How do we navigate grief?

Loved ones have been lost. I acknowledge the loss and the pain in our communities. Lil’watul Jackie Andrew recently shared this teaching on grief, and gave permission for us to repost it here. It came to us via Jackie, from Kihci Têpakohp Iskotêw Iskwêw (Emily Jane Henry) whose Original Home Territory is Ochapowace Cree Nation.

 Teachings on Grief.

I would like to tell you a story about when my father went to the spirit world. My mother was 16 and my father 17 when they married. They were young enough to make life absolute fun. In many ways, we all grew up together. Love was always a vibrant energy flowing throughout our household. Our parents managed to feed us by gardening, gathering wild roots, vegetables, hunting, fishing, and trapping. One day, tragically, my father accidentally died while out hunting; and just like that, my mother became a widow at the age of 24. She was a single young mother in charge of raising 4 children.

My mother’s best friend Eva arrived the night my father died and did not leave my mother’s side for three months. She was so often at our home that we naturally called her Auntie. She was one of the kindest women that I have ever known. We loved her and there was no doubt in our minds that she absolutely loved and adored us as well. During the first weeks after our father’s death, it was Auntie Eva who comforted us. It was Auntie Eva who fed us, cleaned, and dressed us. It was her that kept our home warm as the pain of grief griped its cold hands around our house. It was Auntie Eva who helped us to mend our broken hearts.

In the first days after my father passed, every memory of my father caused my poor mother excruciating pain. One day, she opened a cupboard and absently reached out for a cup and pulled out my father’ favourite cup. She looked at his cup and the sight of it caused her to sink to her knees. She let out a violent scream. It was clearly visible, that her emotional pain turned into debilitating physical pain. Consumed by grief, all she could do was rock. Her scream turned into desperate, pitiful and heart-wrenching cries. I felt as though someone took a knife and violently lashed out at me. I felt a sharp pierce of emotional pain, cut all the way down to my bones. I too missed my father with every fibre of my being and my pain joined hers. Witnessing my mother suffering; made me feel as if my father died all over again. In a desperate attempt to escape her mind’s cruelty, my mother took to her bed and stayed there for nearly two full weeks. She completely stopped functioning. It was as if she had simply made a choice to check out of life.

During those days, my Auntie Eva nursed my mother with gentleness and care as one would do with a highly respected Elder. At the same time, Auntie Eva she cared for us, as if we were her own. The day before the second week of my mother’s bed rest, she instructed us to join her in my mother’s room. She gently requested that we stay still to pay attention, sit quietly, as she was to share a teaching on grief. Her teaching helped me to view grief in a completely different light.

As Auntie Eva motioned us into my mother’s bedroom, I noticed that sitting on the floor sat a buffalo robe. On top of the robe, sat fresh pail of well-water, a basin of water, a clean face cloth, towel and a small tin cup. I smelled the healing smell of sweetgrass which was burning in a small cast iron pan, which was also on the robe. I strained to see the top of the bed and I could see my mother’s face. She was staring vacantly upward, as a steady stream of tears flowed downward. I could tell that she did not even notice our presence. Even at that young age, I had no doubt in my mind that my mother had forever changed. I was truly frightened for the first time in my life. I wondered what would happen to us.

At that moment, Auntie Eva looked towards us with compassion and love. We responded with quiet curiosity. She reached out and took my mother’s hand in hers and tenderly squeezed it. My Auntie Eva began speaking softly, she told us how her câpân (kokum/great-grandmother) talked about how our Ancestors handled grief before the coming of the settlers. She shared, that long ago that when someone died, like today, their relatives experience intensely painful emotions. However, our Ancestors also possessed wonderful knowledge and wisdom about life. They knew that all of us arrived on Mother Earth from the spirit world with our spirit intact. She told us, that means that every person alive has a spiritual being dwelling within our bodies. Our spirit can be felt through our emotions. We demonstrate our feelings in our ability to love and capacity to receive love. Our spirit expresses itself through our self-talk. We are most aware of it when we pay attention to our intuition. She explained, ‘you know when you feel good because you listened to the little voice telling you to do the right thing – that is our intuition. Our spirit also comes alive in laughter, joy; and yes darlings, even pain. Our spirit is eternal; it lives forever. This what I mean when I say that we are born into this world, our spirit comes along with us and never ever leaves us. This means that we remain a spiritual being. Our physical body is a vessel that carries a soul within it. We were born into the world to make a positive difference. To leave the world a better place. However, like any other journey that we take, we eventually reach our destination.’

Auntie Eva told us that one day, when we have done our jobs of making a positive difference in this world, we return to the spirit world. My own sweet mother told me that when we were born, Creator whispered a special secret into our heart. Although we don’t know where or how our journey will end; the secret helps us to choose how we live our journey with the time given us. Still, when the journey ends, it feels abrupt and it causes pain for those left behind.

