When I was the principal of Southwest Indian School in Peoria, Arizona, a boy came to my office one day and stated that he had to leave school early on the coming Friday. “It’s the second anniversary of my uncle’s death,” he explained.
I don’t recall my response but must admit that I’d never heard of that custom. Our boarding school served Native Americans from many tribes, and this student was a member of the Tohono O’odham nation, whose reservation is in the southern part of the state.
Usually they refer to themselves as T.O.’s, and their apt name means “Desert Dweller.” Later I would learn interesting details of how these people deal with the grieving process.
When a T.O. loses a loved one, he/she is immediately surrounded by family and friends as they plan the wake, which often doesn’t take place for a week or more after the death. Usually the wake is held outside the home of the deceased person and lasts the entire night prior to the burial. Music is part of the event, and if the person embraced Christianity, all the churches in the community gather for singing, visiting with the family, sharing memories, and eating.
When attending a wake, it’s customary to bring gifts of money or food to the family to help with the expenses. If this event takes place in the winter months, children burn wood and place the ashes at the feet of the mourners to afford warmth. Our Native Americans go through much tragedy and heart-ache and become participants in the grieving process at an early age.
I have vivid memories of the wake some other missionaries and I attended for a T.O. boy who had been killed in an auto accident on his reservation. When I arrived, his mother hugged and greeted me and then introduced me to the family. “This is Quentin’s principal,” she said. It was obvious that she appreciated my being there.
Native Americans are gifted in hospitality, and soon we were invited to join in the meal. The evening was spent visiting with the family and students, some from other tribes, who had come to express their sympathy to their classmate’s loved ones. The other missionaries and I did leave the group around midnight to get a brief rest before the burial the following morning.
However, the family and close friends stayed there the entire night.
At daybreak Quentin was taken to the freshly dug grave, which his family had prepared. Then after some words of Scripture were shared, the casket was lowered with ropes into the grave, along with what is called the “traveling bag.” I’m not sure what was in there, but it’s generally items that were important to the person and will accompany him on his “journey.” I find it interesting that many Christian T.O.’s also follow this custom and have Bibles, wooden crosses, or new clothes buried with them.
What I remember most about Quentin’s burial was that we all participated, just as we had participated in the grieving process by attending his wake. Each person walked by the grave and threw a handful of dirt over the casket. Then we all stood while the rest of the family completed the burial.
I’m not sure what happened after we left but was told that the family continues to be visited during the days following the burial. For a T.O., grief is a communal activity.
For the next three years on the anniversary of the death, the family has a meeting time where they gather again to share their memories of their loved one. Food and singing are once again a part of the gathering. On the third anniversary a wooden marker is placed on the grave, again something created by the family. However, sometimes the memorial is placed at the burial.
All these memories came back to me on March 10 as I was attending a service at our senior center, sponsored by FAIRHOPE Hospice. This was a time when recently deceased members of the center were remembered, names read, and candles lighted. Family members were in attendance, as memories were shared, hugs exchanged, and tears shed.
As the speaker offered encouraging words about the grieving process, my memories went back to Quentin and his family and then to the loss of my mother in 2003—two very different experiences.
My mother’s unexpected death occurred on a Thursday morning. That afternoon I was picking out a casket, planning a funeral, and calling family members. My father was unable to help because he had just come home from the hospital, having undergone triple bypass surgery.
The calling hours were on Friday, and the funeral was Saturday.
On Monday I went back to work.
Our culture is one of hurriedness. Microwave dinners, instant oatmeal, and a quick bereavement period. When someone dies, we send a card and perhaps go to calling hours.
Sometimes we even go to the funeral. But what happens after that?
Usually, the person’s bereavement is disregarded.
Certainly, our funerals are handled with dignity and in a most professional and expeditious manner.
But on the reservation where often there are no clocks, life is more relaxed and moves at a slower pace.
There just seems to be more time there…even for grief.
Karen Kornmiller writes a bi-weekly column published in The Logan Daily News. The views of this column may not necessarily reflect that of the newspaper.