Over the course of a long and successful career as a forceful competitor and tube-chasing freesurfer, California’s Alex Gray always seemed to carry himself with a breezy, casual demeanor, smiling through all manner of heavy water situations. Despite his outward cheerfulness, Gray was struggling internally, avoiding a long overdue grieving process after the passing of his older brother and hero, Chris, who died from a drug overdose when Gray was just 17-years old.
"It was easy to hide because of all of the incredible places I was traveling," Gray says of his pro-surfing career, which kicked off in earnest just a short time after his brother's death. Eventually, though the grief, unexplored for all those years, caught up to him. "I held a lot of guilt, which turned to depression, which finally turned to anger. I couldn't perform sad or depressed but found anger worked. And that's the most toxic emotion we have. Anger is very powerful and used over a long period of time becomes an even darker emotion. So I would use surfing to run from all of this."
Gray, through therapy and the help of friends and family, was eventually able to find solace. But it was a long and difficult road—one he hopes he can help others traverse more constructively. In April, Gray invited anyone who's lost a sibling out to the beach in the South Bay of Los Angeles for a group therapy day, to talk through their grief and tap into the healing powers of the ocean.
"We meet up at the beach. Sit down in a circle. I open the group up with a bit of my story and tools that have helped me through my grief journey. Next everyone is encouraged to surf for an hour," Gray says of the therapy sessions, which he’s hosted every month since, spreading the word through Instagram and a private Facebook page (which you can join, here). “If they don't feel like surfing, they can swim, go for a walk or just relax with their feet in the sand. The point is to let Mother Nature do her work and help us find clarity in that moment. We then gather back together and I give the opportunity for everyone to share about their sibling."
Gray's hosting another session this Saturday again in the South Bay. We recently caught up with him to talk more about his grief journey and the impetus for the AGray Surf Therapy days.
It’s been quite some time since your brother’s death. You’ve talked in the past about how you, through endeavors like competitive surfing, were able to bury many of your emotions related to his passing. When did you realize that bottling things up might not have been the healthiest way to deal?
It's now 14 years since my brother Chris’s passing. The greatest gift he gave me was surfing. It's been so beneficial in my grief journey to honor him through what we shared and loved most with surfing. When he passed away I was 17, about to graduate high-school, and jump on the WQS. It became very hard for me to acknowledge and find acceptance of his death while on the road alone in three separate countries each month. So, I personally and outwardly would use good results as a way of saying, "I'm okay." The issue was when I didn't do well in an event, the pressure I had put on myself to honor my brother would absolutely crumble me. It just wasn't the right way. I held a lot of guilt, which turned to depression, which finally turned to anger. I couldn't perform sad or depressed but found anger worked. And that's the most toxic emotion we have. Anger is very powerful and used over a long period of time becomes an even darker emotion. So I would use surfing to run from all of this. And it was easy to hide with all the incredible places I was traveling. In losing my brother, I became a people pleaser seeing my parents hurting and wanting to show them everything would be okay. I also was able to do that with my sponsors and the public as well. There was simply a lot of running from emotions masked along the way.
Surfing allowed you to keep from thinking about your brother’s death, but I imagine it has also helped you grieve in positive ways, yeah?
Surfing is something I need to do everyday. It's where everything stops and chaotic pointless thoughts of the day wash away and become sorted. An easy statement is that I've never felt worse after a surf [laughs.] I feel incredibly lucky to have found my passion at 12 years old. Still being sponsored now 20 years later, I feel like I made it and achieved my childhood dream. But that's always only been a slice of my surfing importance pie. It's been such a place for me to heal. Surfing has allowed me to overcome my biggest fears, and it's also allowed me to find my self-purpose. I struggled for along time with my personality. I'm an extrovert that also likes to have his solitude. So surfing has always been the best thing in my life. Its funny, if I don't surf I start to feel useless and lose that self-purpose. So I do my best to surf everyday because I know I will simply feel better because of it. I stand with so much gratitude to my family, friends, sponsors, and local community for supporting me along the way. But, I always put my brother as the reason. He's the reason this happened in the first place. And while I wish nothing more than to be sharing it with him, I've made a conscious choice to spiritually bring him along all the way.
You expressed in your Instagram posts that talking about your loss was part of your grieving process. Have you found that talking about it has helped you cope? Also, have you found that there’s a stigma among groups—maybe men or surfers, in general—around expressing grief, sadness, emotion, in general?
Yes. I think it's also many sponsors influencing their athletes only to be "cool" because that's what sells product. A lot of bullshit in there. This day and age surfers have the opportunity to be on a world stage and make a lot of money. We do have a beautiful sport that promotes individuality. And I feel there's nothing more important than that. But I would like to see sponsors there for their athletes when the life event happens. Doesn't matter how talented you are, when tragedy, addiction, or chemical imbalance enters your life that's when the people paying you should be there most. And as for cool. What is cool anymore? We need to be an example of being there for each other and supporting one another. Forget social media status and get back to being kind humans.
