Writing

Grandpas and Grief

When I was young, I can’t remember what age but I was young, someone told me they’d never been to a funeral before. This admission struck me immediately.  I told them I couldn’t count the number of funerals I have attended. The reason for my high attendance at funerals is partly my grandmother’s doing. She is an ordained priest and I was her shadow. With her, I’ve seen more than my fair share of weddings and funerals. The other reason for my brief intermingling with the dead is where I am from.

Minto is a tightly knit community, a village just north of Fairbanks in the heart of Alaska. One of our traditions is to be with the family when they experience a loss, no matter who they are. Our first question after receiving news that someone died is, “Where are they making tea?” We call our gatherings tea. Usually, tea is held at the house of an immediate family member. The family and community gather in one house and people bring food dishes, help with arrangements, and whatever else is needed before we start the ceremony of our funeral potlatch.

Potlatches are common across Alaska and the Pacific Northwest. Traditions vary by community. I can only speak confidently about how we do it in Minto. The body is usually brought to Fairbanks and prepared for burial. Sometimes a potlatch and service is held in Fairbanks for those who can’t make it to Minto. In that case, the body is then brought home after the Fairbanks service. Once in the village, men gather to build a wooden casket, often decorated with bible verses or a depiction of something the person was fond of while living. Women gather to line the casket with fabric, ribbons, lace, anything to make the person’s final resting place beautiful and peaceful. Any material left over is hidden in the casket.  The body is dressed in the finest outfit with beaded gloves and slippers and beaded jewelry.

For three days, the family and community help serve breakfast, lunch, and prepare anything needed for the evening potlatch. The first two nights of potlatch, food is served and we sing and dance after. On the third and final day, breakfast is served and the family prepares for the funeral. The community gathers at the tribal hall for a somewhat typical funeral service. Most funerals in Minto are led in a non-denominational or Episcopal service. Afterwards, the body is brought around the village for one last ride and then to the cemetery for a burial service. Lunch is served and the community prepares that evening for a final potlatch. After the food is served for dinner, the hall is cleaned up and the family hosts a giveaway. The giveaway is for the family to give thanks to those who were there for them in their initial stages of grief. The giveaway is the final part of the funeral potlatch ceremony.

*

My grandpa died in September 2012. I had spent that summer home with him. It was not planned that way, I just happened to land an internship in Fairbanks that summer. After my summer internship ended, I flew back to Olympia, Washington to start the third year of my bachelor’s degree. The night before he died, I talked to him on the phone. I told him about the apartment I found, there was a pond outside with ducks, and that I would move in when I got my financial aid. My grandpa had complications from dental surgery, which turned into gallbladder surgery, and that is how he ended up in the hospital. At the end of our brief chat, he told me, “Amanda I lived a good life.” I choked back the knot in my throat and told him, “Ok grandpa, I love you,” and he handed the phone back to my grandma. I fully expected to talk to him again, but I had a feeling he was not going to last much longer.

My grandpa went into the hospital the day I left for Olympia. I cried my eyes out and refused to go to the airport. I did not want to go back to school. I wanted to be with my grandpa. My younger sister, who often looked up to me for strength and guidance, was not having it. She stopped my meltdown and told me, “Cut that shit out. You’re going back to school and I’m taking you to the airport, this is what grandpa wants.” She practically forced me on the plane. Everything was ok once I landed in Olympia. It was bearable enough for me to do what I needed to do before school started.

When I left Alaska that September, the leaves had already changed color and summer was over. Olympia was another story, it was sunny, hot, humid, and the leaves were still green. A crowd of eager students surrounded me to start another school year. I was salty, I wanted to be home and I was not as excited as everyone else to start school. I met up with some friends for beer, but I wasn’t in any mood to drink so I only had a couple throughout the evening. When I got back to my friend’s that night, I crashed on their couch. I wasn’t drunk but I was not in any shape to drive.

