My cousin passed away the week before my college graduation.
I had spent two weeks preparing for a poetry reading I was doing on campus, because my poetry was being published in my school’s literary journal. The day of my reading, I heard the news of his death.
My heart leaped into my throat as I read the email; I clutched my chest and gasped, feeling like I couldn’t breathe. It seemed as though the world could not go on as normal after he passed away, but the sun still came out.
Librarians still checked books out of the library—such a small thing, but it seemed absurd in the wake of his passing.
My tears fell for my cousin. At first, I didn’t want to do my recitation. But instead of forgoing the poetry reading, I wore a white eagle feather in my hair, and said into the microphone as I stood in front of my peers on campus, “My cousin passed away this morning. I’m wearing an eagle feather in my hair to honor his life.”
I went to his funeral on the reservation later that week. It was amazing to see the way that his passing had changed things. People who hadn’t spoken to each other for years were suddenly thrown together as they tried to help the family. They realized that he wouldn’t have wanted them to fight. He brought peace to broken relationships.
I will never forget the way my cousin’s mother sat next to his open casket at the wake, rocking slowly in her chair, one hand holding the casket though she could no longer hold his hand. She was a pillar of strength despite all of her grief; she carried herself with pride and beauty.That weekend made me realize that Native American communities are among the most supportive when it comes to loss and grief. My cousin’s funeral was four hours long; nobody cared about the time. As we walked his casket to the tribal burial grounds, fireworks went off. They’d been donated by owners of the reservation’s fireworks stands.
“He always said he wanted fireworks at his funeral,” my cousin’s mother had said.
I wrote my cousin’s parents a poem after the funeral. It seemed that my cousin’s death and poetry were inextricably linked. The poem is about something we have all experienced—the loss of someone we love dearly. I hope as you experience loss and grief, you will know that community and family can help you heal, and the treasured memory of your loved one will always be with you.
Misty Lynn Ellingburg (Shoalwater Bay) is a student at Seattle Pacific University, majoring in English (concentration Literature) and minoring in Professional Writing. She has two brothers and two sisters--Brandt, Shana, Hope, and Hunter. Her mom, Lory, is a Tribal artist, and her dad, Todd, is becoming fluent in Salish, a local Tribal language. Her favorite Native writers are Leslie Marmon Silko, Louise Erdrich, and Sherman Alexie. She even met Mr. Alexie in Seattle at a book reading where she got his autograph and a picture taken together.