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the elders felt responsible but did not know what to do

September 16, 2011

I worked in a community in BC where there was delayed grieving. There was a tradition of grave markers being kept outside the home for a time, before being moved to the burial site. Some of these markers had been outside people’s homes for several years. The elders felt responsible to heal this situation, and they did not know what to do.

It happened that this community, years before, had lost a chief and some family members of that chief, who had died on some other island during some hard times. Not knowing where they had died, the people had been unable to care for their bodies properly. And maybe this was, in fact, the situation for which the elders felt responsible.

For some time they lived with this sense of unmet responsibility. Years. Maybe decades. Finally, a marker for the lost ones was placed in the local cemetery, with ceremony and feasting. I went to this feast, and this is how I remember what was told to me (mostly by a nurse who lived there). Now, the elders hoped, people would carry on from grieving their more recently lost loved ones.

That image has stayed with me, of elders feeling responsible to help their communities deal with something and not knowing what to do. I imagine walking with a heavy feeling. I imagine conversations happening over tea… and conversations not happening, maybe when the business of other generations is front-and-centre… Where is the time and place for elder-to-elder connection? How can nurses promote these kinds of healing conversations?

This is the kind of question I’ve asked myself constantly since I started working in remote Aboriginal communities 7 years ago. How can we get ourselves out of the clinic/office/health centre/nursing station and out to where concerns about community health are being lived and pondered and fretted over and internalised? How can we help people do what they’re already (moving towards) doing?

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