There is something so hopeful about the Circle of Life. Babies are born, couples marry and start new families, eventually elders die, and the circle continues over and over and over. Keeping this picture in mind, death is just one part of community, one part of family, one part of life.

Within the idea of the Circle of Life, even unexpected, out-of-sequence deaths can be grieved and worked through. When our son died, it felt like the world had just ended. And yet, our other children still needed our guidance, our support, and our love. Life was continuing and we talked about these patterns with each other and with others within the community who were also affected by the death of our son.

Unfortunately, it can be hard to see this positive circle out here in Navajoland. There seems to be death after death after death, tragedy followed by tragedy, an endless cycle of trauma. It is hard to find hope when it seems like the circle leads over and over again to death, not to renewal and life. (As many of you know, we are currently walking through the aftermath of fatal accidents from January 1st – you can read more about it HERE)

For far too many hurting and angry people in this community, the “solution” to such trauma is to numb the pain with alcohol. This in turn contributes significantly to more dysfunction and death. And the circle spirals downward…

How can this be changed? How can the Circles turn back upward, toward hope and toward life?

First, we need to recognize that more education or yet one more program will make no noticeable difference. There have been hundreds of people out here in Navajoland for generations past, working hard to change the patterns. But the Circle of Death just seems to be spiraling downward faster and faster.

A few tendencies within Navajo culture make it difficult to change the current patterns: family members avoid confrontation whenever possible; hesitating to confront alcoholism for fear it might cause a break in relationship with their loved one. Their fear and avoidance too often enables the alcoholism to continue, leading eventually to shocking deaths (an ultimate break in relationship…). For the friends we know who have stopped drinking and personally won the battle against alcoholism, the trigger for change was most often family members who challenged them to stop and did everything possible to keep the drinking from re-occurring.

In addition, Navajo are taught from a very young age to “be strong,” “don’t show emotion,” and “be a survivor.” Sometimes these ideas can give strength to a person walking through difficulty. But far more often, this lack of allowing emotion causes people to “shut down” during traumatic times. A lack of sorting through emotions and a lack of grieving can cause heart-wounds to fester. When the pain becomes unbearable, with no other coping skills to deal with it, alcohol seems to be an acceptable way to numb that pain. And, again, the Circle of Death spirals, faster and faster as trauma is layered onto trauma, over and over again.

Walking through our own time of grieving, after the death of our son, we realized we would not survive if we remained passive. We had to choose to reach for hope. We had to choose to allow strong emotions to wash over us. We had to choose to move forward into the Circle of Life. That sounds so simple and easy, and yet it is quite difficult. For many dealing with traumatic loss, including my husband, it takes the concern and prayers of many friends to bring one back toward living again. It takes a powerful God to break through the darkness and show light. It takes a radical transformation of heart and mind; a glimpse of hope given by a God of joyfulness and love.

Some days the darkness here seems overwhelming. Some days we just want to run—back to a suburban or rural haven where there is no obvious Circle of Death. But we choose to stay…to walk through these tragedies with our friends: to listen when they need to talk, to allow them a safe place to express anger and sorrow, to cry with them and to pray with them, to help them reconnect with the Circle of Life and with a God who can give them true strength.

Some days we recognize our overwhelming need for support. We are grateful for friends who encourage us, who donate funds, who pray for us. With the help of team-members scattered across the world, we can stay. We can walk with our Navajo friends through joyful times and through tragedy. We can enter in to their Circle of Life!