Grief is probably the most personal of all emotions. When a grieving person hears other people say, I know exactly how you feel, the first thought that comes to his/her mind is, how could you? No one can feel the way you are feeling and nothing anyone says or does will make you feel better.
In the early morning hours on July 1, 2001, the police came to my door and informed that my beautiful son, Joel Mitchell Longie, was killed in a car accident. I had to go to the funeral home to identify my son. Joel was only seventeen years old. Some parents are said to refuse to accept the death of their child. With me, it was the opposite. Once I had seen his battered and bruised body at funeral home I knew he had left us for the Spirit World. Walking over to where he lay, I carefully closed his left eye, which was still open due to an injury he suffered in the car accident. Realizing his body would soon be cold, I caress him all over, and finally, I took his arms, wrapped them around me, and hugged him. While I held his body in my arm a thought occurred to me - Joel always listens to me. Although, I knew it was hopeless, never-the-less I had to find out if he would listen to me one time when it was so critical.
"Listen to me, wake up Joel, wake up my son,"
I told him. Of course, he did not wake up. I took him in my arms and cried, until a deputy sheriff told me, I had to leave the funeral parlor.
Although it was very early in the morning, many of my family members and relatives were outside the funeral home, when I came out. They wanted to see Joel, but I told them the funeral director wanted to clean up his body before she allowed anyone else to view him. Informing them, I was driving to Dunseith, 100 miles distant, to inform Leona (Joel's mother) I got in the car and left. While driving to Dunseith, my anger got the better of me and I began to talk to the Creator. This angry discussion with the Creator eventually became a poem that was put on his funeral cards. Informing Leona our son was dead was one of the hardest things I have ever done. Words can't adequately describe how she reacted when I told her Joel was killed in a car accident that morning. Unable to help her, I stood helplessly by as she broke down. Once she regained some semblance of her composure, she called her relatives and several came right over to cry with her and to comfort her.
When Leona and I arrived back at the funeral home, more relatives had joined those who were waiting there when I left for Dunseith. Informing the funeral director Leona was Joel's mother; she said we could view the Joel's body. The other family members and relatives also asked to view his body. At first, the funeral director said "no" (there were too many). Then seeing the look on their faces she immediately relented and allowed them in. All of us -- my family, Leona and her sons, my cousins, and in-laws -- stood around Joel and took turns hugging him one last time. Looking back, I think this when I first had an inkling that my son was not only special to me, but to many, many people.
The week before Joel's funeral was so hard. It hurt to go to sleep and it hurt to wake up. One incident did occur that brought a momentary relief from my grief. The night after he died, my house was full with Leona's relatives so I told my two sons, Marshall and Ryan, I wanted them to sleep with me on the floor in the living room. (We slept together until Joel's funeral and Ryan, the youngest son, was so traumatized by his brother's death he continued to sleep with me for six months after Joel's death.) Early that morning, while everyone was still asleep, I woke up and lay there thinking about my son. Someone suddenly pulled my hair with what felt like his or her thumb and forefinger. I looked over at Marshall and Ryan and when I saw that they were still sleeping I immediately knew it was Joel. He was letting me know that he was somewhere.
From the day my son died, July 1, 2001, to the day of the wake, July 5, 2001, my house was never empty; people were constantly coming and going. Some came to pay respect; others brought us food, cards, money, star quilts, and other gifts. Joel had attended school in Devils Lake, a town located north of the reservation. My attitude toward some many people who lived in Devils Lake was never favorable and vice versa. Therefore, I was taken completely by surprise by the number of people from Devils Lake who showed up at my door not only with food, money, and gifts, but also by the amount of tears they shed for my son. Although the day of the wake and funeral was mainly a blur, I vividly recall several scenes. The first was the huge number of people who joined the procession from Wal-Mart to Crow Hill Recreation Center where the wake was held. There were two fire engines (Joel had recently completed fire-fighting training) and literally hundreds of cars in the procession, which were several miles long. The second was the number of people who attended the wake and funeral. Prior to transporting a body to the graveyard, a drum group sings an Honor Song, people view the body one last time and shake the hand of the family members. When the Honor Song was sung for Joel, the number of people from two reservations (Turtle Mountain and Spirit Lake) and the town of Devils Lake who filed by the casket, viewed his body, shook our hand, and cried with us was unbelievable. We must have stood for about two hours shaking hands. By that time, I had come to realize my son was special to many, many people although I didn't quite know why. (I have no idea how many came to the wake and funeral but later when I counted the number of signatures in the guest book, there were over 500.)
