Grief-prompted letters to lost son leads to book by Wikwemikong healer

Author Kenn Pitawanakwat, a long-time Anishinabe traditional healer and medicine man, turned to ceremony and writing when he lost his son in a tragic accident. Mr. Pitawanakwat’s book ‘When My Son Died’ sheds light on death from a First Nations perspective. photo by Michael Erskine

WIKWEMIKONG—Children are not supposed to die before their parents, but when they do the grief can be indescribably overwhelming. Author and professor Kenn Pitawanakwat struggled to deal with the loss of his son and as part of that struggle began writing letters to his dead child. Those letters grew with each passing day and eventually became the basis for a book ‘When My Son Died.’

Mr. Pitawanakwat held a book launch at the Wikwemikong library last week to introduce his book, the story behind its creation and to express a hope that his experiences and what he learned on his journey of grief and mourning could help others struggling to cope with the loss of a child.

The author noted that people from his home community of Wikwemikong are an inspiration to many across Turtle Island. “People always tell me that Wiky people are different, they walk different, they talk different—walk tall, stand tall.” Mr. Pitawanakwat attributes that difference to the pride that comes from being an ‘unceded’ territory. “A lot of our brethren have been colonized a lot longer than we have here,” he said.

Mr. Pitawanakwat cautioned that he does not purport to have the answers or solutions to dealing with grief and the loss of a child, but that he wanted to pull some of the cover off of the grieving process. Too often the reaction of those outside are “we shouldn’t be talking about this” but it happens the world over. I don’t have the answers; I just tell my story.”

“It was just a dumb accident,” he recalled of the snowmobile tragedy that cost him his son. “A little dip in the path, just a stupid, stupid thing nobody should die from.”

Mr. Pitawanakwat was living and working in Michigan, teaching Anishinabemowin at the university, when he received that fateful phone call.

He struggled to maintain his life, continued to work. But two weeks before the end of the following semester the toll finally caught up with him. “I just walked out, I couldn’t do it anymore,” he said. “I settled my affairs and went up North, 500 miles north of Thunder Bay in a fly-in only community. That’s where I wept the whole time.”

His wife was very concerned about him and came up with a suggestion of what she thought might assist him in dealing with his grief.

“’Kenn you should write a letter to Shannon (his son)’,” he recalled, “so I did. Pretty soon there was enough material to write a book.”

Mr. Pitawanakwat is a very proactive person and when he was faced with his loss he began to look for resources to help him deal with his grief, but he soon discovered there was a large gap in the public literature. “There is lots of material our there,” he said, “but there is really nothing ‘nish’. There was one small book and it was written by a woman for academics.”

With the assistance of a few friends in the publishing industry and their own resources, he and his wife published the book.

Even in talking about the book and his efforts to publish his story, Mr. Pitawankwat was clearly still heavily impacted by the loss of his son, with his voice quavering at times through the presentation and reading.

“I don’t read from this often,” he said as he set down the copy of the book he was holding.

“I go into strong language sometimes,” noted Mr. Pitawanakwat. “I was feeling rage all the time. I couldn’t eat, couldn’t sleep.” One thing he didn’t do was drink or take drugs. “I went through this cold turkey, did the whole thing cold sober.”

The author noted that he finds people fall back on cliché when they greet someone who has lost someone close to them, and those empty words and phrases can stock a rage in the bereaved.

“Words are so empty,” he said. “’How are you?’ What a stupid question. You just want to punch them in the head. ‘How come you look so sad?’ My son died! People say the most insensitive things. There are no words.”

Instead, Mr. Pitawanakwat advises simple actions. “Now I know,” he said. “I just go up to them and hug them. I have lost people in my life, just like all of you have, but nothing takes the cake like losing a child.”

Mr. Pitawanakwat said that he makes no claim to having the answers to grief and bereavement. “If somebody is looking for help,” he said, “they might find something to help them.”

Among those attending Mr. Pitawanakwat’s book launch was Valerie Lavallee, a certified grief recovery specialist and community support worker. Ms. Lavallee is launching an eight-week  grief recovery program beginning Thursday, October 20 from 5:30 pm to 8:30 pm at the Ontario Works building in Wikwemikong. For more information, contact Ms. Lavallee at 705-859-3122 ext. 232 or Bernadine Francis at 705-859-3159.

Mr. Pitawanakwat’s book is available through Amazon and will soon be available in Island stores including The Manitoulin Expositor.