When Chris passed I was given a choice to see a therapist. I tried it out and being in a room with a stranger to talk about the thing I least wanted to, was awkward for me. As a side note, I would like to mention I met a great sports psychologist years later named Mike Gervais who helped me very much. I think I was going in to see him about calming my mind in big waves, but just ended up breaking down about my bottled up emotions about my brother instead. So by skipping what I call my "grief homework," I found talking to the public was a great release for me. Six months after my brother passed, I asked to stand in front of my entire local high school. At 18-years old, I was center court in the gym in front of 1,000 high school kids. And I asked for that! I did because my brother's overdose was such a shock. He was a good person—loving, kind, handsome, funny, talented. He just wasn't the person I imagined would die from a drug overdose. But he did. He was a curious young man, partying, with a very addictive gene, that eventually made a choice that would end his life. And my thought process was that if it happened to him it could happen to anyone. And I wanted people to know this. I wanted to save a life. I ultimately wished I saved my brother's life, but now knew I could use his story to positively help others, including myself. So when Instagram came about, I found myself putting photos and posts about Chris to my followers. While I'm sure they followed me for surf purposes, I just always want to acknowledge him. Because he continues to be the most meaningful and influential person in my life after his death. Now those posts are uplifting at times and at times quite dark. I've always wanted the public to know that I deal with this tragedy. That I'm not just the happy-go-lucky person they see on TV or in movies. This is my life. And the public has been very, very kind to me when I put this out there to them. A lot of times I don't realize it but I need their supportive comments on those dark days. So thank you very much to all my followers! You've helped me all along the way and I'm very appreciate of that.
What do the group therapy days entail? And who are the events catered to?
So I thought about doing a sibling grief surf therapy for a few years. Honestly, fear got the best of me until a couple months ago. In April, I stopped thinking about it and acted. I simply put a post out on my Instagram and created a closed Facebook group—Agray Surf Therapy. There were two sides. Number one was to help people grieving over the loss of their sibling. Second, I wanted to use my social media for more. I wanted my social media to be more than just selfish surf posts. I realize I have a big platform to truly help people and thought this would be a great way to utilize it. And this is as personal as it gets for me. So figured I'd start there.
Of course, surfers know the healing aspect of the ocean. But I want to share that with people less familiar with the ocean. Surfing isn't mandatory, but through kind donations, equipment is provided for people to try it. And I love to be the one pushing them into their first wave. Like my brother did for me. The simple formula of the day is: We meet up at the beach. Sit down in a circle. I open the group up with a bit of my story and tools that have helped me through my grief journey. Next everyone is encouraged to surf for an hour. If they don't feel like surfing, they can swim, go for a walk or just relax with their feet in the sand. The point is to let Mother Nature do her work and help us find clarity in that moment. We then gather back together and I give the opportunity for everyone to share about their sibling. The whole process is about three hours from 8am to 11am.
How many have you done so far? And have you been encouraged by the participation/turnout? Is there a moment that sticks out to you that kind of encapsulates your reasons for doing this?
I have done one a month for the last four months. This weekend, Saturday, September 1st will be the fifth. My goal is to do one a month and maybe take it further. I honestly have never had expectations. If anything I'm stoked if one person shows up. Each gathering has had about 25 people. Many people bring a support crew of significant others, family, or friends. And that's encouraged. Your support crew is your rock. This grief group has changed my life. It's a beautiful reminder of how much power we as humans have to simply be there to help each other. Now sibling grief is very unique. It's something overlooked and near impossible to find. So for all of us, simply being around others with this unfortunate uncommon bond is very comforting. I've been so inspired holding space with others who believe in the circle and create a beautiful non-judgmental, respectful energy full of trust. To witness and listen to people speak about the hardest moment in life is very sad. But there's also incredible beauty in it. It's the emotional switch flipping. I relate to every single person who speaks. And I have utmost respect for everyone who attends. It's as real as life gets. It's simple. It's Mother Nature and people helping each other to move forward. Because that's what our siblings would want most for us—to move forward. So we do so by honoring them.
Have you, personally, learned anything new from the sessions? Where are you now with your own grieving process?
Compassion. My compassion cup is full. Anyone who comes to these gatherings gives me a gift from them while sharing about their sibling. And the gift is not materialistic. It's a life gift. The root of it is love and compassion. And does that feel good! I'm tired of running. I realize I can't do it alone. I need help and will continue to the rest of my life. So thank you to everyone out there willing to honestly share their journey. You inspire me to go further and live bigger.
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