Normally the funeral director closes the casket prior to going to the graveyard. When it came time to close the casket, I indicated to her that I wanted to close it. I walked up to the casket; reached in, tucked the star quilt in around him gave him one last kiss and closed the casket. After Joel was lowered into the grave, I took my turn with the shovel and helped cover his grave.
From the moment we lowered Joel in the grave, I made up my mind I would not do anything to distract or lessen my grief for him. Marshall, in a moment of extreme grief told me,
"They said Joel is happy where he is at, but I know he misses us too, Dad".
Because I believe our Spirits (my children and I) are somehow connected, Marshall's comment led me to believe my grief mirrored what Joel was feeling in the Spirit World.
"When my son is happy in the Spirit World, I will be happy in this world,"
I thought, and I did not fear grief after that. Instead, I began to view my grief as an extreme expression of love. If grief is actually a form of love, why would I try to lessen it, I reasoned. Therefore, I let my grief continue (openly) unabated for several months and when people began to become concerned, I became secretive.
The year following my son's untimely death was the toughest year of my life. The number of times I missed my son and cried is beyond counting. The first several weeks were the toughest of all. I never realized a person could experience such emotional pain and live. Then a strange thing happened. Almost overnight, the extreme emotional pain subsided and I was left with a dull, constant ache in my heart. I believe the Creator, hearing all the prayers of my relatives and friends took pity on me and granted me relief from the most extreme emotional pain I have ever suffered.
The first couple of weeks I felt so helpless I almost went crazy. As with most parents, I am as courageous as a female grizzly bear is when defending her young. Every time one of my children was in trouble, I did whatever I had to protect them. I like to think I am a creative person, and it was this creativity that always enabled me to either lessen the consequences my children would have had to face or alleviate them all together. However, no matter how I tried there was nothing I could think of doing that would bring my son back. It didn't matter how smart I thought I was, how courageous I was; I realized absolutely nothing I did would bring him back and that knowledge almost drove me crazy. This was compounded by the fact I did not know what the Spirit World was really like. Did he have enough to eat? Was he happy? Was he safe? These thoughts tormented me for several weeks.
I also became very frustrated with family members and friends. They meant well when they told me I had to move on or
"You have to let him go now,"
or, most often,
"He is in a better place and he wants you to be happy."
"How would Joel feel if I decided to move on or let him go?"
Moreover, I was not sure he was in a better place because how could any other place be better than here beside me? Regardless of what anyone told me or what they thought, I had already made up my mind that I would grieve for my son until I went to the Spirit World.
A couple of weeks after the funeral, at the request from the mother of one of Joel's friends from mw Devils Lake, I bought pizza and I met with 15-20 of his friends in her garage. It was sad to see those kids struggle with their grief. It was apparent they really loved and missed my son. I asked them to tell me about my son, the side of him that I was apparently unaware of.
Out of that meeting came many friendships both with the young people at that meeting and with some of their parents. (I heard "Joel spent most of his time at our house" many, many times. How he could have spent the time at every friend's house that they all claimed he did is beyond me! "There must have been 3 or 4 Joels running around Devils Lake," I joked to my friend Carol Davis one day when I was visiting with her.) Not to mention Joel's friends and relatives in Dunseith and here on Spirit Lake. All of them claimed they were Joel's best friends.
"Joel ALWAYS came to see me when he came to visit,"
each one of his relatives from Dunseith told me. There have been at least 5 babies born since Joel's death who bear his name or some variation of his name.
I have also talked at three schools about the dangers of drinking and driving. (Joel was legally drunk at the time of his accident.) I did an hour-and-a-half presentation at a tribal college and spoke to a church group. I spoke to a boosters club when some parents questioned whether to hold an event honoring my son at their first home basketball game. When the event was held, I spoke to the spectators present. I held a memorial one year after he died and sponsored a memorial basketball tournament each year for four years. I gave up poker and tried to avoid extravagant living for four years per our customs and I continue to put a rose on his grave the first of every month. (I drove around in an old rez beater, a 1983 Ford, for so long that several people, including my son wondered why I didn't buy a new car. I did not bother to tell them I would as soon as the four years were up.)
