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  • Writer's pictureAndrea Custer

Embracing Loss: A Journey of Healing, Heritage and the Quest for Connection

I am taking my 2nd PhD class and I find myself in Victoria, B.C., away from my family for the second day. It's unusual for me to be separated from them or be away from home for such an extended period and so far away! 1,814.1 km away to be exact. Fortunately, they will be joining me sometime next week, which brings me some relief. Nonetheless, leaving my children behind was a difficult experience. I held my tears back at the airport but I know they are well taken care of so, that brings me peace.

I had also hoped to reconnect with the land that holds deep importance in my life. It represents my heritage, my legacy, and it brings me inner peace and joy. It has been three long years since I last set foot there, and the absence has been profoundly felt. Initially, I had hoped to visit this summer, but circumstances seem to have prevented it. I grieve for the land and yearn to be grounded in my true self when I am there. My mom says, it wasn’t meant to be just yet and the time will be right when it happens.

Emotionally, I feel quite vulnerable this evening. My life is filled to the brim with responsibilities. I am a devoted mother to two young children, aged 12 and 4, as well as three grown children, aged 27, 25, and 21, who bring me immense pride and joy. Additionally, I have a loving but occasionally frustrating husband—such is the way of things. I support him in his two businesses whenever possible, and I also work full-time at First Nations University, serving as an assistant professor and program coordinator.

Amidst this perpetual busyness, I have not had the time or space to confront my emotions fully and grieve the loss of loved ones over the past few years. We experienced several heartbreaking tragedies. Firstly, we lost my beloved niece, just seven years old, in a tragic accident. In 2016, my father passed away, severing the connection I had to the history of our people, he was a historian. He taught me the importance of pride in who I am and where I come from. I dearly miss his stories and laughter. Then, we lost Damian, my cousin, who was the family's culinary wizard, always bringing laughter to our gatherings. It's painful to think his life was cut short. However, I hold onto the cherished memories we shared and the laughter we created. Then, we lost my nephew, my handsome nephew was only 21, and he always referred to me as Auntie. We shared a deep love for one another. Subsequently, we faced the loss of my sister/cousin Chantal. She was the most incredible sister anyone could ask for. I can still hear her infectious laughter after she playfully said, "kitmaki awa." Along with my brother Mark S., we were raised by our late grandparents, forging an unbreakable bond. We also mourned the tragic losses of my cousins Jean and Kerra. Jean succumbed to the cold, freezing to death, while Kerra left behind two young babies, the circumstances of her departure still unknown. Auntie Sandra, too, fell victim to COVID. She always teased my cousin Carmie and me, declaring that we were her favourite nieces. Her passing revealed the truth. She was dear to me, akin to a second mother figure. Shortly after, my grandmother passed away from cancer. She lived a fulfilling life, raising her children and blessing us with over 85 years of her wisdom. I often felt guilty for not visiting her more frequently. I know she missed me, and I regret not being there for her as much as I should have been. However, after her passing, I had a dream. In that dream, she approached me, covering my hand with her own and offering a smile. It felt as though she understood why I couldn't be around as much, reassuring me that she was in a better place and that she loved me deeply. In the year that followed, my cousin Brenda and then my uncle also passed away. My uncle's life was cut short by heart failure, and it pained me to see someone so young depart from this world. Lastly, we faced the mysterious disappearance of my cousin Drew, leaving us with no answers or closure. Witnessing my auntie Loretta endure so much loss within a short time is heartbreaking. Each loss compounds upon the other, leaving us with little opportunity to grieve fully before facing another tragedy. My heart became numb under the weight of these losses, and I buried myself in the busyness of life to cope. But now, here I am, confronted with the question: Where do I go from here? How do I begin the process of grieving?

The image I've chosen to accompany my words depicts a painting by Dr. Lana Whiskeyjack, featuring pink figures. I imagine my family's spirits enveloping me, always by my side. Their love remains ever-present, despite their physical absence. I yearn for their voices, laughter, companionship, and guidance. My good friend Charlotte, reminds me that I simply need to call upon them, and they will be there. I want them to know that I love them deeply and miss them immensely. I pray that one day, I will have the opportunity to embrace them tightly and catch up on lost time, playing cribbage without any obligations or distractions—just pure, unconditional love and laughter.

As I wrote this, I allowed myself to experience a cleansing cry, a release of pent-up heartache and pain leaving me feeling emotionally drained. I believe it's time for me to step outside and have a smoke while engaging in a conversation with my departed loved ones. After that, I go to sleep with a movie on the laptop. It seems to help ease the loneliness.

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