The next morning I drove myself back to my best friend Mike’s place, where I stayed until I moved into my apartment. I was half hungover but half in that weird feeling before you receive bad news, the feeling where something just feels off.  I laid on the couch while Mike got ready for work. The news played in the background, I was about to fall asleep when I heard a news story about a World War II veteran. I thought to myself, “My grandpa was a World War II vet,” I immediately stopped myself, I said he was a veteran, as if he didn’t exist anymore. I tried to reverse this, thinking it would stop what was about to hit me. “My grandpa is a veteran,” I told myself.

In the middle of my cluster fuck of thoughts, Mike burst out of his bathroom and said, “Amanda your mom is calling my work wanting me to call her.” I knew what she was doing, she wanted him to be there when I heard the news. I shot off the couch and called her. I stood in his kitchen, the sun was shining, and I stared at the wall while the phone rang. She answered and asked me where I was and who I was with. “Mom just tell me why you’re calling Mike’s work,” I barked at her. “Let me talk to Mike,” she said. I told her, “No, tell me why you called him, just tell me – just say it.” My mother could barely bring herself to tell me, she wanted to tell Mike so he’d tell me. Finally, after what felt like the quietest and stillest eternity, she just said, “Amanda you’re grandpa is gone.”

I felt the walls close in around me, I collapsed on Mike’s floor. He stood there, not sure what to do. The entire core of my being had completely changed in a matter of seconds. I was so shaken that I could not form a full sentence or thought. I don’t remember much after that. It was ten in the morning when they called me, in a matter of hours I was on a plane back to Alaska.

The front child is my grandpa’s sister Sarah, their mother, not sure who’s laying down, and my grandpa is sitting on his father’s lap in 1928.

**

After my grandpa’s service someone came up to me and told me that the way we do funerals is beautiful. I asked what they meant. They expressed they had never seen a funeral like that, one where the entire community participated. I remembered then, that not everyone grieves the way we do. Actually, everyone grieves differently, but my village grieves pretty uniformly after a death, it’s what we were taught. Men go hunt for a moose, this is the central part of the meals we eat over the three-day ceremony. Women bake and sew and keep things moving, there is a role for everyone and everything.

Years before my grandpa died, a close friend perished while on patrol in Iraq. There was no place for me to go to be with others. It felt weird, the family held a funeral in California and that was it. This was the first loss I experienced where I did not follow the process I was raised in, but it made me realize that not everyone has the same custom for when death occurs. Those initial moments of loss and grief are hard. In Minto, we gather to give our displaced love a place to be while we figure out a new path forward. Grief manifests in many ways It doesn’t have to be a death, it can be a loss or change in your life and not everyone knows this. I wasn’t aware how vigorously grief shakes your existence until my grandpa died. Ironically, one of the greatest lessons my grandpa taught me was how to grieve.

The death of a loved one, or change in life, means that you need to find a new way forward. Grief is such a taboo topic that it feels disastrous when it happens, even though it happens to everyone. At first, this may feel unfortunate but it doesn’t have to be that way. Everyone experiences grief. The year before my grandpa died, I studied journalism full time, played on the school softball team, served on student government, and traveled in what free moments I had in my busy schedule. I was on top of life, I loved everything I participated in. I loved my work, I loved my classes, I had fun with my friends, I loved college and living outside of Alaska. I had found my stride as young adult.

My grandpa’s death threw a curve ball into my life and there was nothing I could do to prepare for it. All of my energy went to finding a way out of that grief, despite my then nonexistent motivation. I still had dreams and goals, but all I could do that winter, and for years to come was lay on my couch and stare at the ceiling. Many people told me, “Time heals all wounds.” I sat in my pain letting time pass, waiting to heal. Eventually I found a stable existence with my grief. But I hadn’t yet found my way out. The reality is, and I learned it way too long after his death, that time does heal wounds, it does get easier to cope, but I needed to step into my grief and be an active participant in it, it was up to me to guide myself out of it.

