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Sunday swimming group makes church of the sea

A secular group led by a local celebrant makes space for people to share their grief, and let it go

Imagine letting your grief go with the ebb of the tide.

A Sunday swimming group held at North Shore beaches over the past two years has given space to people wanting to wash away some of the heavy emotions that can weigh on you if you don't have some form of intentional release.

Hosted by Megan Sheldon, an end-of-life celebrant and doula, the secular sessions combine methods from her work helping people to grieve and cold-water therapy, a practice gaining in popularity for its anti-stress effects and other benefits.

Sheldon’s first experience cold plunging in the ocean happened in Tofino at the very beginning of the pandemic, as a ritual she created to say goodbye to her 30s.

“I finished them off with this amazing cold plunge in the Pacific, and it was just such an amazing experience to be so present and aware of your surroundings,” she said. “It was not something I would normally have done, but I’d heard about the health and mental wellness benefits of cold plunging.”

It was only when she experienced it for herself that Sheldon felt that sense of renewal.

Working in the end-of-life space, there’s a lot of heaviness that she carries. So when she came home to the North Shore, she put a call out to other care providers that she knew, birth- and death-care providers for the most part.

“And I just asked if people wanted to meet me on a Sunday morning, at this beach,” Sheldon said. “I’m secular, and that’s how I approach the ceremonies I create for people.

“For a lot of us who might not have religion, or strong cultural ceremonies embedded into our natural day-to-day life, Sunday morning has always felt like something that I wish I had this community to gather with and share what we were holding, what was going on in our lives and be there to support each other,” she said.

Around 10 or 15 people joined the first session – the numbers have gone as high as 40 or to just a handful of people, depending on the day – and the group is still meeting every Sunday for almost two years now.

During the meet-ups, Sheldon invites everyone to take a moment to wander the beach and find an object that symbolizes something weighing on their psyche. It might be a piece of bark or seaweed for some pandemic anxiety, or a heavy rock if someone had just lost a family member. Then they all gather in a circle and share that weight.

After sharing, the group members take their objects out into the ocean and release them while being mindful of the act of letting go.

“I frame all my ceremonies as I celebrate as an acknowledgment of what was, what is, and what will be,” Sheldon said.

“The ‘what was’ is all around releasing and letting go. And then the ‘what is’ is giving people rituals to be present and completely in the moment. And when you’re in the cold water in January, there’s not much else that you can think of other than just breathing through that moment.”

When everyone’s ready, they gather back on the beach, warm up and share the “what will be” part of the ceremony. Each person shares something they noticed or gained from the session, or something that they want to carry with them for the rest of the week. All said and done, one of these gatherings lasts around an hour.

While cold-water therapy usually emphasizes timing and extremity of temperature, Sheldon’s sessions aren’t rigid. People don’t have to swim at all. Some choose to dip their toes, or splash some of the chilly water on their face.

“Everybody kind of chooses their own way to go into the cold, and find that stillness,” she said.

Sunday ceremonies create community care

What’s important to Sheldon is the community care and coming together to use the cold-water experience as an opportunity to check in and share.

Sheldon said that we live in a grief-phobic culture, which became more pronounced during the pandemic. People were living in their own “grief bubbles” and it was hard to tell if our friends and colleagues were actually OK or not. So seeing each other once a week became a powerful practice, to be able to witness each other and hear what hardship someone might be experiencing.

“I remember sharing one day, and I started crying that I was grieving the closure of the playgrounds,” she said. “I have two little kids – they were two and four at the time. And I remember I found this piece of wood on the beach that reminded me of a teeter-totter.”

There was one particularly heavy session in March where everyone was grieving a death of some kind. Someone came who had a stillbirth, another had lost a patient, another lost someone whom they loved. But they all held space for each other, and swam out into the cold sea at Lions Bay Beach.

“I think each of us left that day completely transformed, both with what we had experienced on our own, but also that we had experienced it together,” Sheldon said.

Sheldon isn’t dogmatic about the rules of cold plunging, like some, but said she believes in the health benefits. “They’re hard to deny, especially from a mental health and wellness perspective.”

Research suggests that repeated exposure to cold water can temper the body’s fight-or-flight response.

“When we’re in a stress response kind of lifestyle, we continually move through things and we forget to settle in. So the cold has been hugely beneficial for that,” Sheldon explained.

She and her husband have a sauna and ice bath at their North Vancouver home. Her husband has lost both his dad and grandpa – who were both Swedish – so the Scandinavian corner in Sheldon’s backyard was built as a legacy for them, she said.

Locations for Sheldon’s Sunday gatherings, which are presented by her celebrant business Seeking Ceremony, include Bachelor Bay near Whytecliff and Dundarave Beach in West Van. She said newcomers are always welcome to join, and can email her at [email protected]. She also encourages people who live in other areas, or otherwise can’t make her sessions, to take the tools she’s put together and hold their own ceremonies.

While her swimming ceremonies may be secular in nature, perhaps when we release our grief to the depths of the sea we touch something higher in ourselves as well.

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