Dear Mindful Friends and Relatives,
It is said that death is inescapable and unpredictable. Death is not easy for most of us to discuss, comprehend, or accept. When it strikes it often leaves us in stages of deep grief and suffering, searching our souls to understand Death’s purpose. When I think of memorable quotes about death there is an Eskimo saying that helps me see the connections between the loss of our loved ones and the knowledge that they have left their suffering here, on earth. It goes like this, “Perhaps they are not stars, but rather openings in heaven where the love of our lost ones pours through and shines down upon us to let us know they are happy.” I love this quote since it reminds me that, even though we feel much grief at the passing of our relatives and friends, their deaths connect them to something beyond us; to all things beautiful and free.
For several years there has been a continuous stream of tragic, preventable, premature deaths in the different communities on my reservation (Fort Berthold reservation in North Dakota). The number of deaths over the years has been excessive and steady and many of us we have not healed from the passing of our relatives and friends. Many of us carry the complicated, heavy feelings of grief and trauma in our hearts and minds. Unfortunately, it seems that Death will continue to be a frequent visitor to our part of the world since there does not seem to be a comprehensive plan, by the people and for the people, to stand up to Death.
On our reservation, Death results from various, preventable health-related causes such as cancer, heart disease, obesity, depression, and diabetes. Death from substance abuse and alcohol, also preventable, is common. Accidents are by far the largest killer on the reservation, especially vehicle crashes. Then there are the violent deaths: murder and suicide which strip away our hope, sense of security, and order, and leave us broken and damaged. Murder and suicide are, perhaps, the most difficult to heal from.
Recently, New Town/Fort Berthold residents Martha Johnson (age 64) and her three grandchildren Benjamin (13), Julia (10), and Luke Shuster (6) were murdered in their home by a young man named Kalcie Eagle (age 21), a tribal member. Martha and her grand kids were not tribal members. This story has been covered by several national newspapers and networks and has detailed what happened in this horrible tragedy. The killings shocked the community and many folks doing a lot of soul searching following this awful event. I cannot imagine the grief, confusion, and anguish that Martha and her grand children’s family and friends must be going through. When such awful, heartbreaking events happen so quickly and violently, coping with the shock, numbness, and the psychological disorganization that occurs, is sometimes the only thing that is possible.
It is must be also be exceptionally painful and difficult for the parents and relatives of Kalcie Eagle, who ended up tragically taking his own life shortly after the murders. It’s such a terrible, sad situation for the families, relatives, and friends of all the deceased. And, what to say at times like this to aid in understanding of why these deaths happened and how all involved can heal, is difficult when so much suffering, confusion, and sadness is at hand.
In this column, I would like to offer my condolences and an abundance of healing thoughts and prayers to everyone affected by this tragedy, especially the families and relatives of the deceased. I send loving thoughts and happiness to those that have passed as they journey from this world to the next. Healing from what’s happened will take some time and a lot of deep reflection, acceptance, and forgiveness from all involved. And, while it may seem too soon to offer some prescriptions or thoughts of how to prevent more tragedies of this nature, I would ask the families and relatives of the deceased to forgive me for moving forward to do so.
First, what may be most important to remember is that, even though what’s happened is gut and heart wrenching, the affected families and community can and will heal and recover. Many times when an extremely adverse trauma is still fresh and being processed, many folks feel like they may never recover from what’s happened. This is a normal (but very difficult) response in dealing with the early stages of death and grief. At this point, it is important for the aggrieved to be able to find safe places to express their heartache and sorrow, and to be supported as they do so.
Second, it is essential for all that are affected to allow themselves to believe that healing and recovery can and will happen. Research shows over and over again that those people that live the longest, happiest, and healthiest lives following a traumatic event, are folks that have faith (or believe) they can heal and recover. They are individuals that adapt well in the face of adversity and can turn tragedy into opportunities for positive change. We should never underestimate the human capacity to thrive after serious adversity. It is important for these kinds of folks, the thrivers and survivors to come forward, reach out, and offer stories of hope and healing to all that have been affected by this recent tragedy. And, if healing from death is to come full circle, it is also important that the survivors extend their knowledge and wisdom to all those that have yet to recover from the past tragic deaths in the community and on the reservation. Someone once said that we are all healers, and when we reach out to one another with compassion, love, and good intentions, we open an incredible space for healing to happen.