***

The day my grandfather died, my friend Ted picked me up from Mike’s and brought me to the airport. Ted is from Tok, and we met when he moved to Fairbanks for college. He had just moved to Seattle fresh from a breakup. We were both there for each other all winter. Weird times. Anyway, Ted picked me up and brought me to the airport. In the few hours after my grandpa’s death, I cried so hard I gave myself a migraine. I somehow directed Ted through traffic on the hour long ride to the airport. I wasn’t ready to walk through security when we arrived and I hadn’t eaten anything so we drove to a Burger King nearby. My head throbbed, it felt like someone drove a wedge into my brain.

Ted is an athletic person, one of those people who eats whatever they want and then plays basketball all day. As a general rule, he does not eat fast food, but Burger King is another story. We got our food and pulled into a spot directly in front of the drive-thru window. I took one bite of my Whopper and immediately opened the door to puke. In between heaves, I looked over and Ted’s head is down and he was still eating! I was embarrassed, I wanted to tell the employees, “I’m sorry I puked in your parking lot. My grandpa just died. Your food did not do this to me.”

Looking back, I remember I could feel my all of my organs screaming, my joints twisted, and an electric shock ran through my spine, in a Burger King parking lot of all places. “Wow, grief fucks you up,” I thought. Ted drove his car to another parking spot, away from the puke, and we shared my fries. In the midst of my grief, I looked over at Ted and we laughed so hard we cried. I could feel every part of me changing, and it did not feel good. But I also thought, “of course the worst thing I could imagine has happened, and I still found something to laugh at.”

My grandpa was Chief of Minto at the time this picture was taken. Picture borrowed from my Aunty Vera.

****

When I arrived home, there was food everywhere in my grandparent’s house. Legions of people stopped by, the major news outlets in Alaska had reported my grandpa’s death. I had only begun to understand the impact of my his legacy across the state and even the US. People from all over packed the tribal hall in Fairbanks for his funeral before we took him to Minto. Leaders from tribal organizations, local politicians, and chiefs from across Alaska attended. My friend showed me a copy of the congressional record US Senator Lisa Murkowski entered in remembrance of him. At the funeral, Murkowski read his eulogy, “…his leadership, recognized throughout the State, is one of the reasons that the Native peoples of Alaska won their battle for land claims with passage of the Alaska Native Claims Settlement Act of 1971.” I specifically remembered a line she read, “He told the conservation society members that without the use of the lakes, Minto’s people would go hungry…He said, ‘Nothing is so sorrowful for a hunter, empty handed, to be greeted by hungry children’” I can attest that he lived up to his desire to take care of all us. He took each of us kids on to our land, made us climb hills to look for animals, check fishnets, pick berries, and look for birds. I didn’t realize until much later that he did this so we’d have the same connection to the land as he did, to continue his legacy of protecting it.

Grandpa retired when I was small and dedicated his life to being a grandpa. My grandpa, was a grandpa’s grandpa. He would yell at us for leaving the lights on and gave us rides everywhere, but only after he complained about it in that grumpy old man way. But he loved us, he always made sure we had the proper gear for the weather, or that we had a place to stay, or enough to eat, and he would call us worried about the smallest things. Sometimes, he would pretend that he needed a car while his was in the shop and then take mine to get an oil change and clean it out. To the rest of Alaska, he was a statesmen, a leader in the Alaska Native community, so many people looked up to him as a mentor. To me, he was just grandpa.

During this time and occasionally afterwards, friends showed up and helped without asking. Coming out of it, I realized that despite having our traditions, there is still a lot left to process in grief and not everyone knows what to do. Our funeral potlatches get us through those initial stages. Often it strengthens our community, it brings us all together. We forget whatever conflict we have. When a death occurs, it tears into the fabric of our support system and we all focus our energy to temporarily hold it together.

