Swimming was not the first thing I tried to overcome my grief. There was kickboxing, an ill-advised period where I became a Spurs season ticket holder, and I can’t tell you how many meditation apps I’ve downloaded and then deleted. I even started a podcast.
This is something I do. I’ve often made the mistake of thinking that if I change something in my life, I’ll change my mood. As though my mind has a Restore to Factory Settings button that can only be activated by pottery classes or new Pilates bands. I like to think this at least makes me more original than getting a breakdown haircut.
When my brother died aged 19, none of the usual tricks worked. I felt sick all the time. I barely slept and when I did, I had nightmares about the hospital. For a long time, Tom had had growing pains. This is a common misdiagnosis for teenagers. It means that when cancer is caught, it’s often caught late. I’m still haunted by the memory of my dad calling with the news. I had never heard him cry before, but over the next three years, I would get used to it.
When we hung up, I got the train home from university and spent the journey trying to tell myself it would be ok. People get better from cancer all the time! They get better and they run half-marathons for charity when it becomes a story from their past. Then I got home and realised from everyone’s facial expressions that it was not that kind of cancer.
By the time we finally knew what was happening, Tom’s Ewing's Sarcoma was everywhere. My family had both a long time to say goodbye and never enough time to face the reality of someone we loved – and someone so young – being ill. Even now, it doesn’t feel real. I remember people saying, 'I just can’t believe it'. Yet really it is the most believable thing of all. We know death happens every day, we just try to avoid paying attention. Dying is the most predictable thing anyone can do. Just not when they leave behind me or leave behind you. Tom died in November 2016.
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After Tom’s death, I focused on always having a million things on my mind to avoid thinking about his absence. Most of my distractions involved drinking, dancing and dating the wrong people. So, for New Year’s Eve 2019, when I was 22, I was planning on indulging in my triad of vices.
Then a friend told me she would be spending her 1st of January at Hampstead Heath Ladies’ Pond. “A swim?” I asked. “In January?” It sounded like something a woman in a film would do and I decided to try and be a version of myself that did things like that. The strictly “Women Only” policy also drew me in. I suspected that my constant hunt for solace in men was contributing to my unhappiness. I packed my swimsuit, a knitted bobble hat and a Tupperware of leftover Christmas cake.
After that first swim, I was hooked.
Swimming in cold water is not delightful straight away. My skin was pierced by tiny pinpricks and my lungs squeezed tight like a clenched fist, but the body adapts – and quicker every time. When I slip below the surface, I am anaesthetised. The cold feels calming. Euphoric, in fact.
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Being submerged in cold water teaches you how to have control over your own stress responses. It stimulates the nerves that improve your ability to relax after your fight or flight mode is activated. More and more, when I’m grief-stricken in the throes of a painful memory, I find I can breathe through it before it takes over. It’s like my body brings me ashore. It can navigate the swells.
Swimming also gave me community and connected me with one very special friend, Miri. We began taking weekend swimming trips out of London and I became obsessed with tidal pools. I decided that, with her by my side, I would swim all of Britain’s tidal pools in one year. My book The Tidal Year is about our adventure.
So, what is a tidal pool? They fill with seawater on an ebbing tide and are differentiated from sea pools by being a unique combination of a natural pool with a man-made element such as metal steps or a cement boundary. Some – like Dancing Ledge in Dorset – were built using dynamite to create a lozenge-shaped pool on a rocky platform. Tidal pools are the perfect architectural harnessing of nature. The sea can be full of dangers including rip tides and strong currents, but a boundaried tidal pool protects you.
Looking back, I can see that I was so drawn to tidal pools because they became a metaphor of sorts. They’re a safe place to swim in turbulent waters and I needed to dip my toes into a grief that felt overwhelming, all-consuming, and unbounded.
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The Trinkie in Scotland, for example, is located where waves of the North Sea beat ferociously against the cliffs and much of the coastline there is inaccessible. A perfect lazuline pool of water offers a safe swim. Trinkie, meaning Trench in Scottish, was created seventy years ago from a quarry and every year locals meet to give it a lick of fresh white paint. It’s the same at Bude Sea Pool which is hemmed against Summerleaze bay to provide a protected place to enjoy the Atlantic. And Walpole Bay which has three sides of a rectangle and is four acres, the largest tidal pool in Britain.
All have communities that meet regularly for swims and fundraise to keep them swimmable. I spoke to a woman at Clevedon Marine Lake in Bristol who said that swimming there saved her life. You might think that sounds hyperbolic, but after travelling around mainland Britain to swim in these places, I learned that it was a common theme. People are swimming to answer a question inside them. 'Why do I feel like this? When will I feel better? Can I keep going?'
Watching someone I love get ill made me angry. It is an unforgivably painful thing to witness and didn’t make me like life very much. I couldn’t believe that everyone wasn’t as outraged as I was, all the time. I developed a particularly poisonous obsession with people grieving their pet’s death on Instagram.
But people don’t really want to know. Especially when it’s cancer and especially when the patient is young. We are, after all, a society that puts the television on mute when the charity segments play on Comic Relief. A society that emails 'hope you’re well' but doesn’t hope for a real response.
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Loss isn’t a contained experience. It doesn’t start and end, it touches everything else. My book is about navigating the tides of grief while being in my twenties: trying to find purpose, maintaining friendships, falling in and out (and back in) love. And I should mention that my book is also a love story.
During my tidal year, I met my partner, Jem. He has never met Tom, never will. I still struggle with the idea of tying my life to a man my brother won’t know. As well as the loss of Tom himself, there are suddenly new losses. I feel loss for the romantic words of warning, delivered in a protective brotherly tone that Tom will never give. A wedding he won’t be at. Children he’ll never meet.
On one of our early dates, Jem told me he sometimes screamed underwater. “It helps”, he said. We went to Brockwell Lido, London. He held my hand and we submerged ourselves to scream as loud as we could, bubbles (and very little sound) escaping to the surface. I felt seen for the first time in a long time. I suddenly had a channel for the anger inside me.
A part of me comes alive in the water. That part connects me to Tom. Knowing death at a young age has made me quite a serious person, but when I’m in the water I splash around. I can take the burden of grief off like a jacket and leave it by the poolside.
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I’m certain you too will rediscover this part of yourself in a swim, if you’re open to trying. Pick up a stick, drop it into a river and dive in to retrieve it. Lie on your back in the lido and watch the clouds. Simply, play.
Now I know plot spoilers usually aren’t welcome, but I’ll share this with you: I didn’t finish all the tidal pools. I realised I simply couldn’t. Every time I thought I’d done it, I discovered more. And that was the lesson I needed to learn. That things don’t get better when you complete them. Life is not a series of stages that you can unlock and level up to the next one. Sometimes the things that are difficult, remain that way. My grief wasn’t going anywhere. It was here to stay, and I had to learn to move with it.
Perhaps this is the lesson that many women of my generation need to learn. We’re sold the idea that we can Marie Kondo our lives into happiness. We’re told Good Vibes Only, Think Yourself Healthy, Manifest Money and Set Boundaries, Find Peace. I thought I could do the same with grief.
I thought that if I could perform a gymnastics sequence of wellbeing and wild swimming then I’d somersault into happiness. But we aren’t meant to always be happy. It’s not all live, laugh, love. Grief is the opposite side of love. And I’m learning to be there.
Sometimes I just dunk my head underwater and scream as loud as I can.
Buy Freya's book The Tidal Year: a memoir on grief, swimming and sisterhood