On Friday November 12, my beautiful cousin Jewel woke up early, got ready for school as usual, then went to the basement of her mother’s house and hung herself. She was 12 years old.
I cannot describe the shock, the shudder of horror, the indescribable heartbreak that reverberated through two families and an entire community when this news spread like wildfire. I found out through a phone call around noon (on a day that I was coincidentally celebrating my birthday) and I thought I was going to pass out, throw up, or do both at the same time. I fell to my knees and sobbed when I got off the phone. Within two hours I was in the car with my shell-shocked kids, on the way back to the reserve to be with my family. I believe that I have cried more tears these past four days than I have in my entire life, and my life has not been without its share of heartbreak. But this, this loss of our talented, lovely, brilliant little Jewel, this has eviscerated me and has somehow ruptured something in me that I thought tougher and invulnerable to events of this nature. I was so wrong.
I loved that little girl from the moment I laid eyes on her, at a family gathering when she was about six months old. She was smiling and bright even then, her cinnamon-coloured hair so unusual in our family, and the family resemblance between her and my own daughter at that age was remarked upon by everyone. Her father is my first cousin and we thought it wonderful how similar they looked. But my own daughter grew up tall and big-boned while Jewel remained petite and perfect for the dancer she became. As she grew older she became an accomplished dancer and athlete, smart, beautiful, and funny. She was also passionate about learning our language and traditional culture, and danced in powwows in the Iroquoian category of smokedance, a graceful, athletic and fierce dance style that was perfect for her. One of my favourite memories of Jewel is watching her compete at a powwow in this category, her small frame a blur amid other dancers bigger than her, her feet stamping out intricate patterns and her arms open wide to the sky as if she could embrace it. When the music stopped she was smiling with the joy of movement and the fierce music that the water drum pounded out, and I remember clapping in astonishment at how good she was.
Whenever I happened to see her, whether at a family thing or a community event or just coming by my parents’ place because she was visiting her dad, she would suddenly appear beside me with a shy hug and a sweet, “Hi, Terri,” and I always would say, “Hello, Beautiful Girl! How are you??” and we would have a quick conversation and she would tell me what she was up to and then scamper off to go hang out with Carole or Kristen or Lilly or whoever was around.
Her Mohawk name was Gahwediyo, which means “Beautiful Meadow”, and it suited her. She seemed so self-possessed and placid, serene and so very lovely to look at. Little did we know the anguish that obviously lay beneath her outward appearance. She had already known enough sadness in her short life, having lived through the loss of her beloved older brother Craig to the coma he had suffered in a car accident and never came out of. Her parents had broken apart long before then and she had been shuttled back and forth between them, but to us she seemed to be coping well with it all. All of us adults failed her, not seeing any sign that she was in trouble. Not until it was too late, and she was already dead by her own hand.
This overwhelming tragedy is seven times likelier to happen to an indigenous family in Canada than to a white family. On my reserve suicide is the second leading killer of our youth ages 10-20 after fatal car accidents. I know that the dark spectre of suicide trails its rotting fingers over both sides of my family, and there is not one family on the reserve that has escaped this horror. I ran from the reserve when I was seventeen because I did not want to live under the dark cloud of sickness and sadness that sometimes threatens to overwhelm the place. There is so much laughter and potential and fierceness and joy on the Rez, but at the same time, there remains the undercurrent of tragedy. I have since learned that you can never run far enough, because it will always reach out to touch you at some point, to remind you of the dark legacy of colonialism that touches your family even in this modern world we live in.
I’m trying to find answers, not only for myself, but for my own children who have been left devasted by their cousin’s death. I know that whatever pain my poor sweet Jewel felt that she could no longer cope with is over now. The tragic knowledge is that she lacked the maturity to understand that it would get better if she just hung in there – this is what breaks my heart. But for our youth, it’s a much harder road than white, privileged kids would ever understand.
I have a lot of healing – and understanding – to do. In coming entries I will be talking about it. Because we need to talk about it, and I will be damned if I let another beautiful child of my family slip through our fingers because we didn’t see the signs.