Death is what I see as a valid grief. But there are other changes in life that can sometimes feel similar in weight to a loss as great as that. Many losses in life go unnoticed. What do you do after a break up? Why does moving feel like such a huge loss, even if it was planned? We don’t honor our losses: losing a job, retiring, the death of a pet, the death of a celebrity. Anything that causes a change in pattern or behavior in life is reason to grieve. My grandpa would pick up the Anchorage Daily News and an orange juice every day from the same gas station. Every day, the clerk at the gas station would call him to tell him when the paper arrived and he’d go pick it up. The morning he died, my grandma heard his phone ring and she answered it. It was the gas station clerk calling to tell him the paper arrived. My grandma told the clerk he just died and the clerk burst into tears when she heard the news. Do you think that clerk got to honor her grief? I bet it was hard to see his own picture on the front-page news the next day. What a trip.

After the dust settles from any loss, you’re left feeling lost, without a map or directions to tell you what to do next. My grandpa’s death merely ripped off the bandages that temporarily held all my other losses together. There was more I needed to address.

*****

That first winter after his death, I’d lay on my couch and listen to the ducks in the pond. “Those stupid fucking ducks,” I’d think whenever I heard them, “Really Amanda, you had one last chance to talk to him and that’s what you said?” I’d berate myself. But in reality, he just had to hear I was ok. I am a high school dropout, but that summer he saw me come home with an associate’s degree, he saw me land a competitive internship, and he knew I was dead-set on finishing my bachelor’s degree. None of that stopped me from laying on my couch for months after his death. I would stare in silence for hours in the dark. I didn’t go to class for two weeks. I was fortunate that my instructors understood the weight of my loss and told me to come in when I was ready. We kept in touch over email and I did what little homework I needed to do to pass.

I moved forward in my life as if wading through tar and fog. In time, I pulled myself out of this funk, but only just enough to get by. My graduation nearly two years later was a highlight not just for me, but for my family and community. My sister, nephew, and grandma flew down to be with me. My cousin Melanie flew down and surprised me. I didn’t even know she was there until I heard her yell my name from the crowd as I crossed the stage to receive my degree. I burst into tears when I heard her voice, I knew it was her screaming my name immediately. Grace, my closest cousin in the area, kept it a surprise! I am the first in my family to graduate college and Winona LaDuke was the graduation speaker. She stopped me to admire my regalia. I had no intention to wear a gown, I did this not only for myself but for my ancestors and I was going to wear what we would wear for such a celebration, the finest moos skin dress with beaded flowers around my shoulders and waist.  

I had no plans after graduation until five days later. I chose to move back to Fairbanks and work political campaigns. When my grandpa died, the only political thing I knew was that Obama was president. In 2004, when I was 18, he sat me down and told me I was going to vote and who I was going to vote for. He wasn’t going to let me waste this opportunity and until his death in 2012, I voted as he told me to vote. I cried when I filled out my ballot alone in 2012, I didn’t know what I was doing.

There I was, two years later, a campaign organizer for a statewide race. How cool. I dove head first into Alaska’s political scene. I was happy to be home, but I had spent the last two years in Olympia buried in school books and partying, ignoring my grief. When I got home, I ignored it even more and threw myself into work. I spent anywhere from ten to twenty hours a day working on campaigns. I honestly loved it. But I ignored everything I left in Fairbanks including my grief.

I worked my way from a campaign organizer, to a legislative aid, and eventually chief of staff of a legislative office. The first winter back in Alaska, I moved to Juneau for the legislative session. Juneau was like adult summer camp, but in the winter and mired with snaky politics. I rented an apartment on one end of downtown and walked several blocks every morning to my office in the capitol on the other end. I worked as hard as I did in the campaign office and then drank my way home stopping at bars and receptions with open tabs hosted by different organizations in town to lobby their cause. By the end of session, I was perpetually hungover and exhausted. Politics, as usual, had ran me through the wringer and left me out to dry. I returned to Fairbanks thinking I was ok, but in reality I was headed full blast into a total meltdown of unresolved grief and trauma.

Richard and his sister Sarah in the new hall in Minto.