Third, it is important to remember that there is a remarkable life force in unity. The energy that emanates from humans that are unified with one another is simply amazing. None of us have all of the answers or even the strength that is required to deal with the many difficult challenges we will face in our lifetimes. Nearly everyone one of us needs support, guidance, and wisdom from others in order to successfully to navigate our way through this world. Human beings do not do well when isolated from others; even individual achievements are not individual achievements. Often, they are possible because someone, or a company of someone’s, during an earlier time, provided a road map that could be followed. History shows that when humans join forces and walk the road of difficulty together, support one another, and remain unified for a common cause, almost anything can be attained.
If all community members, Native and non-Native, come together to talk about the tragedy, the reasons it happened, and form a united front to work together to prevent further calamities from happening, the community will not only heal, it will become stronger, healthier, and intimately interconnected in a way that, right now, may not seem possible.
Fourth, it takes a community to heal a community. The most effective response to the current and past deaths on our reservation must come from within the communities and not from the outside. The approach must be a community-driven, involving all sectors of the population: young, old, grassroots, professional, men, women, parents, Native and non-Native, and civic, religious, and political leaders. Don’t get me wrong. There are a lot of good folks including grief counselors, social workers, healers, and religious leaders that are from outside the community that can be helpful and support the healing that goes on. But, they play a peripheral role; it’s an important periphery, but it is secondary nonetheless. For what happens when the outside folks leave? Who is going to take over the healing processes? Whose is going to implement and maintain the necessary organizational and relationship changes and strengthening that need to take place in order for healing to occur?
When I visited Fairbanks, Alaska last spring to present my work on mindfulness to several University of Alaska Native social work students, faculty, and community professionals, I came to understand just how important these questions are. During a talk a Native elder spoke of how the large number of murders and suicides that were being committed in her village were devastating and heartbreaking for all the people. There was a great deal of frustration, despair, and grief. The way that the fallout from the trauma had always been handled was by having a psychiatrist or psychologist fly into the village to offer grief counseling, which was appreciated, but not enough. After a few hours of visiting and working with folks, the individual would leave the community to fly back to his office in a distant city, leaving a lot of open wounds and confusion about what should be done next.
Folks in the village began to talk about what was happening, how they felt, how the short-term, outside help wasn’t enough, and what they could do as a village to change their circumstances. It was not long before they got most of the village, Native and non-Native, involved in working together to prevent more deaths. To accommodate everyone they began using traditional and non-traditional helping approaches to aid in the healing of the trauma. They came up with a plan, goals, and a vision of what they wanted their village to look like and began working towards them. As the elder told the story, members of her village who were in the audience chimed in about how excited and optimistic they were to take the lead to overcome the tragic events of their community. I’m not sure how successful this village has been since they were in the midst of their work. Still, it moved me to see how ordinary, everyday folks with a deep commitment could bring others together to work towards a common goal. After listening to their painful, heartbreaking stories, I was inspired at the depth the courage they had to take on such agonizing issues. Some of the women were the mothers of sons that had committed suicide and some were mothers of sons that had murdered the children of other mothers, who had decided to get involved. Come to think of it, the movement seemed to be mostly inspired, guided, and kept alive by the women of the village.
It takes a community to create a healing community environment. It takes a community to inspire a healing movement. It takes a community to agree upon a moral and behavior code that all can respect and live by. It takes a community to give hope to its members and to build bonds of trust, acceptance, forgiveness, and resiliency among the membership. Regardless of race, color, gender, religion, sexual orientation, or belief, a community must make sure that all of its children and people are protected, supported, cared for, and provided with the guidance they need to become healthy, happy, responsible people.
Healing the aftermath of death is challenging and heartbreaking. In our communities and on our reservation, we should grieve all deaths, comfort all families that lose loved ones, prepare ourselves for death, and most of all, we should do everything possible to stop those deaths that are preventable. The next time you run into someone you know or don’t know, ask them what they think could be done to bring unity and healing to all people on the reservation. Discuss ways you can work together to bring healing, understanding, and well being to everyone in all communities on the reservation. Listen patiently and draw out everything that positive from the conversation and share it with others in your next conversation, and the next, and the next. It’s important to always remember that healing and unity between all peoples on the planet is possible in this lifetime.
Michael Yellow Bird, MSW, PhD., is an enrolled member of the Three Affiliated Tribes and a professor and the director of graduate education in the Department of Social Work at Humboldt State University, Arcata, CA. His teaching, writing, research, and community work focuses on social work with Indigenous Peoples, neurodecolonization, neuroscience and social work, and employing mainstream and traditional Indigenous mindfulness practices in tribal communities to promote health and well being. He can be reached by email at: firstname.lastname@example.org