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  • Writer's pictureJen Greenway

Learning Compassion from My Grandma’s Spirit

During my meditations, I like to sit and think back to times when I felt most myself, the times when I felt most connected to my ancestors and to who I am as a Being in this multiverse. My mind immediately takes me back to my early years before I was old enough to understand that, on this Land, there are forces attempting to make being human and alive difficult - if not impossible in some cases- for me and my people simply because we exist in opposition to invading and imported desires and fundamental beliefs. I don't want to talk about that today.

I want to talk about memories.

I want to talk about my childhood memories because I have so many, and I've been relying on these memories heavily lately, playing them over in my mind again and again.

Sometimes it's about comfort and nostalgia. Sharing a blanket with my sister while we watch Land Before Time. Braiding my cousin's hair. Watching my dad play hockey and cheering until I lost my voice.

Some memories carve my identity the same way the Tahltan River carves through the deep valleys of our Nation on its way home to the ocean. The feeling of my tough feet running barefoot down hot dirt roads. The smell of smoke and Salmon on my tanned skin. The heat beating down on my tent by 10 am telling me I better get up and greet the river before I boil myself in bed. And, of course, that first bite into Salmon and rice soup after the blazing Tahltan sun has gone down.

After my Grandma Violet passed in October, I've spent even more time reliving and examining these memories, mostly in an attempt to glean some kind of closeness to her or to get to know her. Most people who I've come to speak to about my Grandma have incredible stories of her being happy and smiling all the time. They tell me about how hard she worked and how kind she was to everyone. As is the case in many Indigenous households, my familial relationships are complex and nuanced, and complicated by trauma and colonialism. What it comes down to is I don't feel like I knew my Grandma the way she deserves to be known. At some point along our journey together, her complexity and nuance had been replaced with frustration and resentment.

You see, my Grandma was hard on me specifically. She scolded me for hanging out with teenage boys, she reprimanded me if I stayed out late or if I swore. I think the hardest of all was the fact that none of my other siblings or cousins received the same Eagle-eyed monitoring or correction. Actually, that's not true. The hardest part of all was that she wasn't always that way with me.

Like I said, my early years are my favourite memories to relive. That holds true even when it comes to my Grandma, so I knew that if I wanted to get to know her, I had to start there. I also knew that setting the spiritual intention of learning and love was absolutely necessary if I was going to be looking at painful memories I had long since formed an opinion on.

It's easy to start. Moose stew with bannock while Grandma hums in the kitchen. Learning about spruce gum and how to use it for practically everything. Realizing I'm scared of raptors when I spend half a sleepover pleading not to be eaten by the dinosaur growling under the bed, only to realize it's Grandma snoring upstairs. You know, average stuff like that…

In many ways, my Grandma and I are strongly linked, and I think tried hard to instill that teaching in me, though I never accepted it until recently. Not only do we share a name, but from an early age, I was one of the only grandchildren to speak to her in one of our Indigenous languages - Kaska. I beaded and danced. I wanted to know all the medicines they would teach me. I dream walked.

It's easy to reminisce, but that's not why I'm here. As I meditate and I peel back memories year by year, some things emerged that change everything. Shame and fear.

I'm being scolded for ruining feminine dress clothes in order to play with my brothers. I'm being told that I'm a slut for having male best friends. I'm not allowed to visit my Dad in the hospital when he has a panic attack because they claim I'm to blame and will only make it worse. I'm confused about my body and this sense of dysphoria I get when a look in the mirror and when they tell me I can't be with boys. I'm angry. I'm judged. And then I remember the pins…

My Grandma was a provider. She was an incredible seamstress. I still remember my first pair of moccasins like it was yesterday, and she didn't stop there. My whole childhood she sewed hats and mittens for me, beautiful and warm. But one year, which was a particularly hard one for our family, I opened my Christmas box to reveal my annual mittens. I excitedly shoved my hand into the left mitten and was instantly frozen in fear. My Grandma hadn't removed any of the pins in the wrist...Following that incident, my grade seven brain was convinced she hated me, and it didn't help that we were still at odds nearly every time we spent more than five minutes together.

By this point in my meditation journey, I was frustrated with myself because I had asked myself for learning and love, and all I had accomplished was reliving some of my most painful memories with my Grandma. Plus, I let myself get grumpy. That's practically the opposite of what we’re doing here.

One more memory.

