Tulalip Healing: Understanding Grief

By Kara Briggs-Campbell, Tulalip News

Grief is a natural human response to losses of all kinds.

The death of a beloved grandparent or an elder parent or a spouse after a long illness typically results in what psychologists call normal or uncomplicated grief. Psychologists say that violent tragedies or unexpected deaths such as occurred in the Tulalip and Marysville communities on Oct. 24 are more likely to result in what they call complicated grief.

In complicated grief a sense of sorrow for the injury and the loss of beautiful, young people may be mixed with feelings such as fear, anger, rage, guilt or a profound sadness and depression. And could be further infused with past hurts or disappointments, including unresolved grief from earlier deaths and traumas.

According to Tulalip Tribes mental health counselor Kay Feather many in the Tulalip tribal family are experiencing these types of mixed emotions as the days turn to weeks since the shooting and the funerals.

The Tulalip Tribes and other tribes across North America have ancient traditions for processing grief and loss that allow extended family and community to share the burden with the immediate family and friends.

In 1969 author Elizabeth Kübler Ross identified the stages of grief as denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. These stages are still recognizable, but psychologists say these are only a starting point to understanding the complex experience of grief.

“A person can get mad one minute, and the next minute they are crying, then they get comfort from someone and yet a minute later, they fall apart and say, ‘I don’t know what’s wrong with me,’” said Dr. Dolores Subia BigFoot, director of the Indian Country Child Trauma Center at the University of Oklahoma Health Sciences Center.

BigFoot said that part of the reaction in grief response is to assist the mind and body to not overstress and better cope with the enormity of the loss.

The feeling for an individual in grief might be that of having lost their moorings or the sense that this kind of thing isn’t supposed to happen. For children whose parents died in the 2001 attack on the World Trade Center in New York, there was a sense that parents are supposed to come home after work, not die in an unthinkable act.

In our Tulalip and Marysville communities, some people are responding to the recent tragedy with anger. Experts say anger may be understandable, but is also a way to protect oneself from deeper, more raw emotions.

“Anger is a secondary emotion to primary emotions like fear, disappointment or sadness,” BigFoot said. “The way this works is the first emotions surface then are immediately replaced with this secondary emotion. This happens because the primary emotion is overwhelming to the person and it is easier for the person to deal with anger or to be angry than to become completely engulfed by feelings of unbelievable sorrow.”

Feeling the underlying emotions is not a bad thing; rather it leads a person toward a level of acceptance, of being able to return to life, said Tulalip Tribes mental health counselor Kay Feather.

In counseling sessions with people in grief, Feather compares grieving to waves in the ocean. The first wave is a tsunami of trauma. Every memory is a wave, and in time as grief is dealt with, the waves get smaller.

“Grief never goes away,” Feather said. “But it gets softer.”

In time, those who grieve can find a place of acceptance. Although people who survive loss know that nothing will ever be the same, there is a different way of living that is accepting and honors both those lost and those yet alive.

“We all have the capability to grow from tragedy,” BigFoot said. “We have the potential of incorporating our grief and loss into our experience and then turning it into something meaningful that we give to others.”


Where can I call for help?

  • To report an emergency dial 911
  • National Suicide Prevention Line: 1-800-273-TALK (8255)
  • Snohomish County Crisis Line: 1-800-584-3578
  • Crisis TEXT Line: Text “Listen” to 741-741
  • 24 Hour Crisis Line: 1-866-427-4747
  • TEENLINK: 1-866-833-6546
  • Indian Country Child Trauma Center: 1-405-271-8858
  • Tulalip Tribes Behavioral Health Family Services: 360-716-4400