What My Indigenous Culture Teaches Me About Mourning the Loss of a Loved One

My connection to the spirit world has been bestowed upon me at a young age. I was raised not to believe in “ghosts”—as those are spirits that the western culture has made to be scary and marketed for profit during Halloween. I was raised to believe and honor the spirit world — that is closely connected to our world. Generations of ancestors and their spirits are guiding us through our life and by practicing our culture, their wisdom continues to be passed down the seven generations.

Through my paternal culture, we cannot mention the name of our lost one for a period of thirty days. We need to refer to them by their relation e.g. grandmother, uncle, etc. This is because during those thirty days, we believe their spirit is transcending onto the spiritual world. By mentioning their name they get lost. If people on earth are calling upon them at the same time our ancestors are, they become lost and stuck in their transition. This is why it is important to not mention their name until the cycle of thirty days ends.

Through my maternal culture—which has been impacted by colonialism through religion—we are taught to wear black during our mourning period. We are also taught to celebrate their life during the Day of the Dead and celebrate their legacy through flowers—which are symbols embedded in our regalia. We are taught to respect their decisions while they walked this earth and honor their legacies through prayers and a traditional burial in our clan’s burial site. Our clan’s burial site is where all of our family is buried and cannot hold someone who is not directly related to us by blood e.g. wives, husbands, etc.

As I approach January 3rd, I am reflecting on the two loved ones I have recently lost, my grandmother and uncle. My grandmother, whose birthday is on January 3rd, taught me to be a strong woman. I am next in line—in my generation—to be the matriarch of my family and this is an honor to hold onto. I have to learn to settle arguments that occur within family members and offer guidance when family members need it. Men are taught to respect us when we speak and they cannot speak without our matriarch’s permission. Colonialism did not impact the way our women are treated or the respect they are given through our culture. Currently, my eldest aunt is our matriarch, therefore, we have to respect her decisions and wisdom as we mourn our loved ones.

January 3rd is also a day before my birthday. Since my birthday is close to the loss of my uncle, I will dedicate my birthday to him. We will also celebrate my grandmother’s birthday on January 3rd. On the birthday of a loved one who has transcended into the spiritual world, we must celebrate their birthday as though they are still with us on this earth. It is part of our mourning process for the years to come.

My grandmother’s physical form left this earth a year ago, therefore, it is believed that since she is the most recent matriarch to enter the spirit world, she decides who in our family has to make the journey into the spiritual world next. She is the spirit that comes for you when your destiny on earth has ended and holds your hand as you are guided into the world of our ancestors.

Based on our beliefs, we believe that my grandmother guided my uncle onto the spiritual world this holiday season. My uncle passed on, at the age of 45. He was single and did not have children. He helped raise my brother and I so the loss of my uncle, so unexpected, has been hard on us. When our loved ones pass on, it is a difficult process, especially when it is during the holiday season—when we are destined to reunite on earth & celebrate life and the western festivities of Christmas, New Year’s Eve, etc.

“We also say pass on and not passed away as their spirit is still guiding and protecting us. They are not gone or lost, they have walked onto the other world that we are all destined to walk one day”

My uncle had a close connection to dolphins. The animal you cherish while you live on earth is the form that your spirit will take when you decide to visit your loved ones who are still residing on earth. I am looking forward to when my uncle makes his appearance. Since I am an oceanographer-marine scientist, I hope to salute him soon as I navigate a vessel or research boat.

My Indigenous culture has taught me a lot of things when mourning the loss of a loved one. But the one thing it has taught me that has allowed me to remain strong is knowing that their spirit will soon join our ancestors. The relatives that meet us on earth are the spirits that guide our ancestors when it comes to protecting us.

I am sending everyone love and strength. We all mourn differently, even among indigenous peoples. We are not cohesive culturally in our mourning process or beliefs. Even between my paternal and maternal culture, there are huge distinctions in how we are allowed to mourn or remember a loved one who has passed on.