Early in the morning on Dec. 15, 2019, I boarded a plane from London, Ont., to be with my dad, who was dying. Only five months earlier, he’d been diagnosed with mesothelioma lung cancer. I was desperate to make it home in time to say goodbye. As the jet sped over Lake Superior to Thunder Bay, I stared hopelessly out the window, wishing I had a parachute to drop me down.
After landing, I began the three-hour drive to my hometown of Marathon. Despite my best efforts, I would not make it on time. An hour into the drive, my sister called to tell me it was time to say goodbye. Within half an hour, she called me back to let me know he was gone. It was a cloudless day and the sunshine glistened across Lake Superior like silver. The coastal mountains surrounded me like a hug. That I could be in such a magical place hearing the devastating news was almost like a gift. I pulled over and had a big cry. Then I called my husband and children to let them know that Papa Reg had left us.
–. We come to this place with meaning and purpose. We inhabit a physical body but our spirit is eternal. When we are done with our work here, our spirit leaves its physical body and moves on.
My dad coped with the foreknowledge of his death with great humility. He referred to his own death as “going up the river.” He told us the songs he wanted played at his funeral, the people he wanted to talk. In his final conscious days, he made a wooden box to hold his ashes. Despite these conversations, I was ill-prepared for his death. Intellectually I had been preparing for this moment, recounting his diagnosis and contemplating the physical symptoms of his advanced cancer. But the moment I heard my dad had died, it felt like a giant punch in the gut. I thought we had more time. I was devastated that I was not present with my dad as he left this world.
But I resolved to do my best. My sisters and I made arrangements for his cremation. We planned a celebration of life. The people came. Food arrived, flowers too. My parents’ house was full and noisy. The doorbell kept ringing. We were busy and exhausted. But we felt loved and supported.
Anishnaabe people will hold a four-day sacred fire to support and honour the spirit as it passes from this world to the next. But in mid-December, the weather was menacing. We sought direction on our obligations, and we were soothed by our teacher who told us Dad had adequately prepared for his death in the last several months and his spirit had safely moved on. We were relieved. We wanted to honour Dad, but at that time we were not capable of holding a four-day fire. Nor were we ready to part with his ashes. The act of holding on to and protecting his ashes felt like the most honourable thing we could do. We agreed that we would fulfill our ceremonial obligations and send Dad “up the river” when the time was right. Little did we know how global events would impact this process in the coming months.
Over the winter and spring months, we made plans for the ceremony. My dad wanted his ashes released into the mouth of the Biigtig (also known as the Pic River), a place that holds tremendous importance for our family. Here, the river empties into Lake Superior. My mother’s ancestors have travelled to and gathered in this place for generations. She and her siblings played here as a child. My parents came as lovebirds to drink beer in the sand dunes. We attended our first sweat lodge here. We received our traditional names here. Following her hysterectomy, my mother buried her womb here. My children’s placentas are buried here.
We are connected to this place through our ancestors, through our time spent here. We are connected through the foods we eat. Over time, our bodies take on this place. It only makes sense that one day we should be returned here too.
No one can tell you what to expect when you are grieving or how long it will take. Nor can they prepare you for the profound loneliness you will feel. Your memories take you to happy times, sad times, the places and times you wish you could take back. Grieving during a global pandemic, and living thousands of kilometers from my family was very difficult. I was away from my loved ones. I was unable to see and be with them as I normally would, and I was forced to cope with my thoughts and feelings largely on my own. Amidst the lockdown, my mom and sisters and I would talk for hours on the phone. We shared the same stories and memories probably a hundred times. We laughed, we cried. We held the space for one another. But sitting on the phone was just not the same as sitting at my mom’s kitchen table. Not being physically present with my family was my saddest consequence of the pandemic.
For my family and so many other Indigenous peoples in Canada and beyond, COVID-19 has significantly disrupted cultural practices associated with death and grieving. Across Turtle Island, people in our communities not only die younger, but they also die more often. During COVID-19, these patterns have escalated. With the imposition of lockdown, however, access to essential public health, cultural and educational programs were halted. Children’s breakfast programs, oncology screening, and Alcoholics Anonymous were terminated. Even the Indian Friendship Centres closed their doors. For many who were already suffering, the termination of these services escalated risk to new heights and many of our people died. But with hospitals in lockdown, planes grounded, Indigenous communities closed off to the world, many died alone, miles away from family and their ceremonial protocols.
Our people have experienced these disruptions before – sanatoria, residential schools, relocation for childbirth – and the available evidence points to the need for cultural safety in health care environments, during life, at its end, and in the time after. Now and into the future, we as a society must work harder to ensure cultural dignity and respect for those who die alone, and for the safe repatriation of their remains so that families can undertake the protocols needed to support their loved one’s journey to the spirit world.
As lockdown restrictions began to ease in summer 2020, my husband, children and I made the journey to Northern Ontario. On a beautiful sunny afternoon in early August, we gathered at the mouth of the Biigtig to release my dad’s ashes. My cousin Donald and his wife Julie conducted the ceremony. Though we knew our dad’s spirit had left us several months ago, it was important to us to gather in that place to say goodbye.
On that day, along with dad’s ashes, we released a dozen roses into the Biigtig. The roses did not float out into Lake Superior as we expected. They went up the river.
We knew in that moment that Dad was okay.
This article is a component of a collection that will be published by the Royal Society of Canada. The collection is available here: https://rsc-src.ca/en/covid-19