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The Cry of Ohana

One of my first memories as a child is standing on a beach. It was in Honokowai, just north of Lahaina on Maui. I smelled like sunscreen and remembered the bits of shade coming through the sun stroked palm trees. There was a light warm breeze blowing, kissing my cheeks and eyes, and the warm sand was slowly shifting under my feet. In the background was the regular lapping of small waves on the shore and silence like I have never heard. It was pure, organic, clear, beautiful silence. And peace. My father was waist high in the water with a snorkel and mask, inviting me in to teach me how to swim in the ocean.

All of a sudden, that clear silence was broken by a woman running towards us on the beach yelling. She was screaming at us while pointing out into the ocean at something I could not see. I remember not being able to understand her because she was so far away. My father moved towards her, spoke to her briefly and then looked out past the shoreline. Without a second thought or hesitation, he dove into the water and began swimming out towards the open sea.

From behind me I heard someone else’s feet pounding on the beach. My eyes focused in as another man splashed at running speed into the waves and dove into the water, following my father towards someone. There is strong current that runs between the islands, they call the channel. Once out there, you can be easily guided away from land and into open waters. A woman had fallen asleep on her inflatable raft and was heading dangerously close to the open seas. She was sound asleep and had no idea what was happening to her.

I heard yelling as they tried to wake her up, my father told me later, they shook the raft to wake her up and get her back to shore. Frightened, the woman was so grateful. That was the first time I experienced my father as a hero.

The second time was when we were traveling in Canada. With its winding roads, majestic mountain ranges, and miles of lush fir, spruce and cedar forests, we were abruptly stopped that day due to something happening on the suspension bridge in front of us. Again, without a second thought, my father pulled over, hit the hazard lights and got out, running towards the bridge. He was not the only one. A group of people were running to help. Too late, he later told me. The woman had already jumped to her death, far below into a steep canyon ravine. He was pensive as he spoke about it. I could feel a sadness in him that I will never forget, for someone he never met. He wanted to help her, give her a chance. Offer her support. He wanted her to live. He never got that chance.

As I watch the videos of the fires in Lahaina, I want to be the person that jumps into the water to save those people, like my father did that day. I want to be the one that races over to get the loved one out of the house before it burns down. I want to be the one that helps get all of those cars with people in them out of the area safely. I want to brings supplies. I want to rescue, I want to save, and I want to protect. I want to give back the life everyone was living, along with the fresh air and the land, the streets, the businesses and the neighborhood they knew. I want to return to them the love, the relationships and ohana they have that is no more. But I can’t. I can’t do any of it. I’m simply a mere mortal, a mom sitting at my desk, far away on the mainland watching the news channels and videos on TikTok. I’m just one woman feeling the loss from afar, feeling the brevity of tragedy, hitting so many people on a really deep level.

When my ex-husband suicided in 2014, it was, like many, unexpected. It hit me like a Mack truck. I had been a counselor at the time and didn't understand how that could happend while I was helping so many others. I didn't understand how that could happen to a man I had spent 17 years with. I didn’t understand how that could happen to him, to us, to our children. I still don’t. My grief has settled down over the years, although sometimes I still can’t believe it. I began a grief that day that will last a lifetime. And I’m ok with that now. That day I was ushered into the world of misery and despair and became one of the inconsolable. It’s a world where things don’t make sense, you don't always get resolution and things can feel hard to bear. It's where tragedy forces you to make hard decisions and has so many questions. It is where things may never feel fully resolved, and feel more like a permanent layer of unsettledness, always reminding you that things are different now. And they are really gone.

Fire as a natural force has such a power. It truly is a force like no other. And tragic loss is also such a force. It’s not just about the fact someone died, it’s how they died that also matters. It's that so many people were involved. It’s the realization that children were hurt, parents were lost, friends disappeared, and family animals were killed. It’s the fact that a wonderful city, with its long, beautiful history just burned to the ground. It’s the missing harbor and the burned Banyan tree. It’s not being able to see the Wyland mural with the great whale on the wall on Front Street. It’s the realization that so many wonderful people, people who were living and ok, suddenly and randomly are missing or are gone. Forever. Tragic loss can knock the wind right out of you, it can blur your mind and force you down a path you never expected or wanted.

To those whose loved ones are missing, hold on. Breath into the waiting and the hope. It’s not over yet. To those that have survived, hold on. Yes, something major has just happened. Breath in life. Breath it deeply into your lungs, your heart, your mind, and your soul. To those that are nearby and have had to stand and witness this tragedy, day after day now, hold on. Breath in gratitude and self-care. Breath in strength and resilience. Reach out and help those around you. Be nice, be kind and be patient. Be respectful. Be helpful.

To those that know their family is gone, hold on. Breath into the terrible thing that has just happened. Know that you are not alone, we are with you, in spirit and in love. Know that there are those of us that have suffered from a tragedy, maybe not your loss, but something of equal brevity. We understand that it will be difficult to get through it, we know what that is like. We know your suffering; we are there sitting with you, holding your hand, sharing your tears, struggling with the words to explain this terrible terrible thing that has just happened that makes no sense. And we will be here with you to help you move through it.

For now, just keep living. Keep breathing. Keep thinking, keep feeling, and keep loving.

With the deepest sympathy,

Karen Atkinson, MA, CPC

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