Grieving “Little By Little”

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My heart is in a state of recession, it is a parking lot that has been abandoned. The store windows are boarded up. The shiny new things that previously sat on shelves seem forever out of reach. Everything that once was now only speaks the language of empty. My heart is a lick of flattened asphalt with painted parking lines that holds space for a way of life that doesn’t exist anymore. There is only vast absence here.

No one told me that such a big part of adulting was learning how to lose and figuring out how to make yourself whole again in the face of those losses.

There is another world dancing outside of my skull. I can’t tell if the images that flash before me are resurfacing memories or if they are merely manifestations of my escapism. I am on a swing set with the smell of loose change on my hands as I pump higher into the horizon. I am holding a sparkler that illuminates the darkness but never enough to reveal where I am at. I am sitting on a hill watching fireworks explode into the familiar patterns of my childhood. I see the back wheel of a bike revolving at sunset. Those are the most recent scenes that reveal themselves and they play in no particular order. They arrive at times when my skull feels like it could crack open and empty itself onto the back of the couch or into the bathtub. When all of this mess inside of me threatens to break body and pour out, they come.

I started living outside of my head the day I buried my mother. I sat silently as a preacher said some words that had to do with eternal life or the love of Christ or something along those lines. Just outside of my skull were these images. I was running up a hill, panting and sweating with every part of my body on fire. I was standing in my kitchen screaming from the deepest part of myself. I was holding a bat and smashing everything in sight. I was kneeled over on the ground with my soil stained hands pulling up blades and blades of grass. I was everywhere except right there in that hall sitting in front of my mother’s casket.

I swallowed my screams and suppressed my desire to break shit and set myself on fire. Instead I was the dutiful daughter that I had tried to be since her death the previous week. I did the things that were too hard for my dad and brothers to complete. I worked out the details that pained everyone else. I was the go-to person for the funeral director. I gave others the space to fall apart and placed more on my plate. When my mother died, I learned how to forget myself. I come from a line of women whose bodies and beings were for everyone but themselves. Is this the matriarchal legacy I have inherited?

I am on a swing set.

I am smashing plates.

I am screaming into abandoned parking lots.

I am holding a sparkler.

I am a flash of a reflection of freedom.

I am full of distorted yearning.

Just over six months later we buried my grandmother and my throat closed up. There is scream that lives in the middle of my throat that hasn’t made it past my lips. A few weeks after the funeral I called my auntie crying. There was no sound, only gasping. The silent utterances of a woman trying to remember herself. After listening to me gasp for air for five minutes she said, “sometimes we have to grieve little by little and that’s okay.”

“The feelings are so big, the absence of love is so… big” I answered in a small voice with no other words to articulate my grief.

Two months later a man tells me a joke and I laugh. I feel like I am laughing but I am still gasping for air. I do not notice this until he tells me that he, “likes my breathless laugh”.

I used to fill rooms with my laughter. Even my laugh is living somewhere outside of me. I suspect it is dancing to reggaeton music somewhere with a handsome man. My laugh is a sweaty and lively impulse grinding away in an empty club where the party never stops, and the girls never die. I want her to come back to me.

I try to imagine where my scream is living. That sad fuck is probably haunting empty places like lonely lakeshores at twilight and bowling alleys that no longer host kids’ birthday parties. She is roaming a landscape void of human beings. I want her to come back to me too.

If I want to laugh, I need to scream. They are both so necessary.

*

I am an Indian girl who lost her matriarchs. If this isn’t the time to cut my hair out of grief I don’t know when is. I feel like the Indian dad in the movie, Wind River, who was grieving the murder of his daughter. He was sitting in his backyard when the white hero of the movie approaches to discover that the dad painted his face with blue and red paint. There are so many white heroes in films about the struggle and oppression of minority groups. White Hollywood has a saviour complex.

So, the white hero sees this painted face and the dad stares off in the distance and acknowledges that it is his “death face”. After a few moments, the dad admits that he doesn’t know what his people traditionally did to grieve, that the teachings were lost. He made up the painted death face because he needs to do something his people would have done.

I feel like a lost Indian with an impoverished knowledge of grief practices. I feel like that dad sitting around with his made-up death face in the snow. I feel like him so much that I rewatch the entire movie just to see him say these words. I want to cut my hair now that my mom and grandma are no longer physically in this world. I stare at myself in the mirror and I look like a stranger. I don’t know who I am without them. My life has been centered around these women. I am someone else in this world now.

I am a thirty-two-year-old mom who is increasingly becoming uncool to her twelve-year-old son. I think about his unwavering love and adoration for me as a small boy. Everything changes when little boys stop making worlds of their mamas. I mourn the distance, but I think about when I stopped making a world out of my own Mama and Grandma. How that decade of wildly misspent youth bled and how they worked with me to scrub out the stains from it afterwards. Eventually I found my way back to them both and they became more, they became entire galaxies from which I read my own existence.

I know Indigenous people often cut their hair to grieve but I don’t know any teachings or protocol around this. I know that hair is something I have been taught to look after and have been instructed to not let people touch my hair. Grandma told me about collecting and burning the hair that fell from her head in a fire. The care of hair is a spiritual self-care. Be careless with your hair and you might end up with love medicine on you and have an inexplicable obsession with an unmarriable partner. I have no idea how historical lovers faithfully gave locks of their hair to their beloved.