After listening to literally dozens stories from adults and teenagers about Joel, I believe I have a partial answer to why my son was so special to so many people. Aside from being a "nice kid" with an amazing smile, he was always upbeat and... just happy all the time. In addition, he had ability to relate to almost any kid he met. He sincerely felt sorry for those kids who were less fortunate then him and if the situation called for it, he had the courage to help them out. (One kid told me, "I met Joel in the eighth grade. Other boys were picking on me and Joel stuck up for me. He was the only friend I had."
A young lady told me of the time when she was having a bad day and Joel took the time to visit with her and cheer her up.) Joel was also very respectful towards adults and the elderly. A cop, who had stopped him for "doing cookies" called me, instead of, "tattling" on him, he apparently felt the need to tell me how respectful Joel was toward him. My sister told me, how respectful Joel was toward her. "He always called me 'Auntie', when he talked to me", she said. (After the funeral, I directed Marshall and Ryan to always address my brothers and sisters by Uncle and/or Auntie when talking to them.) A gas station owner told me how he would offer to put more then the $10 worth of gas, that I allowed him, in Joel's car. Instead, Joel would refuse saying, " My dad has other bills to pay". This response amazed him, I can't believe a young kid would say that, he told me. However, I don't really know why he was so special to so many people. Maybe it was because he was just Joe.
My experience with my son's death had an immediate change on me and in ways that I am still discovering. We Dakotas have a belief, which goes something like this: However, you act immediately after a loved one dies, you will be compelled to act like that for the rest of your life. For example, if you turned to drugs and alcohol you will become addicted. If you became spiritual to handle your grief, you will be spiritual the rest of your life. If you were angry, you would be angry the rest of your life. Having been aware of this belief, I tried very hard to not get angry with anyone, to be more patient and tolerant with my children and others, and to avoid loud arguments and confrontations. Indeed, more than one person has told me that I changed for the better since my son died. I also admitted that my racism toward "white people" is wrong. I grew up believing white people were stingy and greedy. They didn't care for their relatives -- putting their elderly in nursing homes and letting family members and other relatives go homeless. Here were people who I thought incapable of feeling compassion and love toward their fellow man, grieving for my son as much as his own relatives were. They obviously loved him very, very much. Their love for my son along with their kindness and compassion toward me made me reexamine my feeling toward them and I made this promise:
"I will never make a racist comment about the people, or the town, of Devils Lake again"
-- a promise that I have kept to this day.
to love to read Stephen King's books. His brand of terror really scared
me. However, his scary characters and spooky stories seem small and
insignificant now that I experienced something much more powerful in comparison
- death. I also found out that nothing, or no one, really bothers me
anymore. This strange calmness gives me an edge, so to speak, when I am
in a situation that may lead to a confrontation, and I may be criticized and/or
threatened. Criticisms, and threats simply do not bother me anymore.
This often prompts me to speak up in situations where it is not easy or wise to
In has been six years since Joel left us for the Spirit World. I now accept that my grief will always be there, it is beyond my control. However, I also realize my grief healed and comforted me, as long I did not run away from it. As a loner who never depended on anyone, other than my family for emotional support, I now realize how critical the support from my friends and acquaintances is.
I will grieve for my son for long as I live, not in a harmful dysfunctional manner but in a manner that is reflective of the love, I have for him and him for me.
In closing, my son's death made me realize how short our time here on earth is. While I hope to live to be an old man, I have given some thought to the time when I will go to the Spirit World. This led me to ask the Creator to grant me this wish, to have Joel be the first person to greet me when I go to the Spirit World. As I mentioned earlier, the first of every month, I put a rose on Joel's grave. I have directed my children to place a rose in my hand when I die so when I get to the Spirit World I can give him my last rose in person. Knowing the Creator will grant me my wish; when it is time for me to go to the Spirit World, I will go with more anticipation than apprehension.