Navigating Grief

Photo by Mickki Garrity

One of the worst parts of grief is how it makes us feel so alone. Throughout my life, I have looked forward to and celebrated the New Year. It has always felt like a fresh start, a new calendar year with a blank slate upon which I could change the course of my life for the better.

But these past weeks have, instead, been filled with reminders of our losses. Our communities commemorated the Dakota Uprising, which ended when President Lincoln ordered the execution of 38 Dakota warriors on December 26, 1862. It was a year ago that my husband and I lost our first child to miscarriage. Recently, a friend of ours lost a family friend to COVID while her brother-in-law struggles with double pneumonia brought on by the disease. The omicron variant looms large in our communities. Where I live, last month’s floods have been replaced by snow and ice, while close friends in Colorado lost everything they owned in the Marshall fire near Boulder. In the meantime, others in my Colorado community mourn the losses of several beloved community members due to senseless violence—yet another angry man with too many guns acting out at the expense of innocent people.

And these are just the big losses, and merely some of what’s happened these past weeks. We barely know the daily struggles of those around us, for even if we let ourselves complain about our circumstances, very rarely do we share our hearts made so raw by pain, uncertainty, isolation, fear, and loss. I wonder what would happen to us if we stopped pretending that everything is okay.

We have learned so many well-meaning platitudes for times like these. Well-wishers encourage us to look on the bright side and remember that god has a plan and tomorrow is another day. But these kinds of phrases are not medicine for grief, and I quit gambling on the intentions of god long ago. Grief digs holes in our life’s landscapes, removing whole portions of the ground that keeps us feeling steady. No logical explanations or metaphysical ideologies can fill in those gaps. We only know that everything has changed even while the rest of the world seems to continue forward, and we must find a new pathway, gingerly stepping around the pockmarks left over where something or someone important once stood.

I try to imagine what my ancestors did to navigate their own immense grief. There are gaps here, too, as I can barely contemplate what they experienced, nor do I fully know what social resources were integral to tribal life before contact. I look, then, to the people I have known, my family members who have continued forward even while navigating tremendous loss and dire circumstances. Some of them have become stronger in their experiences—more kind and patient, focused on what matters to them. Others have become embittered and angry, lashing out at the world because of its perpetual unfairness. I don’t understand the difference or know how to become kinder and more gracious in the face of our pain.

How do we continue to know ourselves and one another as we experience loss after loss after loss? What does it mean to be courageous in the face of difficulty?

One of the primary myths of colonization (and the dominant culture of today borne from this myth) is that the world is something which humans can control—that we can dam rivers, control the labor of others, and hide from viruses we are incapable of seeing; that individuals are capable of “changing the world” and that the domination and consumption of the Earth can go on and on forever. Am I alone in the feeling that as I get older, this lie is unraveling faster and faster?

I don’t really know how to gracefully navigate all of this, or how to mend what is broken. I feel powerless and lacking in my usual sense of optimism for the New Year. So instead, I offer my own tears on the altar of grief. I’ll tell you how sorry I am that you’re going through this, no matter how big or small. And like you, I will get up tomorrow and do the things needed to keep living. May this be medicine for our grief.

Mickki Garrity (Bodewadmi) is an enrolled in the Citizen Potawatomi Nation, a Cobell Scholar, a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar, and is pursuing a BS in Native environmental science at Northwest Indian College.

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