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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Holding Other People’s Pain in My Body

I won’t lie, I went back and forth debating sharing this. Mostly that’s because I don’t have a clear path at the end or a neat way to wrap this up. Regardless, not every story has a neat bow or a tidy conclusion, and I still hope that you find a lesson or entertainment in my journey.

I’ve spent the past 5 years of my life battling against a chronic pain disease and an autoimmune disease that mimics lupus, but as much as my current health struggles influence my life in the present, this is far from my first fight with carrying mysterious, untreatable pains...

As a child, my body was constantly ill and I always cringe a little when I see photos of me as a toddler. Alongside the biggest grin you’ve ever seen, pale skin and dark circles under my eyes are common sights in my baby book. My parents tried everything from frequent family doctor visits to Native medicines that my Grandma and Uncle would prepare for me, but I would still go through frequent bouts of pain, and extreme weight loss. It felt like my body was on fire and no one could figure out what was causing it.

Even worse than the pains were the night terrors and the dreams. Many nights I spent waking to the feeling of something just beyond the veil or repeating the same dream over and over. When I turned seven, I began to dream of my Great Grandfather falling down the stairs. Scared, I told my Dad that I dreamt of this three times. I was even more scared when my Uncle called later that week to tell us that my Great Grandfather had fallen down the stairs and broken his hip.

During one of our trips to Tahltan Country the next summer, I went for a walk along the river with my Uncle to look for Eagle feathers for our ceremonies. As we walked, he told me that our family holds very strong Medicine and that some of our family members in each generation were gifted with different powers. At first, my young mind was excited because I was obsessed with Mortal Combat and Dragon Ball Z. When I asked him about that, he laughed it off and said these powers were very different.

He began to speak about the power to see and hear Spirits, the power to dream and the power to heal. Maybe he spoke of more, but I don’t remember. I do remember him asking me to tell him about my dreams about my Great Grandfather, though, and about who I heard beyond the veil. He asked me about what I did in my dreams and told me never to be scared in my dreams, no matter what I’m facing because those who can dreamwalk have the power to manipulate the dream world (which he then told me was the same plane as the Spirit world!). On our way back, I spotted my first Eagle feather and Uncle gave me tobacco to leave as an offering of reciprocity. I didn’t know it then, but that Eagle feather was the affirmation of my first step on my path with my gifts.

Five years later, my family was struck by one of the hardest events we’ve had to go through so far. My oldest brother was run over and dragged beneath a truck, losing over half his blood and part of his foot on the road. The only thing that saved him was the fact that he was run over outside the house of a paramedic who was able to tourniquet his leg and call an ambulance. Overnight, he was medivaced out of the territory and I didn’t see him for several months. When I finally did see him at the beginning of my grade eight year, he was a mess.

I remember him having to sleep in my bedroom with me because he couldn’t sleep unless someone rubbed his head for him. I would doze off and he would wake me up to keep rubbing his head if he hadn’t fallen asleep first, and I remember being so worried I’d twitch and kick his injured foot, which eventually had to be amputated. It just couldn’t be saved.

In all my worry and my determination to help him, I began to get sick again. Only, this time it didn’t go away. The pain I felt was immense: pain in my knees, my spine, my back, my neck, my hands...the pain was everywhere. I could barely keep food down. I couldn’t sleep, sometimes for up to 3 days at a time. Migraines and abdominal spasms began, and no one could diagnose me. It wasn’t until I was lying in bed rubbing my brother’s head for the third week in a row that I realized that no one needed to.

There have been many times throughout my life that my mind goes back to the walk along the river I had with my Uncle, my first Eagle feather and the lesson about my gifts. Maybe he didn’t speak about other gifts that day. No, I think he listed the gifts he saw in me and the gifts he knew I would take forward into my life. There have been many times when I’ve been confronted with energy that isn’t mine, pain that isn’t mine and feelings that aren’t mine. Still, I take it all, especially through touch. I pull pain out of others and store it in my body until I can find a safe place to release it and if I remember to release it. This is a gift that was passed through my family to me, but it hurts a lot.

See, before my family was removed from the Land this practice was a powerful tool for us as Healers to carry pain and help our community members. The problem is that human bodies aren’t strong enough to hold even their own grief and stress for long without causing physical ailments, let alone the stress and grief of those we serve. The difference between my ancestor’s ability to harness this gift and use it well was that they were also being replenished. They were consistently being held by the Land everywhere they went, and the Land then pulled all that energy out during grounding and ceremony. Our Earth Mother is far stronger than we are and she can carry much more than we can. However, colonization has removed us from her along with her grounding and ability to safely take the pain and negative energy away from us.

For years I’ve been removed from Tahltan Country, from the very river at which I was gifted my first Eagle feather. I’ve been removed from the mountains and the cliffs but I haven’t been removed from grief and stress, not my own nor that of others. I’ve been holding more and more grief within me, diminishing my body more and more each year as it tries to act like a vessel to contain all the painful energy I’ve taken on but never appropriately let flow out. It’s never been safe to leave it floating because it leaves imprints on the room and on you. I was told these imprints are like homing beacons for dark Spirits looking for a space that matches their energy levels. No, in order to release this energy, it has to be done responsibly and that requires the Land and ceremony.

This week Elaine told me to focus on “Understanding Self” when I confessed that a recent What’s on Your Heart Circle had my spine on fire and head aching by the twelfth person, and I have to admit that I’m conflicted. On one hand, my spiritual theme for the year is “Is This Healing Me” and it’s easy to say that a burning spine and migraine are usually not signs of healing. However, on the other hand, I know that I was gifted this power and the responsibilities it carries by my ancestors and the contract that I signed before I came to this plane. I chose to carry the gift before I entered this world and to not use it goes against my lessons. My head swirls with confusion because I’m not someone who can think on the spot but I worry that the work I choose takes a real toll on my body.

Is it as simple as disengaging frequently and being on the Land more? Perhaps I’m just overfilled because I’m still processing my own grief with losing my Grandma. Is it as easy as limiting my Circle in size? I can handle the energy if I take care of myself, right? Speaking of caring for myself: how much time on the Land do I need in order to restore and heal myself based on the pain and grief that I’ve accepted? Will it ever really balance out? Am I struggling because of my loss or is this really my limit forever?

I have so many questions for myself and for my ancestors, but it feels like everyone moves so much faster than I do and I’m playing catch up with my mind and my body. One thing I know for sure is that I obviously haven’t been spending enough time with the Tree People lately. Easiest first step: I’ll start there.




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