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The One Last Wave Project, founded by Dan Fischer in 2022 after experiencing personal loss, seeks solace and healing for grieving individuals and families. Through the project, loved ones' names are meticulously etched onto surfboards, and each submission is personally read by Dan, ensuring a heartfelt connection. The project's logo seamlessly combines the imagery of surfing with the sensitivity of grief, fostering a sense of community and understanding. There are five boards, each adorned with approximately 2000 names, and the highly anticipated sixth board, shaped by Ryan Lynch, is set to be released soon in Santa Cruz, California. With plans to expand globally, Dan aims to bring the project to various surf breaks worldwide. The One Last Wave Project is a poignant reminder that the opportunities to honor and remember loved ones are boundless, providing comfort and instilling hope one wave at a time. Withitgirl had the opportunity this summer to chat with Daniel and paddle further into the depth of his project and what he has learned since its inception.

Board Number No. 6, made by Ryan Lynch of Timber Surf Co, will be launching soon in Santa Cruz - send your submission here! If you miss the window -Board No. 7, created by the longboard pro Ben Skinner is in production.

Photo by Steven Senne (2022)

Boards 1,2,3,4, Photo by Samantha Robshaw (2022) Second Beach, Middletown RI

Your project has gained significant traction since your TikTok post went viral on [Jan 4, 2022]. Reflecting on the past year + and as you prepare to release your 6th board, what are the key takeaways, insights, and experiences that have shaped your journey?

I frequently revisit that moment out in the waves, surrounded by sunbeams and salt water, with just my dad’s name written on the nose of my board. Admittedly, it is hard to grasp how that simple decision to record a TikTok has reshaped the course of my life as I knew it. Now standing at the brink of the release of a new board, this time in Santa Cruz, California, home of the mighty redwoods where earth meets the sea, I take time to reflect upon the journey this project has taken me. When I founded the One Last Wave Project (OLWP) to help cope with the loss of my father and best friend, I never imagined it would coalesce into such a mighty community of compassionate, supportive, ocean loving grievers from around the world. Our collective global stories of love and loss have become beacons of hope for all those navigating the stormy seas of grief. Together, there is a shared solace, strength, and courage to ride those waves and a loving reminder that we are not alone, despite that often-overwhelming feeling that comes with such a devastating loss.

Unlike the heart wrenching lessons in love that life throws our way early on, most people facing a loss are ill equipped to handle it, I know I certainly was. And yet, grief is unequivocally an inescapable universal human experience, much like love. While happiness draws people to you, grief often pushes them away, leaving you alone and in silence with your pain. The OLWP community has evolved into a vital lifeline in this journey, a stable ground from which to understand and cope with this experience and celebrate the beauty of life. Even during the covid era, a virtual embrace of understanding from compassionate individuals walking a similar path to yours provided a safe space for people to express their full emotions, empowering each other to navigate the deep complexities of grief, fostering resilience and hope along the way. Vulnerability did not come naturally to me; however, the more I opened myself to the process and those around me, the more healing I experienced, which I think had a positive emotional contagion to it.

Small acts of kindness can have far reaching positive impacts on the lives of those around us. I certainly never considered my act of writing the name of a lost loved one onto a surfboard to be a grand gesture and yet its heartfelt simplicity resonated. Fortunately, I receive a beautiful daily reminder of how significant it has been in providing comfort and peace to others. The lesson here is that regardless of our circumstances, we all have the ability to extend a hand of kindness to those in need. Tackling the magnitude of challenges facing our world is daunting and often leads to a sort of paralysis of action. However, realizing that you do not need to change the world to change someone’s life has reverberated within our community and gives me hope for all that the project can accomplish.

Daniel on Board 2 Photo by Caitlin Castro (2022) First Beach, Newport RI

The ocean and surfing have long served as therapeutic escapes in my times of need, humbly inviting me to embrace the present and savor the happiness found in the simplest of human experiences. It is why I chose to honor my father in that place and in that way. As I have discovered along this tumultuous road, there are two sides to any struggle and I have found healing by recognizing and then leaning into the happy side of grief. That may sound strange to some, but for me, there is a catalog of love, both expressed and unexpressed, to explore, positive memories shared and meaningful ways to honor those we have lost. I chose to embrace those moments and passions that brought them joy. When I am out there, amidst the waves, there is an energetic and emotional reset, my worries fade and that shared joy takes center stage, guiding me forward.