I'm excited to go to grade seven graduation, but I'm all alone. Neither of my parents is available. My siblings are out of town or don't want to come. I'm standing by myself debating going home because I've already cried and I'm sick of pretending my feelings aren't hurt. Just as I turn to leave I can see a head of grey permed curls bob through the door. Beneath those curls is a set of big gold glasses and chubby brown cheeks pulled into a proud smile. I even got one of her signature happy squeals that night.

That really was the memory that turned it all around for me. After that memory came back, it was like I had a new set of eyes. How did she know about my ceremony? Did my Dad tell her? Was she asking the school about it? Did she know I would be alone? None of that ultimately mattered because she was there and she knew I needed her to be, especially now when I'm looking back on it now.

I remember my hope that night was that she would see I was top of my class and that she might lay off the pressure, but it felt like my good grades only fueled my Grandma’s need to push me as hard as she could. At the time, the shame and fears of inadequacy continued to fester. Looking back now, I know I've only scratched the surface of what was really going on.

What I'm coming to learn through my meditation and getting to know my Grandma is so much bigger than just sorting memories and learning to see them in a new light. Asking my Spirit to lead with love and learning in these meditations has forced me to actually get to know myself through my Grandma, and, likewise, getting to know myself has opened the door to getting to know my Grandma with proper compassion and understanding. There is no separation in this learning because, in order to understand others, we have to first understand ourselves. That's rule number one. Rule number two is that we are all connected and it's up to us to centre that connection and breathe life into it. Without our Relations, were cut off from the world and cut off from love.

My explorations of these central Indigenous teachings are ongoing, as they will remain to be until I pass spirit-side, but I have to share with you one big leap I made through these lessons while getting to know my Grandma after she's already passed. Perhaps it will change the way you see yourself or your Relations, or it might even encourage you to breathe life into your ancestral relationships.

In 2017, I became extremely sick. I was bedridden for weeks, my working memory was about 5 minutes, I temporarily lost my ability to read more than a few words at a time, and I developed massive patches of broken blood vessels and joint pain all over my body. That’s just the start of it, but you get the picture. To this day, my doctors haven't successfully diagnosed me, but they did bestow upon me a side diagnosis of fibromyalgia to explain the severe joint and nerve pain that accompanied this mystery illness.

I liked to ignore my true feelings and pretend that I was doing well with the diagnosis, so it's really only been within the last year that I've really come face to face with this illness and had to be realistic about how I'm going to move forward in my life. Over the past six years, I've gripped tightly as bit by bit my independence and my physical strength is stripped away. I've cried tears of anger and frustration as my body gets more and more painful and I find myself devoting hours of my week to just thinking about pain or how to make my day easier. I have to fight constant ego and anger because my body is betraying me, isn't it? Maybe not.

That's when I think about the pins again, and I realize how much pain, fear and shame my Grandma was hiding from me.

See, towards the latter half of our journey together, my Grandma's memory was failing her. Her body passed with no memory of who most of her current family members were, including me. That memory of the pins was one of the first memories that my Spirit took me to every time I thought back on my Grandma and I wanted so badly to forget it and how painful that day was - both physically and emotionally. Now, I cry when I think of that memory, and it's not because I'm sad for myself. I'm sad for my Grandma. I'm sad because it makes me wonder how long she felt trapped in a body that was "betraying" her. I'm sad because I wonder how long she hid her symptoms from us before they couldn't be hidden anymore. How long did she suffer alone? And lastly, was she the hardest on me because she knew that I was going to carry on for her? Did she see something in me at a young age that she refused to let me squander? Maybe I’ll never know.

Either way, learning to understand the pain and betrayal I feel every day has taught me a compassion for my Grandma that I didn't have before. It's taught me to see my memories with new eyes and to understand that, no my Grandma didn't understand me as I wanted to be understood or know me the way I wanted to be known, but she lived with a fear and a shame that she might not understand or know herself - or anyone she loved - the way she wanted to for much longer. That fear and shame, especially surrounding the loss of Indigenous Knowledge and Relations, is all too common in Indigenous communities and families, and it colours the way we approach our relationships.

As I'm repairing my relationship with my Grandma, digging into each memory we have together where I’ve sensed shame and fear has become my mandate. I'm entering each memory, sage burning and heart open, ready to identify where the shame and fear I felt really come from. And as I heal us in my memories, I can feel the pain and shame surrounding my own body, my dysphoria, and my illness slowly lift as I forgive and accept myself as well.

If you have broken relationships, even with those who have travelled spirit-side, all I can recommend is that at some point on your journey you examine yourself in relation to them. Remember, we’re all connected and only through breathing life into our Relations can we feel the full extent of the love in that connection. So what are you doing to breathe life into your relationships?




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