******

In 2017, I checked myself into the behavioral health unit of the Fairbanks Memorial Hospital. I had overworked myself and ignored my grief for far too long. I spent four days in there for exhaustion and depression. Ten years earlier Britney Spears had gone into the hospital for the very same thing. This fact kept what little shame I felt at bay. I told people, I had a 2017 version of Britney Spears’ 2007 meltdown. It was ok. I was fine. Everything was fine.

When I left the hospital, I felt like a raw gaping wound. The sad silver lining to all of this, is if you say you want to kill yourself, then check yourself into the hospital for it, you get bumped up the list for behavioral health services at the native clinic in town. I got in with a psychiatrist and therapist very soon after my release. I know people who have called Chief Andrew Isaac Health Center, or ‘Chief’ as we call it, and asked for help for their depression and suicidal ideations. They were put on a waiting list. Turns out, they don’t take you seriously unless you check yourself into the hospital. I was relieved for the help, but dismayed at what I had to go through to get help.

Depression, and suicidal thoughts feels like brain flu to me. But you have to work to keep it in check or it could become fatal. Yeah, depression can be fatal. Death by suicide is a complication of depression. I wish more people could see it this way. Instead when someone dies by suicide, they ask “why did they do this?” or “please think of those will who you hurt before you commit suicide.” We never say those things if someone dies from other chronic illnesses. I am not saying its ok for this to happen. Suicide is preventable. But the rhetoric that when someone with depression kills themselves is dwindled down to a bad choice in a fleeting moment grossly ignores the real pain that depressions is.

What I know now, is that when those thoughts cross my mind, I can’t deny that they cross through my psyche. I need to reach out for help to pull through those dark moments. When I get to that space, I know that my coping mechanisms have fallen out of balance. It sucks to tell people that you want to die, it’s embarrassing and feels dramatic, but I learned to just honor that feeling and respond in a caring way. I learned that I need several people for support and that I need to keep reaching, as exhausting and isolating as it is, until someone holds space for me.

 I always thought depression was not just an illness, like the flu, but that it’s partly choice. Like, you choose to be happy, or choose to be sad and you just have to work yourself out of those situations. But depression is also beyond emotions, it can fuck with your entire body, or motivation in my case. I didn’t choose to be unmotivated and no amount of yoga, journaling, and smoking weed was going to get me out of it. Try as I might, I had to face the root causes of my depression: a lifetime and even generations of unresolved grief and trauma.

Summer 2017 was my “white-girl finding myself,” summer. I was in therapy. I sucked it up and took a job with benefits and retirement, and an eight to five schedule, and holidays, and paid time off. Community organizing and politics were placed on the back burner for me. Now I spent my mornings in meditation and journaled at least three pages. I took my Bupropion, otherwise known as Wellbutrin, religiously. I took the stairs at work, when I wasn’t at the gym. I even traveled extensively doing wellness and prevention work! I was not shy about the fact that I went into the hospital or that I treated my depression in every way possible. I signed up for a grief recovery group and learned a wealth of knowledge about honoring my life experience and all of its losses and traumas. I started writing my own stories. I knew that I was going to get myself to a stable spot – for real this time – and I was going to share my experience with everyone.

All of this brought me to a place in my grief from my grandpa’s death where I was ready for the next chapter in our potlatch ceremonies.

My grandparents were married in 1955. They ran off to Fairbanks from Minto and eloped. When they got back, their parent’s made them have a real wedding ceremony.

