Tears? No trail on my winding path
Updated: Apr 13, 2022
Most Oklahoma born girls, such as me, know the story of the 'Trail of Tears' being that many native American families still in today's time live on Indian reservations and recall their ancestor's pain. Historically, it is important to note that while President Andrew Jackson was in office, five different tribes were forced to journey thousands of rugged winding miles lined with trees and baron land. This long path originated from the southeastern corridor of the United States where eventually they settled and established homes in Oklahoma, north, south, east and west. Imagine enduring months of unpredictable weather from very blazing hot to freezing cold, and yet with the unknowingness of where would home be, and with the ongoing question of: where could they lay their loved ones to rest, as so many precious loved ones died? Well of course, anyone with a heart for humanity in any regard would realize that 'tears' would be rightfully shed. Tears certainly expected if treated with such cruelty and disregard for their rightful place in a nation where such bias existed against cultural and racial differences. History tells us that in excess of 15,000 native Americans died, with additional data reporting numbers up to 100,000. Adults. Fathers. Mothers. Children. Grandparents. Families suffering in ways that would impact them for generations to come.
Why would I make this comparison to a child losing their parent? Perhaps it is because I am a native Oklahoman. Yet I think the deeper answer is this: when a young mother passes away suddenly, regardless of culture or ethnicity or race, and a child old enough to observe adult behavior notices that no one is crying, then perhaps the path forward is skewed; a path that might seem like thousands of miles similar to the native American journey that imposed excruciating pain. Unpredictable silent and harsh psychological harm occurs, tears or no tears. As the child matures into adulthood, it is very reasonable to believe that death, dying and grief are misunderstood in some cases for a lifetime.
This was my observation as a seven-year-old little girl. Adults moved on about their business. Adult family members argued among themselves with children hearing every word said. After all, in the 1960's children were to be seen and not heard. Within this concentric family circle of dysfunction, a child such as me failed to cry, and adults took issue with my failure to perform like that of actors in a dramatic soap opera or those on Broadway. There was no 'trail of tears,' and adults behaved like they were stuck in the 'terrible two's.' Extended family members raised their voices to be heard, all the while believing that this would increase the likelihood of tears filling the blue-eyes of a little girl and then satisfy their performance expectations. Yet were they crying? No. No. No. Let me double-down and say NO one more time.
I would compare my grief journey as a child, like unto Dad's warning about our potential backyard snakes when we moved to Waco in 1964. So personally, I compare childhood grief and pain to the 'snakes in the backyard,' for the grief impact will reach up and bite when you least expect it. A bite that may be poisonous and deadly, thus leading to a myriad of potential mental health problems, or a nonpoisonous bite that still needs attention through a lot of love, support and understanding. Regardless of the snake bite injury being that of a harmless grass snake or a poisonous rattle snake, they are both of concern to a child's grieving heart. Fortunately, as Dad always described me throughout my life, I was a survivor and for the most part, I still am; an overcomer triumphing in spite of the unforeseen snake bites of grief.
What I have learned throughout life when it comes to death, dying, grief, and the expressions that follow is this: there is no right or wrong, up or down, in or out, black or white or even grey when it comes to the initial reaction of anyone to a death of someone they love, regardless of their age. It is a winding path with sharp curves that require one to just go slow and take deep breaths at times; a path with both the heat of pain and the shade of comfort. A journey with no clock, and one without an on or off switch.
Admittedly, after watching the arguing between those I loved over the passing of someone who brought me into this world, loneliness imposed itself into my heart with a strong desire to just be somewhere else. I wanted to be anywhere but with those who judged an innocent child for not doing something that they themselves failed to do, and that is to shed even one tear. I often wonder if this occurs in families today. If so, how very sad.
So today, guess what? I cry at the drop of the proverbial hat. If I hear about the passing of even someone that I have only known for a brief time then deep compassion takes over and tears fill my eyes. This can occur for days. So for all the tears that I failed to shed many years ago, I have certainly filled many a tear-bottle. You might ask, what is a tear bottle for heavens sake? In answer to this question, they were used in ancient Roman times for the sole purpose of mourners to fill them with their personal tears at the passing of a love one. Some were kept personally as they have a lid on them, and when the tears would evaporate then the empty tear bottle would often coincide with the time that grief had subsided and life normalized. Others would place the tear bottles in the graves with their departed loved ones; all this depended on the tradition of where one passed away. What is somewhat bizarre is that some cultures would actually pay the mourners to cry into cups as they joined in funeral processions (www.tearcatcher.com). Yet no one typically purchases a tear bottle for their child or family members in today's time for it is an antiquated tradition no longer acknowledged or practiced.
Tears. No Tears. Several points remain so very important in the mind of a child who ultimately matures and becomes an adult. First, adults need to be aware that a child does not cry on command, and whether they cry or not does not suggest the lack of love for their dear parent who has departed from this life. Secondly, there is no right or wrong way to grieve and mourn, for everyone is an individual with emotions unique to them and no one else, to include children. And finally, a child does feel the loss, pain, and quite often a sense of abandonment that traumatizes them from within to the point of being diagnosed with Delayed-Onset Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.
This grief held from within for both children and adults often reveals itself like that of an Indian artist painting a totem pole with no sense of direction, form, or even talent; just paint splattered and left to dry as it will on a lonely tall wooden pole. A totem pole without emotional or even physical beauty for that matter. Whether one is a child or a totem pole, the wounds like that of the native Americans will finally arrive in the 'Oklahoma' of a child's grieving heart. There will be a trail of tears, that I promise, even if the tears fall years later.
So, in closing, may we all be more aware of children and the grief they hold from within, and protect them from snakes that may suddenly crawl out and painfully bite on the winding tree-lined road of their life. Children grieve too, yes, they do! Yet do children mourn, or even know the meaning of the word? Perhaps not. Will save that discussion for a later time.