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Here is The Wonderful Way My Kids Teach Me To Deal With Grief

I sat in the sand watching them play in the waves.  The sun warmed the wide open stretch of sand between us, a good hundred and fifty yards.  My three children popped in and out of the surf, visible because of their fluorescent swimsuits and rash-guards.  I saw their hands flap in the air as they danced between the white fluffy crests, hanging in the break as only a child hoping to catch the wave with their body would do.

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I felt the weight of my book in my hands and luxuriated in the freedom of having three strong swimmers and being able to relax a bit while they swam with their father.  But grief was resting in my lap right next to my book as I thought of our friend who had passed after a year plus struggle with cancer.  I thought of all the things he wouldn’t do: dance with his daughter at her wedding, sit on the beach with us on a vacation, eat peanut butter and jelly flavored mixed nuts or swim with his kids.

I put the book down and reapplied my sunblock.  I stood up for the long haul walk across the sand, something I have never enjoyed, and enjoy less now with my post-partum body of three.  But I felt the lure of my kids, wanting mommy to join in the ocean.  A look of surprise and delight spread over their faces as they realized I was coming in.  They squealed with delight when I dove under the water and joined them in the break.

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How could I miss this?  My husband smiled and swam to me, his olive skin glistening, beads of water beading up on the sunblock covering his face.  The impermanence of all of us set against the vast blue sea that would outlive us all, and against which we are merely teeny blips on the timeline of the planet, shook me.  “It will be okay,” was no longer part of my core vocabulary.  Who knows what will happen, how long we have, when we will get our call.

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I danced in the waves with my children and marveled at their passion for bodysurfing, was this something I had passed along with my curls and tan skin?  What had happened to the fearlessness I felt as a child?  I crouched in the break with my husband and three children,waiting for the perfect wave. As it moved up we braced ourselves and caught the wave together.  I mistimed the act of paddling and the speed of the water.  It caught me from the rear and flipped me over.  I tumbled, completely at the mercy of the forces of nature.  I stayed calm and thought when I feel it recede I will right myself and come up for air.

The water around me stilled, and I rose to the surface, my eyes closed against the salt water and bright sun.  My head emerged, facing the endless sea, just as another wave hit, because my eyes were closed it caught me unaware, and I started coughing as I was thrust below the surface again. I held my breath, swam outward past the break and reemerged, albeit more cautiously than I had before.

I caught my breath then laughed.  My children stared at me, aghast and fearful.  They had watched their friends walk their father’s casket down the aisle of the church four days earlier.  They played in the ocean but the sadness and permanence of the situation nestled in their hearts, was teased out into the open when they saw their mother tossed about.  How scary their world must seem right now.

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When we sat at the funeral I thought I must be grateful that we live in a country where funerals and graveyards exist, while people are dying in heatwaves and being tossed into the streets in other countries, and remembered our blessings.

But this isn’t something to share with children, and it isn’t really something to think about during your grieving process.  My therapist says, “you aren’t in India, that isn’t relevant to your grief, allow yourself to feel sad without feeling guilty.”

I stood in the water, the light bouncing off of the blue ocean and into my eyes, I watched my children struggle with their anxiety, a new emotion for them.  How does a parent grieve without feeling guilty?

We had driven to the beach the day of the funeral.  We had to stop halfway at a Garden Inn.  I was beginning to regain the feelings that had been turned off for days after our friend’s death, the way an arm wakes up after you have slept with it underneath your head.  My emotions were coming to life at an alarming pace as the adrenaline washed out of me leaving only a black hole of fear and loss.  I wept in the small room of the hotel we were in. No, wept sounds too civilized; I howled, there was nowhere to hide from my children.  I told them it was okay for mommy to be sad.  We slept.

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Who knew you could wake up crying?  My husband had gone for coffee.  I walked into the hotel bathroom and turned on the water hoping I wouldn’t wake the children with my sobbing.  I heard a knock, my daughter, “Mommy just needs a minute.”

Another knock, I thought she was worried about me, I looked at my face in the mirror, swollen like a tomato, eyes rimmed with black circles and puffy to the point of elephantiasis.  If I opened the door I would scare her.  Another knock.  “Mommy, please I have to go potty.”

I opened the door.  “Mommy I am so sorry,” said my eight year old.  She had started to have an accident, because I had shut the door to her, oblivious to the fact that she needed the toilet,  oblivious to the fact that I was in the bathroom and not a padded white cell.  My children needed me to be present and capable, and somehow, the grief had to share the front seat with them. I had to learn how to deal with grief, without letting them feel my sorrow.

“Honey, it’s okay, it’s mommy’s fault.  I am so sorry I didn’t know you had to go potty, and I didn’t want you to see me crying again.  I am okay, we are okay.  Let’s give you a bath and get dressed.”

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My daughter swam to me in the ocean, “Are you okay mommy?”  No, I thought.  “Yes” I said.  I don’t even know what okay is I thought, but I owe it to them to figure it out.  We swam for days.  I can’t imagine that I will be able to spend much time on the sidelines now.  We are in the sweet spot.  My kids still want to be with me, I am young and healthy enough to participate.  The books sit on the beach waiting for the days when my children no longer call me to them.  And slowly but surely we start to become okay.  We rise from the waves, tumbled and worn, but we rise, and continue to swim.

How do you deal with grief?

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Helen Elizabeth Boulos
Helen Boulos is a mother of three kids, two dogs and two cats. When she isn’t reading about how not to helicopter parent, or driving her kids to one of their many activities (because the books aren’t working) she enjoys writing, reading and occasional stress relief through shoe shopping. She has put her Masters Degree in Education from UVA to good use trying to unravel the mysteries of her own children’s educational and psychological development. Find her at her blog.
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