You mentioned the importance of maintaining a connection by reading all submissions as the project scales. Could you elaborate further on the significance of this practice and how it has influenced your approach?

Throughout my own tumultuous grief journey, I felt very isolated, alone, and that no one could understand what I was going through. As I started speaking to more people, I realized that while our paths to arrive here may have been different, we could still support each other simply by recognizing the struggle.

Within the first few days of the project, it became clear that the more I carved out space to connect on a personal level, the more people shared their feelings, memories, and pain in a way that was authentically their own. That personal approach is significant because it acknowledges the uniqueness of an individual's struggle and fosters a relationship of symbiotic healing. It also allowed me to be specific in saying this is what worked for me and here is how I am going to help you. That is especially helpful when you are overwhelmed by a sense of emotions. By honoring them while seeking support, healing becomes a personalized and meaningful process.

Board 1, Photo by Jennifer Manville (2022), Surfer’s End, Middletown RI

Board 3, shaped by Dave Levy, Photo by Daniel (May 2022) LSD Surf Designs, Narragansett, RI

I was given a choice to automate the process but declined. It is important to understand the depth and significance of each life on the board and to accomplish that the personal connection was central. To this day, with 10,000+ submissions, I continue to read every one. It is the same reason why our boards are hand shaped, why I write the names on one by one, and continue to surf them all the time.

Can you share any specific submissions that have deeply resonated with you and brought valuable insights to your project?

Unfortunately, every submission I receive is heart wrenching and from an individual bravely embarking upon their own grief journey, something I want to protect. It takes incredible strength and vulnerability to share these emotionally painful stories of those they have loved and lost. They come from every corner of the world, filmmakers, firefighters, teachers, artists, doctors, athletes, mothers, fathers, sisters, brothers, and, too often, children. Each is unique and affects me deeply. I am happy to share some, but I would not share their names out of respect for their privacy.

A common thread among the submissions has been a loved one’s passion for life and an understanding of its fragility. As a father, some of the hardest to read are those for children whose lives were taken too soon. Their impact and brilliance burn brightly, forever in the hearts of their families. I have etched the names of a young aspiring African American surfer who was shot and killed at age 8, a 4.5-year-old girl who died from leukemia and dreamed of being by the ocean playing with the dolphins before she passed, a young student, submitted by his teacher, who suffered a sudden and undetected brain aneurysm in class. To know them was to know the sweetest, kindness, and purest love.

There are submissions from those fighting for their lives, many in palliative care, with their last dying wish to be on one of the boards and return to the waves where they felt at peace. On one occasion, two months into the project, when I was spending 18 hours days responding to submissions, I received an unlikely email from a woman from my hometown of Montreal, Canada. She shared with me how she was battling terminal pancreatic cancer and informed me that all treatments had ceased but would love a ride on one of my surfboards. Over the coming days and weeks, we e-mailed frequently and developed a close friendship. Remarkably, I came to learn she lived only blocks away from where I had grown up and that she was a nurse at the same hospital where my father had battled pancreatic cancer in the palliative care ward. When I let her know she would be riding forever on board 3, she wrote,

Board 3, Photo by Samantha Robshaw (2022 ) Second Beach, Middletown RI

"I feel so honored you have taken me on this journey. My heart sang when I read what you wrote to me. It brought tears to my eyes and a hope. The ocean is my favorite place of all, the waves, the water, the power, the smells. How I long for a visit but I’m not allowed to travel now anymore. I tell people I'm a palm tree, not a pine tree. I'm an ocean girl and surfed many eons ago in my younger days." That was the last e-mail I received from her, but we continue to be out there often in those waves as she wanted to be.

Art and grief have always had a strong connection for me. Often in our darkest moments, we turn to art (music, poetry) to make sense of the pain we feel and connect to others who are creating it and the moments they have experienced. One submission, from a daughter who submitted her father, who died of terminal cancer, shared her devotion to honoring his dream to make a film. She did that by beautifully creating one about his love for the outdoors and lessons on living. I couldn’t think of a more fitting way to celebrate his life and passions.

While we all come into this world in much the same way, life finds different ways for us to leave it and the gravity of that reality is never lost on me. I have learned much from each person I have connected with. My interactions with families are raw, vulnerable, and honest, teaching lessons on courage, selflessness and the importance of living life to the fullest regardless of our circumstances.

Expanding the program to different countries and surf breaks: How do you envision this expansion, and what factors need to be considered as you venture into new territories?

