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A Totem for Tommy – A Journey of Grief

“This is a portion of a longer blog I wrote about a kayaking trip I took to British Columbia and how that trip affected the health of my vagus nerve.  As writing often does, this piece of that blog, took on a life of its own.”

I pray…a lot.

Prayer anchors me. And, on this particular trip, I had only one specific prayer…keep reading to see what that prayer was and how it came about. From the standpoint of the vagus nerve, prayer is believed to increase vagus activation (good thing).  Scientists have observed that when we pray we slow down our breathing to the cadence of the prayer. This in turn increases heart rate variability and therefore vagus function (another good thing and another blog).  So, praying was giving health to my vagus nerve.

The day we arrived on the little island as part of the “getting to know us” talk, the outfitter, Larry told us that previous campers had made and left “totems”. The totems were little creations such as hanging mobiles made of driftwood and beach glass or stacked rock formations. Larry said that if the “totem” survived the harsh winter then it could stay indefinitely. Well, the whole totem-creating idea just didn’t resonate with me. I couldn’t think of a single thing to create and leave. After some contemplation what bubbled up for me was not leaving a totem but leaving something else – a deep and profound sadness. I wanted to leave a sadness and the anger that bound it tightly to my heart. I felt myself resist because part of me wanted to hold on to this sadness. Yet, equally I felt that it was time to close my biggest heart’s wound – my son’s death. I prayed for guidance on how to do this.

A prayer bubbles up…

As I walked the island alone, this silent prayer would naturally emerge, swimming around me, and then go off to wherever prayers go. On the third morning I awoke very early, before others, and decide to walk over to where our kayaks were beached to see if there were any whales swimming across that part of the strait. Only quiet existed except for lapping water, my footsteps, and my breath. As I looked at the water a small head appeared, slowly lifting itself about 14 inches out of the water. It was a young seal. He was alone (odd behavior) and made eye contact with me (odder yet). We held our mutual gaze for what seemed like forever, but in reality was probably only seconds.

I was immediately taken back to images of my son, as a little boy, popping up out of the Pacific Ocean, our pool, the tub, the Gulf – any water. He loved the water. It was his element. His thin, blonde hair slicked down to his head. He looked like a little seal.

Then the seal before me went under and turned and swam away. I ran the trail over to the next little cove and saw the seal slowly skirting the island moving in the direction of the cove nearest my tent. I headed that way. When I got to my little cove he was already there and appeared to be waiting for me. Head up. Looking at me as I rounded the crest of the hill. Again we held a gaze. Then he did the strangest thing – he nodded to me…twice. A wild seal not a trained one, nodded at me. As if to say: let go of the sadness, let go of the anger. Leave them here. Leave them here. I did. I left them on this little Sophia Island in British Columbia for the harsh winter to deal with.  What I brought home was a totem, a seal totem.

Medicine of the totem…

I didn’t know before writing this but the medicine of the seal totem is said to assist humans in moving through emotions with ease and contentment. The seal represents creativity, imagination and spiritual understanding. I can’t say that I understand why my son died at age 21 but I am coming to understand how to grieve him, to honor his existence, and his passing. Nor would I say I feel contentment but my heart is less heavy, the anger abating.

As I stated, prayer anchors me. Now when I start to drift back into sadness and anger over Tommy’s passing, and I pray, the prayer is intertwined with a different vision. I see a seal who is Tommy, who is swimming free, who is nodding to me, who is giving me permission to let go.

Grief and sharing the journey…

Grief is so personal. I opened a door into mine so that you might glimpse into that room of my heart. We all have grief. It’s part of it. Part of this human walkabout. Praying and then listening helps me. Sharing my journey helps too. What I have learned is that it doesn’t have to be a solitary walk. This day, the day of this post, September 11, 2016 marks the anniversary of Tommy’s passing…my boy, the seal.

Denise Amick, M.S., RYT is a Registered Mental Health Counseling Intern who sees private clients at Arya Therapy Services and works at two inpatient addictions treatment facilities as both a therapist and a yoga teacher. She holds a masters degree in Counseling and Psychology. Denise’s educational and professional background provides her a wide range of life experiences from which to pull and connect her more deeply with her clients.  If you’d like to contact Denise, please email her at

  1. Harriet


    September 11, 2016 at 5:55 pm -

    Thank you for sharing. How awesome for you to have such a visceral experience to deliver a new layer of peace. Loss sucks for sure, I will think of you and Tommy when I see a seal from now on, and I will smile. I think I need to find my venue where I can build a totem for my living grief. Hugs on this dat that changed everything.

  2. Laurie


    September 11, 2016 at 9:57 pm -

    My heart to you.

  3. Mary Harper

    Mary Harper

    September 12, 2016 at 5:49 pm -

    Wow …so beautiful Denise, your Tommy was beautiful! ..((Hugs and Love)).. !!

    Thank you,

  4. Anna Orr

    Anna Orr

    September 12, 2016 at 7:11 pm -

    I love you. Thank you for sharing your beautiful story.


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