*******

In the dream, I sat at a white table in this room with white curtains and everything on the table was white. I happened to look over and my grandpa was there, full of life. Normally, when he visited me in dreams, I’d tell him to leave, that I wasn’t ready to see him, and he’d leave. But this time, I smiled at him and said, “Grandpa I am so glad you are here, I have so much to tell you.” I told him about all the work I did and gave an update on everyone in our family. The dream lasted hours and I spoke the entire time. My grandpa sat quietly listening, like he always did when he was alive. Everything I reported to him was good news. Everyone was great, Gilbert was good. I had to tell him about my brother Gilbert. Everyone worries about Gilbert. But he’s good Grandpa! Then there was my nephew, Travis Richard Frank Shewfelt, who was born after grandpa died. Travis’ two middle names are after my grandpa’s name, something I find a bit excessive, but my sister is grandpa’s baby. I told grandpa how proud he’d be of my other nephew Dax. That Dax loved to sing and dance our songs and learn our language. He had to know about Dax. Grandpa took in his great-grandson Dax immediately after he was born. That kid refuses to sleep anywhere else but their house, even now.  I told him Grandma was her usual self – traveling all over and beading like a madwoman. At the end I told him, “I think that’s it.” He nodded, there was a long pause, and then he looked at me and said, “Amanda, I’m ready to go now.”

I woke up immediately and felt so happy. I got to see him and talk to him and I didn’t wake up in tears with that heavy feeling in my heart like usual. I thought it was the coolest dream, one of the very few I’ve made a point to remember. I also knew that I needed to tell someone what he said, because I knew what he meant.

My aunty Roxanne and I worked in the same office and I waited a few days for her to return from a work trip. When she got to her desk, I walked over and told her I had something important to tell her. I told her the dream and we smiled then we cried. “Well I guess it’s time we start preparing for the memorial potlatch,” she said.

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1 comment on “Grandpas and Grief

  1. JOAQLIN M ESTUS

    Thank you for telling us your story. I’m in my late 60s and retired. Three of my four grandparents and my parents lived into their 80s or early 90s. So I’m not expecting any immediate need for it, but my husband and I recently decided to do the responsible thing and write our wills. The person helping us has told us that the more preparations we make, and the more instructions we leave about our wishes, the easier it is for our loved ones. They don’t have to guess, wonder, work through, or, worse, argue, about what we want if we’re incapacitated and how our remains are to be handled.

    Recently, the person helping us emailed me asking, “Do you want cremation or burial?” And I replied, “I’d just as soon have neither,” with a smiley face. I realized I need to give it careful thought. For me, it raises the question, “Where is home?”

    The very day I was thinking about what I want as far as services go, I came across your story.

    My family is from Wrangell. I lived there only for a few years during high school but it had a profound effect on me. My grandmother was alive. My mother’s sisters each had five kids and I got to know my cousins… and second cousins, and more distant relatives, and some of our family history. My immediate family and close cousins have all left Wrangell, though.

    I later lived in Juneau for several years and still visit and talk with close friends there. I felt plugged into a Tlingit community. People held 40-day parties, and potlatches, and funerals, as well as celebrations, dances, dinners, and get-togethers. I still miss southeast Alaska.

    Now I live in Anchorage. I’ve built a life for myself but don’t feel as if I’m part of a cohesive Tlingit community.

    Being asked about cremation and funeral services has me asking myself where do I want my final resting place to be. Reading about Minto services has me thinking about what kinds of services would be the most healing for my friends and relative.

    Reading your story also reminded me of the years I mourned my parents’ deaths. I walked around feeling a heavy weight of sadness.

    I remember giving a talk about emergency preparedness. At the end of it, I quoted something I read Rudy Giuliani had said after the attacks on the World Trade Center. A reporter asked him, “How many people died?” And he replied “Too many, whatever the number it’s too many.” As I read the quote from my Powerpoint, in front of a group of 30 or 40 people I burst into tears, sobbing uncontrollably in grief over my mother’s death a few months earlier. (At least it was at the end of my talk! And people were very kind and understanding.)

    For months, I kept thinking, “I need help. I can’t bear this. I’m losing my mind and I’ll never recover. I’ll never be happy again. I’ll never laugh and feel joy again.”

    So I want to reiterate and confirm what you said, time heals.

    I still miss my mother and father. But as the days, then months and years went by, I didn’t cry as often. I gradually lost the constant and overwhelming sense of heaviness and sadness. I sometimes laugh and feel deep joy, as well as gratitude that I had my parents for so much of my life.

    Thank you again for sharing.

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