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Native Funerals as Family Reunions: A Few Thoughts on Loving Each Other Better

Odds are, there's someone in your life whom you love very much but will never see again. Sobering thoughts on death, and life, from Gyasi Ross.
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At this very moment, all of us are missing out on the life of someone we say we care about and love. There’s someone who means the world to us whom we will never see again, and we don’t even know it. Right now. 

Sorry for the dramatic introduction. I’ve lost some people recently—people who were incredibly important to me—and so I’ve probably been thinking about mortality, and the practices around mortality more than I should. Maybe. Most of the deaths were young and unexpected—people who were seemingly perfectly healthy and then BOOM…

They weren’t anymore. Like many deaths within our communities, they are sudden, brutal and completely earth-shattering. We can’t imagine a stick game or a pow-wow or going to the store or Christmas without that particular loved one.

But now we have to. Our dear cousin/uncle/auntie/brother is gone. 

As with many Native funerals, the deceased's DEATH was the impetus to think, “Damn, I haven’t been communicating with them like I should.” You never know what you have until it’s gone, right? Since I was a child I noticed that my family doesn’t really do family reunions—we do funerals. Funerals have become the default time for us to reconvene, touch each other, hug each other, tell each other that we love each other and then disappear again. Until the next funeral.

Maybe it’s not a “Native” thing; maybe it’s just a “broke” thing. I don’t know. However, it’s a recurring theme when I think of the way that my family congregates. It's the way many other Native families congregate; it makes sense. When a family isn’t blessed with great economics, it could be just a byproduct of living paycheck to paycheck and month to month. We think “We’ll get around to family when we’re older and have more time.” 

But “older” and “have more time” never happens. Statistically, Native people simply don’t live as long as most people within this Nation—so we really don’t get to “older” that often. Sure, we want our family to get to “older” and “when we have more time”; we think that they should. But within our communities, it simply does not happen many, many, many, many times. 

So we continue to gather at funerals and only see each other under sad circumstances. The funerals become the family reunions. 

I don’t know what that does to the family dynamic—what psychological condition occurs when you only see your family in crisis and grieving. I’m not sure. I also don’t have the solutions to this. Economics. Car problems. Job demands. Those are all very real concerns and will not go anyplace anytime soon, Native or not. 

My point is not to give solutions. It’s simply to remind and to recognize:

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There is someone I love, right this moment, who is alive right now, but whom I will not see again. There is someone I love, right this moment, I am not spending time with because I think “older” and “when I have more time” will come.

That doesn’t mean we should despair. It means we should connect. Send a text (texts are great because you can dislike someone but still let them know you love them. Yay technology—very important for Native family feuds). Call. Unexpectedly. It means the world to people who love you. Tell them you love them. It might sound weird, but they’ll get over it. Speak your peace. If they think it’s awkward, hell, it is! But love is awkward. 

Give your mom a squeeze. Your son. Your sister. People you say you love, show them love. Spend some time. Don’t look at your phone for a half an hour while you visit with them.

None of us can prevent when death comes for our loved ones or us—it’s a treasured part of life, one that our ancestors faced pragmatically and unromantically, understanding its function and the need to be prepared, and to prepare future generations. 

"When it comes time to die, be not like those whose hearts are filled with the fear of death, so when their time comes they weep and pray for a little more time to live their lives over again in a different way. Sing your death song, and die like a hero going home."

—Aupumut, Mohican

That’s cool. It’s also consistent with many other Tribes’ death protocols—“Don’t be scared. Be prepared.” Mature. Composed. Cool. Very Native. I can practically smell the smudge and buckskin on that quote. 

All that said: I think it’s still sad not to realize what we have until it’s gone. If I could encourage anything, its to take just a brief moment to appreciate what we have, right now, while it’s still here and not wait until these untimely “family reunions.”

Comfort to all who are dealing with loss right now. Peace.

Photo: iStock.

Is it the Native way to give or receive blood and organs?

Gyasi Ross, Editor at Large
Blackfeet Nation/Suquamish Territories
Twitter: @BigIndianGyasi