On She Goes

Love & Light: Coping with Grief at Jamaica’s Glistening Waters

I learned that one day, I too would glow, just like the magical lagoon.

Courtney Den Elzen
Courtney den Elzen
March 21, 2018
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Our boat burst forward into the tranquil, pitch-black bay along the north coast of Jamaica. The post-dusk sky was a cloudy purple-black, the water a deeper, more sinister darkness. Thinking about it too much sent childhood fears of sea monsters spinning through my head. I focused on the singsong voice of our tour guide, who led the boat of 20 wide-eyed tourists at Glistening Waters Luminous Lagoon. According to the guide, we were about to experience the bay water’s glow. Sure enough, tens of meters from the lights of the dock the boat’s wake began to emit a turquoise light into the darkness, lighting up the area like glow sticks at a middle school dance! I couldn’t peel my eyes off the water.

It was the 2014 Christmas holidays, my brother and sister had two weeks off from high school, and I had just finished my first semester of university. We were on our first-ever family vacation. All our lives, money and time were poured into athletic pursuits pretty much above all else. It was go, go, go. Achieve, achieve, achieve. My parents were the strictest of coaches. No room for vacation on the path to college scholarship greatness.

The view from the balcony of our hotel room was green, green, green gorgeousness.
photo by Courtney den Elzen

Then my dad died. It was sudden, surprising, and world shattering. The year 2014 turned into one of tears, stupor, hurt, and agony. My brother, sister, mom, and I reeled from grief on our own small planets. During that year, some of us were physically separated by distance and others created thick walls of heartbreak from our grief. To be home for Christmas and the early January anniversary of my dad’s death would have been too painful for all of us. We needed relaxation, self-care, and connection. We needed new memories. After much discussion, my mom settled on Jamaica. My siblings and I could visit the country of her birth for the first time. For years, other family members had been going to the resort she chose for our Christmas trip. We’d be with people who loved us, and my mom could relax and be taken care of too.

The warmth of the Jamaican sun loosened the tight ropes of grief that had held us throughout the year. For the first time since the accident, I saw my mom laugh and smile. All of us jumped in the waves and gushed at the lush beauty of our ancestral home. Every joy was tainted by the pain of our loss, but the joy was there and precious. Our individual planets of grief began to enter the same orbit. But more than the others, I still I felt distant. My grief was brooding, silent, and confused. Moreover, I simply did not know how to connect with this new vacation version of my family. But there was something about those glowing waters that pulled my aching sadness toward hope, like nothing else.

The warmth of the Jamaican sun loosened the tight ropes of grief that had held us throughout the year.

As I listened intently to the tour guide on the boat, I learned that the lagoon is filled with bioluminescent microorganisms that glow turquoise-silver when disturbed by movement. Twenty minutes from resort-filled Montego Bay, Glistening Waters is Jamaica’s only nature-based nighttime attraction and popular tourist destination. The tours are run out of a small marina and restaurant, with trees, coastal shrubs, and lights of homes on the mountains in the distance. There are few places on the planet with the right conditions to create this incandescent phenomenon. San Diego, the Maldives, and Puerto Rico also have versions of this bioluminescence, but in Jamaica you can swim in it.

As we ventured farther offshore, the darkness of sky and bay became otherworldly. I looked out upon fish becoming lanterns and splashes that transformed into fireworks of blue light. For the first time in what felt like forever, I was awestruck. I was transported far away from the torment of grief into somewhere outside reality. My brain quieted for the first time in months. I had to get in that water.

Goofy me, feeling pumped and punk rock about the beauty of the Jamaican coastline.
photo courtesy of Courtney den Elzen

Each step down the ladder into the water felt like climbing into the sky. The bay wrapped around me, thick and silky, smooth and warm, dynamic and glowing. I was dancing in the water, waxing poetic, thinking that this was what it must feel like to swim through the galaxy. With each movement, I was building comets. As my family stood on the boat and watched me and the microorganisms whirl, they shared in my awe and I encouraged them to climb in and try it. They were all quickly in and out, not quite as enamored with the phenomenon as I was. Nonetheless, I loved sharing it with them on the boat and off. I was in my own almost spiritual experience and they were right there cheering me on, entering in and out of my attention. It was perfect. The first perfect thing since my world fell apart.

Reverence rattled through my body as I floated in water I could make glow. It felt like I was being wrapped up in a blanketed embrace from the universe. It was the most reassuring and understanding of hugs. All year long, the task of healing from the trauma of my dad’s death felt insurmountable. But at Glistening Waters I could feel that changing. It could have been the amazement. It could have been the adventure of it all. Or it really just could have been that water isn’t supposed to glow, and that night I swam in the unimaginable.

It felt like I was being wrapped up in a blanketed embrace from the universe.

Local folklore claims the lagoon brings youth to all who enter it. At first, I dismissed that prospect. I jumped into the waters at 19 years old, perhaps the epitome of young, and walked out looking exactly the same. I can’t help but wonder if the magic of Glistening Waters is actually a trip back to a youth long forgotten. What if it took me back to a time before all of it, to give me a beacon to hold onto during the long slog of grief and healing?

My experience at Glistening Waters gave me something to run toward, instead of away from. In my darkest moments in the following four years, I often forgot where that weird persistent hope even came from or why I even had it, but it stayed with me. Kept me going, even when I honestly didn’t even want to.

I haven’t been back to Glistening Waters and I don’t have plans to. Glistening Waters didn’t cure me. It showed me that one day, I too would glow. It showed me what I needed in my journeys of healing, of growing: big and bold nature and the opportunity to be in my body, immersed in it. I will forever be grateful for the sparkle of hope from Glistening Waters.