiently until my armor melted. I tested them, even though I hadn’t wanted to, but we made it through, closer than ever and still close and trusting ten years later. What a gift it is to have friends who stay during the hardest times. Have you had experiences like this and has the joy remained and the friendship survived?

Thanks to Lisa Baechtle for offering use of her dolphin painting for this blog. You can see and purchase Lisa’s inspiring paints and cards at her website. You can also find a wide variety of products from clothing to home decor using her images at Fine Art America. I recommend an article by Robert Moss called “I Can’t Remember My Dreams.” He reminds us that we can have dream-like, symbolically important experiences like mine in waking life, too. For other blogs about our need for friendship, see A Healing Ritual in a Sweetgrass Bowl: Self Care for Surgery or Remember What You Love: Deep Friendship and Thriving Plants.

  1. Beautiful, poetic writing, gorgeous dolphin artwork and all those wonderful smiley faces, what’s not to love! Your unexpected joy Elaine brings this heart-warming Rumi quote to mind, “When you seek love with all your heart you shall find its echo in the universe.”

    And so it is with soul friendships I believe, those that not only survive but thrive during the dark and difficult times of our lives. Where honesty, solace and non-judgement rule the day … even when we don’t wish to hear the truth of the matter, a true friend will tell us anyway.

    Oh, I didn’t expect the dolphins to appear as you crafted a scene many could relate to well … being out with others when we’re not really feeling up for it or in a very good place. My heart leapt with the dolphins as your hearts did too! What a magical, unforgettable vision!

    A wonderful friend comes to mind, one who stood by me during a painful moment in my life, who I subsequently (due to shame issues) tried to ignore, hide away from when I needed her most … one who quietly sat outside my house in her car for hours before I could eventually let her in.

    Thank you so much Elaine for helping me shining light on this beautiful memory and this treasured friendship of mine. Warm and wild blessings to you my dear friend, Deborah.

    • Deborah, you’re always so perceptive. I asked these friends if it would be OK to share their photos. They agreed but preferred I didn’t use their names and one said, “it’s OK to post photos, but it’s not OK with me if you bash yourself about grieving on that trip.” They’re still defending me from self-judgement. That’s friendship! It was a magical unforgettable vision. All four of us went back to the beach later that day when the sky was a little brighter but didn’t see one dolphin.

      I love your friend who waited in her car until you let her in. My friends and I had many tearful conversations after this trip for me to trust I was forgiven–actually I had never been blamed. They knew Vic and understood I was grieving and trying to hide my feelings. It’s a time of year when the thought of warm anything is good–so I feel those warm wild blessings coming across the sea. With love and gratitude to you.

  2. Friends have come to my rescue many times since my daughter died. I don’t believe I’d be here today if it weren’t for my friends who picked me up and held me, dragged me out of the house, and phoned to check on me and cheer me up.

    • We humans need each other, Robin. That’s so clear when we’re grieving. This trip would have been easier on everyone if I hadn’t tried to hide my feelings in the beginning to make myself a good traveling friend. Who did I think I would fool? And so we learn and survive and our strong relationships hold tight.

  3. The painting of Lisa’s is gorgeous Elaine. As is your post. What a reflection of good friends being with you through thick and thin. And so wonderful to sight those dolphins bringing the message of even in the stormiest of weather, joy springs up.

    • Isn’t Lisa’s painting gorgeous? That image is good medicine during this dreary time of year with my driveway solid dangerous ice. Those good friends still remind me not to beat myself up about grief over Vic’s death or over loss of many social possibilities like plays or concerts because of hearing loss. Yes, joy springs up, even during hard times. We need that on a world-wide level right now.

  4. Flipping dolphins and blooming roses are good medicine for this season – on the calendar and in our lives..

    Dr. Mary O’Shaunessy, one of the members of my writing group, is a psychiatric nurse practitioner and bereavement counselor who has published Silent Presence: A Companion through the Journey of Grief. Your post reminds me of a line in her book: “Mortality is a gift which reminds us to transcend our own limitations as we live within the boundaries of space and time.”

    Yes, joy can surface at any time – in dolphin flips, rose blooms, and most especially in the patient presence of friends.
    Smiles and hugs to you for this beautiful post, Elaine!

    • Thanks for letting me know about Silent Presence. One of my sons has experienced unexpected deaths from two friends in the last month. Despite being there when his dad died and later when his grandma died, it’s hard to take in how limited our time is on this earth and how quickly it can end. We easily forget mortality, but what a teacher it is. I’m grateful for dolphins, roses, and mostly for those friends who stick like glue. Love and gratitude to you, Marian.

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