BILLINGS — With Thanksgiving a few days away, this year’s holiday season also means more than 600 Montana families are mourning the loss of a loved one due to COVID-19.
Grief can be a helpless feeling, but Goldstein Little Eagle of Lame Deer is using the tragedy of his father’s death to help others.
“My father’s name is Isadore White Wolf. He was a vet. I was close to him,” Little Eagle said over a recent Zoom meeting.
“I didn’t think anything of it when he first told me, ‘Son, if I get this COVID, I’m not going to make it. And I thought, oh he’s tough, he’s been through a couple of heart stent surgeries and diabetes,” Little Eagle said.
But White Wolf was right. He tested positive on August 21.
“I remember him telling me that he was scared when he did get it,” Little Eagle said.
White Wolf took his last breath 22 days later, on September 11.
“Of course, my family, we all felt the grief and the shock. We didn’t see any of this coming to us.”
Little Eagle and his family were not alone. “There was a lot of loss. At the time that I was at the hospital, there was a lot of people from my town that passed away at the same time,” he said.
Little Eagle and his family live in Lame Deer, on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation. His father’s battle would be one of more than 30 lost on the reservation since the pandemic began.
“I buried my father, and I was just feeling a lot of grief and the trauma was there too. And I didn’t have a support group,” he said. He turned to the internet, but a search didn’t turn up any groups focused on lives lost to COVID-19.
“So from there, I thought, it’s either a couple of choices. Either I can wait around and see if someone does bring one up or does start something that would help us in our local area. Or I can start one myself.”
And that’s how the Loss of Loved Ones to COVID Support Group was born. Hosted every other Tuesday, Little Eagle held the first group session two-and-a-half weeks after his father passed away. “It’s just about relating to each other. Not surprisingly, we’re all going through the same things with how to do this,” Little Eagle said.
Experts who assist families in a time of mourning believe support groups can be a strong resource. “To be in a group with people who are going through the same thing or have experienced the same thing is very helpful because they realize I’m not crazy, there’s nothing wrong with me, this is part of the natural grief process. So, it’s really helpful for them to be able to share with people that understand what they’re going through,” said Terri Steinbrink, hospice chaplain and bereavement specialist for RiverStone Health.
While all deaths are tragic, a loved one passing away during the pandemic can add another layer of grief due to restrictions brought on by COVID-19.
“A lot of them weren’t able to see their loved ones in the end which has added to the grief, they weren’t able to have funerals, or have very small funerals, and they don’t have quite as much support, because people aren’t dropping by to visit with them,” Steinbrink explained.
As deaths across Montana add up, it means one less family member at the table during holiday gatherings, but for some, there will be more. “Thanksgiving and Christmas are two of the harder holidays because they’re thought of as family holidays. One woman I talked to a few weeks ago lost four family members. I mean, that is really going to impact their holidays,” Steinbrink said.
Although they might not be physically present, the grieving process is softened when you allow them to be present spiritually. “It’s important to come up with some way to remember their loved one, and we’ve had people do that in different ways. Some of them have planted something, a plant that will bloom around the holidays, some people will light a candle in memory. If a whole family is comfortable, sometimes they’ll share memories of the loved one. But I think it’s really important for them to include some sort of ritual, or a way to remember their loved one through the holidays because it’s really hard to try to pretend like everything is ok when it’s not,” Steinbrink said.
Back in Lame Deer, Little Eagle would like to continue a 20-year tradition his father took part in. “He would go to the rescue mission and help serve. He would just do that every year. And I always admired him for that,” Little Eagle said.
On October 19, he ran one mile for each community member that passed away from COVID-19, totaling 26 miles.
As he makes progress toward closure, Little Eagle is willing to make himself vulnerable, in hopes of helping others. “I would just suggest people reach out and not go through whatever traumas they’re experiencing, alone,” he said.
As we approach a holiday season unlike any other, Steinbrink offers this advice: “Be gentle with yourself, do not have the same expectations of yourself through the holidays. Maybe simplify things. If you don’t plan on going anywhere, that’s ok. Just really take care of yourself during the holidays,” she said.
Riverstone Health offers a virtual Zoom group on Tuesdays from 1 p.m. to 2 p.m. You can call 406-651-6453 for the link. The group is open to anyone grieving a loss related and unrelated to COVID-19.
Walla Walla University offers one-on-one counseling. Call 406-254-0308 to schedule an appointment. Little Eagle shares information for his support group via Facebook.
The Funeral Service Foundation also offers a free guide “Grieving Alone & Together: Responding to the loss of your loved one during the COVID-19 pandemic." Click here to request a copy.