The Power of Athii: Expressing Grief Through Words

Vocabulary — North Slope Iñupiaq Dialect

Aaka (ah-kah): Grandmother 

Aapa (ah-pah): Grandfather

Athii (ah-thii): You’ll find out.


“Wake up. We have to go. The doctor is calling the family to the hospital. We have to go now.”

What time is it? 6:40. I get up. Teeth brushed. Contacts in. Clothes on but not work clothes because I’ll be back soon to change. Ponytail, keys, bag. “Okay, let’s go.”

My mom has her hand to her head. “Dear, Jesus. Oh, Lord. Dear Jesus.” And silence.

I drive fast and it sooths my mom. I stop hard and start fast and brakes whistle as I park. We rush into the chilly ICU and are enveloped in its minty scent. Mom checks in with the nurses; we’re the first to arrive, and a doctor will be with us soon. I apply hand sanitizer. There’s a patient with the curtains open, staring vacantly and is alone and I turn my back.

A woman with a bun and a lab coat shuffles toward my mom. “Are you the daughter?” “Yes, I’m his daughter.”  Both leaning against the nurse’s station now, the doctor clasps mom’s hands in hers. Is this routine?

“You know he’s very sick, right?” “Yes.”

“You know that there is nothing we can do for his cancer?” “Yes.”

No way. I’ve been taking my mom to the hospital, she’s been staying with me all week. How was I never told this. Wow, he’s really going to die, I think to myself. I watch the doctor.

“In the middle of the night, the cancer. It burst in his stomach. There is nothing we can do. If his heart stops, we are going to let him go. It’s not right to keep him suffering like this.”

My mind working to absorb the truth and the ludicrous nature of the information, I simultaneously take in the information and study her technique: But we’ll have a long time before it happens. She did that very well. He really is going to die. How does she look so sincere?

Moms says, “Oh, God,” and holds on to the doctor.

There is a period of time we must wait before we see Aapa, and we’re still the first ones here. I keep stoic to calm my mom.

My younger sister rushes in, “Move, I haven’t seen him yet.”

“Neither have we, we can’t yet.”

“Why not? He’s my aapa, and I want to see him!”

“You can’t,” I say steadily. “You have to wait.”

More silence and my shrunken step-aaka Grace and my mom’s half-sister, Marilyn shuffles in, dazed, not quite understanding, and the doctor explains the same to them. No tears. And then Grace emits a shivering and groaning and it emanates in the room as she comprehends the meaning of this day. The doctor motions to let us come in and we almost walk into another patient’s room. A slight laugh and we sweep in to be with Aapa.

It is as if for a visit we fill the room; there is no sense of waiting and I credit that to the sudden deposit of information yet to take root. The family encircles the bed. I find a corner a little removed and slide to the floor.

There’s an escalation in beeps and the nurse walks in to turn off the sound. Mom asks what the sounds meant, and the nurse said his heart isn’t doing well. My great aunt and uncle arrive and another uncle and aunt. Now that more family has arrived, mom asks me to sing, and I sing How Great Thou Art in Iñupiaq. We sing it once more in English so my sister can participate, and we begin Amazing Grace.

Amazing Grace, how sweet the sound, that saved a wretch like me. I once was lost but now am found, was blind but now I see. 

The family gathered around Aapa’s bed.

T’was Grace that taught my heart to fear. And Grace, my fears relieved. How precious did that Grace appear. The hour I first believed. 

My family clasped hands and Grace is shivering again.

Through many dangers, toils and snares I have already come. ‘Tis Grace that brought me safe thus far and Grace will lead me home.

With weighted gait, the nurse enters the room and turns the monitor off.

“No!” and Grace and Marilyn fall on Aapa, shaking and shivering, moans, gutteral, sobs, hysteria, and I continue to sing through the madness.

Yea, when this flesh and heart shall fail, and mortal life shall cease, I shall possess within the veil, a life of joy and peace.

Andrea joins, and mom with other family who have since arrived and we grow stronger and sing with a stout firmness that is heartening to each and all, so much so that Grace and Marilyn’s sobs are stifled.

When we’ve been here ten thousand years, bright shining as the sun. We’ve no less days to sing God’s praise than when we’ve first begun!

I immediately voice a prayer and give thanks for the life of my Aapa, and the prayer brings comfort to the family in one moment of astonished reverie, and when I finish, Grace and Marilyn and mom catch up to themselves and the sobs and moans grow in volume and frequency. Aapa looks exactly the same as he did five minutes ago but his chest no longer rises and falls. His blanket is catching Andrea’s falling tears and my aunts and uncles are also crying and holding one another. I take a step towards Aapa, determined to commit his features to memory: the lines of his face, the cut of his hair, the spots on his skin, the veins laced through his wrists. His wrist.

I reach out and delicately feel the thin skin of his wrist, so soft and so warm, and understanding arrives, how ephemeral is this heat, how fleeting and how it escapes, for a limited time he will remain warm and never again and no longer. I latch my hand to his arm, to absorb him, to have his warmth become my warmth, and to in turn keep him viable one moment more.

I hear someone call my name. Oh, my God.

My name again. What have I just seen.

Whoever is calling my name rises to a shout. I have to keep him warm.

“It’s okay. Come here, I know. I know.” I’m moved away from his side and I don’t know why and I don’t know who it is who holds me.


No one speaks, there’s just the consistent rocking and primal outcry of Grace and Marilyn, who have now turned to each other after the initial acceptance that their family member isn’t there anymore; they just have each other. The nurse comes in and removes the oxygen and announces there is a mourning tray outside for family members, and I find the presence of fruit at a time like this a little puzzling. There are seemingly no words to reconcile the notion of my aapa’s sudden evaporation, and then from Grace we hear one.

“Athii.”

We turn our heads her way.

“Athii!”

There is a shudder of collective understanding. Something elemental and ancient had been invoked.

Athii,” and my aunts and uncles swoop over and surround her, abandoning words, as Grace realized the fullest extent of her own pain. Athii, it hurts, athii, the torment, athii said to the feeling inside when there are no words its equal.

And then I’m four years old, outside another hospital room when my other aapa died, and a grownup is saying “Athii!” and I’m 17 when mom gets a call that my cousin had been shot and killed by police and I hear the mother on the phone wailing, “Athii!” My imagination plays a wild trick on me and I envision places I’ve never visited and the deaths of people I’ve never met: a pre-contact mother mourning the drowning of her son, a husband mourning the loss of his partner to disease, the community mourning the hunter who never returned, crying together, a word shared in the circumpolar North.

Connected through the annals of time in language, pain becomes nothing new. The burden is shared. Connected by your language, the same words have been formed by the same tongues that share your blood, and only your blood, since the beginning of time. Athii.

You are not alone. Athii.

This too, shall pass. Athii.

It is possible to stand up again.

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