I ask my friend about hair cutting and she tells me to wait and she will tell me in time. She is from a different tribe that exists in a different language group that belongs to a different geography. We are from different stars from the same constellation. These are not my practices. I do not want to beg and borrow things that are not mine.  I ache for things that are mine.

There should be a tea dance, a night of drumming and dancing and prayer, for my Grandma. But it is the time of the covid outbreak where gatherings are banned. There is no communal send off for my Grandma. What I do know is that the drumming and dancing are both prayers to help her in her journey in the afterworld as she travels to heaven. What I do not know is where does my grief go?

All that I know is that elders show up and they tell us not to cry. We are taught that crying will make our loved ones stay around longer and delay their journey into the next world. Many of our people are told this and we choke back the tears and bury our grief and live with screams in our throats.

A few hours after my grandma had passed, I watched one of my aunties enter the poorly lit hospital room and wail over her body. Her loud weeping emanated from a freshly unearthed and visceral place. The present elder waited a little under a minute before touching her hand and instructing her not to cry. She kept telling her these things about not crying and spirits staying. I listened as my auntie’s wailing became smaller and smaller each time that she was interrupted by the elder clutching her hand who said things that made my aunties sadness retreat into her body.

I had to leave the room before I lost my shit on an elder and ended up becoming an Indian social pariah. I would forever be known as the girl who screamed at an elder over her grandma’s dead body that now sits in the corners of gatherings at empty tables. I would have to categorize the telling of my life story as the time before and after my tribal shunning.

Grandma said that we don’t cry for the loved ones, but it is okay to cry for ourselves, for our loss. I weep for myself with little noise. Weeks later I try to locate the sound in my body so I can coax it out, but it has retreated somewhere deep inside me after shoving it down so much.

I can’t wait for my friend to give me borrowed knowledge so I do what a lot of us Indig folks do who yearn for practices that are theirs: I ask a friend who asks a friend who knows a little bit of something. The friend of a friend is Cree and I am part Cree so it feels like something that could be mine. She asks about hair cutting protocol. I am given a green light and basically told, do it how you want to do it and burn your hair afterwards. I have a bath and prepare myself. I smudge. I cry. I pray. I place my hair in two braids and say goodbye to the girl who has made it this far and hello to whomever I am now. I cut somewhere around nine inches of dark brown hair and run my fingers through my short shoulder length hair mumbling, “I’m going to be okay,” repeatedly to myself.

I feel something that night as I fall asleep. I feel the knowledge of “going to be okay” wrap itself around me and I drift into the dreamworld for the first time in months without something playing in the background to distract my mind. The next day my dad takes me somewhere deep into the mountains and we burn my hair together.

He tells people casually on the phone as we leave the mountains and reenter cell service area, “Ya my daughter cut her hair, she’s in mourning. We just finished burning it in the mountains. We’ve had a hard go”.

I cringe every time he tells another person. I feel like an Indian spectacle for people on the other end of the phone line that I do not know. I haven’t even told anyone that I cut my hair yet. I am a part of reclaiming things that our family has forgotten. I wonder if telling people my business makes my dad feel closer to his own indigeneity. It is as if for this moment in time he too, can be a man who knows and does things and who walks his daughter through ceremonies. For this reason, I don’t tell him not to talk about it. I let him ramble on and tell people so that he can feel close to the things and people we have lost. I let him be the man who knows some things.

*

It has been two months and I grieve the loss of my hair in addition to the tidal waves of grief that flood in over my mama and grandma. I think to myself, four inches of hair would have sufficed why did I have to cut so much? I feel like a bad Indian for missing my hair. I don’t speak of my regret. I am still attached to the way I was and the way I looked and the way the world used to be. My hair is a daily reminder that everything has changed and this is both good and bad. It will take years for my hair to grow to the same length that it was and it will likely take years until I feel closer to whole. Grieving is a slow process and like my auntie said about my voiceless cry it will happen little by little. On days that I want to be done with my sadness and longing and I want to speed up the healing so I can feel some form of liberation my short hair tells me to slow down, you are in it for the long haul.

We live in a world that wants efficient systems for everything, including grief. We want everything faster, quicker, streamlined, and don’t want to sit with the uncomfortable stuff. I am sometimes included in this category. There are days where I feel like the perpetual shit storm that comes down on other’s parades. The are times were I can’t give answers to questions like, how was your day? Or how have you been? , without being dark or “too real” and so I give simple one-word answers. I think that sometimes people in your life want you to heal rapidly for themselves and not for yourself. There are so many people that don’t know how to hold space for hard feelings and so they would prefer a one-word answer and I would prefer to give it to them. Usually those people reply in parables that could be found in fortune cookies or say things that are like the inspirational quotes on a girl’s Instagram photo caption.

Create the life you want by doing the things you love.

They are gone but not forgotten.

Sometimes you have to learn how to dance in the rain.

It’s okay to not be able to hold space but know that not everyone is asking to be fixed because not everything can be fixed. Sometimes you just need to be there and hold someone’s hand as the earth below them splits open and threatens to swallow them whole. Sometimes the most powerful thing you can say is nothing.

My short hair is a reminder. I have been clearing space for myself. Healing happens in small increments sometimes. I laughed a little with noise the other day. I cried a little with some sound. These are my victories.

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