How a Sea Turtle Helped Me Grieve

Remember the sea turtle, Zach? The one you saw in Mexico? Remember how peaceful it was, how beautiful? The air was salty and warm. The sea turtle kept swimming alongside us.
Zach nods after each pause between my sentences. His eyes are closed in concentration as he focuses on taking each breath, but he hears me.
He tries to concentrate on our memory instead of his pain. We’re at the beach instead of on the bathroom floor and the fan that’s blowing in our faces, giving him oxygen, becomes an ocean breeze. For a few seconds, he’s calmer and holding my hand with a softened grip.
With each word, I try to pull suffering and pain away from his body- it’s working just a little, but it’s something. For a moment, osteosarcoma hasn’t completely taken him.
Rewind a couple weeks earlier to my feeling of irritation as I listened to the palliative care social worker tell us about a technique called “Guided Imagery.” The method uses words to evoke positive imaginary scenarios to calm and ease the person in the dying process.
It was strange enough to sit by my dying brother and make small talk to fill time while we waited for impending doom. I couldn’t ask questions like “How’s it going?” or “What’s up?” when I could see cancer everywhere: his sallow jaw bones, his eyes, even his smile looked heavier. How could I ask a silly question when the answer was written on his face? Playing “pretend” with my 18-year-old brother seemed even more far-fetched and awkward.
But, looking back on Zach’s short life, I can say that those words were the most meaningful I’ve ever spoken. It was the last scene we shared together, us and the sea turtle. I will never give a speech or have a conversation more vital to my own healing. It aided my own grieving process and I can say for certain that in the mixture of last minute “I love yous” and prayers, it was something unique I could share with my brother on a deep and personal level.
Now, I can remember my experience with Zach’s death and say, “I helped him do it.” By distracting him from his pain, by actively being part of the process with him, the bitterness of loss wasn’t so pungent. I didn’t have to sit powerlessly and watch him die – and that’s the greatest gift I’ve ever been given.
I visit our jetski and sea turtle often, remembering the hot air and the salt in my mouth, holding onto my brother’s life-vest for dear life as we ride around the ocean, slowing down only to glide along a sea turtle. There, in the vastness of blue skies and water, I find peace and the fullest joy of my brother’s life.


2 thoughts on “How a Sea Turtle Helped Me Grieve

  1. Melissa patterson duggins

    Awe, Allii, That is an awesome way of remembering. I love that. And I am sure you calmed him as he went into the clouds. I have thought of you often, hoping that your doing ok. Those of us who have been affected by cancer ( losing both parents), it helps to have those thoughts of others to get thru the ” moments” we all continue to have.

  2. Laura Sapp

    Thank-you Ali, that was a beautiful story. Thanks to you and your wonderful family again for sharing Zach with us. What a blessing.

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