The driving factor for the expansion is to offer an opportunity for families of loved ones from around the world to honor them in the places that were most meaningful to them. It is important for families not just to see the boards surfed on social media but to experience them in person. The goal is to help heal hearts as well as the communities the boards are released in.

There are a multitude of factors to consider starting with finding the right person to take the reins in each location. There is a certain sensitivity that I look for when working with someone. These are not just surfboards but active memorials carrying the lives and love of 2000 plus families. For board 7, Sam Joyce, a surfer from Cornwall, UK, had reached out wanting to get involved. He had honored his dear friend on the 4th board and wanted to help others find healing as well. Early on in our conversations, I could tell he understood the magnitude of what he was taking on. He was empathetic, passionate, and hopeful, similar traits I look for when seeking help in other aspects of the project.

There are considerations of suitable locations, shapers willing to not only build the boards but work with us in creating these works of art and beacon of healing, artists to create designs, timing the launches (ex: board 5 was released on Independence Day in South Africa), what are the local vibes at each break, how the weather will be, and of course will there be waves.

The scalability of healing through the One Last Wave Project depends upon the generosity, selflessness, and support of others. I wish I could be at every location at once, helping surf each board, but I am excited to help others launch boards at their local breaks and incredibly stoked to see where we will head next.

Board 5, Photo by Sean Thompson (April 2023) Cape Town, South Africa

From your experiences, how does the experience of water, waves, and swells contribute to our cultural and individual understanding of death and grieving? What insights have you gained regarding the diverse ways in which people process grief?

The unpredictable nature of the ocean serves as a great metaphor for the diverse ways in which people grieve and the spectrum of emotions they experience along the way. It certainly mirrors my own journey through grief, which started quietly, unnoticed by most, and then swelled into immense waves of sorrow and despair before finally crashing painfully and eventually receding back until the next appeared. Until I started working through grief, I never truly understood why I was so drawn to the ocean for therapy. My father’s death shook me to my core and I returned to the ocean daily to cope, connect, and attempt to pull myself from the emotional paralysis, finding a healing silence amidst its violent turbulence.

There is something innately therapeutic about the uncertainty of the ocean’s fluctuations, whether you are standing at its shore or driving down the line on the curling face of a wave. It provides a medium that connects us all. We came from it, are composed of it, and have a life sustaining dependence upon it. And yet, our path to healing and the methods we employ for coping with it vary tremendously. Some plunge head first into it like a tumultuous storm, while others wade cautiously, dipping their toes in one at a time. Some, like myself initially, seek solace in solitude, while others are immediately drawn to the strength from community. Regardless of the approach, grief, like water, is a unifier. It reminds us of our shared vulnerability, the fleeting nature of life, and the power of embracing each of our unique journeys through it.

While grief is an extremely personal and dynamic journey, we must honor and support one another's individual paths in addition to our own. In speaking with family members, a common thread has been the importance of safeguarding our emotional peace, to nurture mental health and reduce stress. I now make a point to prioritize self-care, work on establishing healthy boundaries, and engage in activities that bring me happiness daily. Again, that is an individual choice but one that seemed to ring true across the board alongside engaging in a community of those who understand your struggle. By doing so, I think you gain the confidence to navigate these rough waters with more clarity, and embrace all of life's beauty with a tranquil heart. In the end, life is just a series of spontaneous moments, and we are offered a choice to ride or resist. I have always chosen to just let it flow.

Last summer, I asked people submitting their loved ones to include one of their favorite songs to this Spotify playlist so that each time I went out to surf, I could play the songs as a way to celebrate something they loved.

Any books that have helped you?

A few I’ve read and thoroughly enjoyed this year are,

The Last Lecture by Randy Pausch, Jeffrey Zaslow

The Boy With Two Hearts by Hamid Amiri

Think Like a Horse - Lessons in Life, Leadership and Empathy by Grant Golliher

Any other links to resources - you want to share that have been helpful to you?

I’ve found many grief podcasts, Facebook groups, and various social media accounts quite helpful. As I share often, I think most people initially grieve in silence, feeling alone in their pain. The more I shared and read about others' journeys, the less I felt like it was only happening to me. These resources allow you to consume the emotional vulnerability of others at your own pace until you reach a point where you want to dive in.


Additional Information

The One Last Wave Project

LSD Surf Designs Instagram

Photographers Mentioned:

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