Auntie Eva shared that when someone dies so young, not one person on Mother Earth can explain why. She believed that it was because we all feel that they left when they had so much more to teach. I recall her saying, ‘I admit that every time I cry, I question why one’s life is cut so short. I call out, ‘Creator, why? Why would you take someone so young?’ With healing and time, I can see the difference that this young person made in the lives of others. Sometimes the teachings include an awakening. Their short life shows us just how brief life is. Sometimes their passing helps people band together for a common purpose to create positive change. It was as if the young person wakes sleeping giants.’

Auntie Eva continued, ‘my dearest ones, I can tell you that I never saw someone love his physical journey more than your father did. I witnessed his love of life. He lived every moment to the fullest. I remember when your mother said she was marrying him and saying to her, ‘but you’re only 16, are you sure?’ When she looked into my eyes, I could see that there was no doubt. I knew then, your father was the love of her life. She made the right choice. When you all came into the world, oh, my dear sweet children, how your father rejoiced. But I need not tell you how much he loved you; he showed it to each and every one of you.’

I remember seeing that as Auntie Eva spoke, every now and then she would squeeze my mother’s hand and with her other hand, she wiped away tears with a facecloth that now freely flowed from her face. With every touch of her hand, I witnessed love’s touch. Afterward, she dried my mother’s face with a towel, and then she had her drink cold water from the cup.

She continued her story, ‘my câpân told us how our Ancestors mark the passing of loved one. In the old days, those closest to the deceased would cut their hair. Hair is important to our people; it represents a part of our spiritual strength. However, when we cut it when our loved one dies, it doesn’t mean we lose our strength. Instead, it just means that we are sacrificing part of ourselves in honour of our loved one. We are letting them know that their presence in our life was part of what made us strong. As our hair grows again, we rebuild our lives. Meaning as our hair grows back with each passing day; we find a way to redefine our new normal. Grief completely changes our life.

My câpân also said that our Ancestors believed that in the entire first year after a person went the spirit world, those left behind grieve in such a way that it can seem like they have gone mad. That means that whenever you feel like crying, need time to be alone, have intense emotions, even anger, you don’t have to feel bad about it. When people know about this teaching, they give you the space to mourn and grieve. They respect the fact that you are openly demonstrating love for the one who went to the spirit world.’ Just as my Auntie Eva finished this statement, I could see that the vacant look in my mother’s eyes being replaced with a thoughtful one. I could feel my father’s presence as Auntie Eva spoke her next sentence, ‘the most beautiful thing about our ceremonies is that our Ancestors are always present. They let us know that there is but a tiny thin vapour of mist between the spirit and physical world and that love travels freely from one side to the next.’

After my Auntie wiped my mother’s tears, she moved to the front room and with a clean cloth, towel and cup for each of us, she went through the ceremony with us. Afterwards, I recall feeling as if I could breathe again.

The very next day, my mother left her room. I could see that her once long flowing hair was cut to just above her shoulders. Out of nowhere, a red robin gently floated to sit on the window sill. It remained there as if observing the activities of our home. My mother noticed the robin and it was the first time she smiled since my father’s passing. She whispered to me that her kokum (grandmother) told her that the robin is comforter. It arrives to help people in the grieving time. It holds the spirit of the person who passed on, it is a message to let us know that they are at peace. Her words were like a huge hug that wrapped my heart in love.

My Auntie Eva’s words were true, in that first year; our family mourned. We cried, we were angry, we spent time alone, sometimes we just sat together, and sometimes, we huddled on the floor crying while holding one another. We spent a lot of time in the sweat lodge that year and it was there as I lay down with my head upon Mother Earth, I could feel my father’s love surround me as he embraced me from the spirit world. Afterwards, I notice a robin sitting quietly observing us. Their message of love embraced us all.

When Auntie Eva’s husband made his way to the spirit world, it was my mother turn to sit with her as she cut her hair. It was her turn to care for her best friend. When my mother died, Auntie Eva retold us the teaching of grief as we mourned. She held our hands as we cut our hair. The deep and abiding love of friendship. Fifty-eight years after my father died, my Auntie Eva went to the spirit world and we grieved her through ceremony. Once again a robin came to sit with us and we knew its presence was meant to reassurance and comfort us. My Auntie Eva’s words following my mothers death, now helped me grieve her death, she said, ‘my girl, out of the deepest grief, the most profound love blossoms and healing grows’. I believe that with all my heart and soul.

Kākithaw niwākomākanak (All My Relations),Kihci Têpakohp Iskotêw Iskwêw (Emily Jane Henry)Original Home Territory: Ochapowace Cree Nation

Art by Pam Cailloux.

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