NEWCOMB, N.M. - President Joe Shirley Jr. on Thursday consoled the students of Newcomb High School who are dealing with the loss of their classmate Deshauna Peshlakai, 17, and her sister Del Peshlakai, 20, a 2008 graduate, who were both recently killed by a drunk driver in Santa Fe.
"Words are very hard to find, words that will heal the mind, the heart," he said. "It really hurts, the loss of our beloved, the loss of our friends. They meant the world to us. The things we've done with them, the talks, the laughs, playing basketball, being part of the National Honor Society, just being together, living life, being happy."
Also attending the special assembly in the school gym was the girls' mother, Darlene Thomas, who arrived in a wheelchair. Their father, David Peshlakai, was still in too much pain to come, Thomas said. He suffered a collapsed lung and broken ribs in the rear-end collision that took the girls' lives.
President Shirley told about 250 students that he knows what it is like to lose a loved one to a drunk driver. On Nov. 24, 2001, his daughter Tona Vee Shirley-Paymella was killed trying to avoid one.
"To this day, I still hurt. It hasn't gone away," he said. "She was in the prime of her life at 29-years-old. She left a husband and three children."
He told the students that there is no answer to why their two friends left them at this time.
"We're carrying this weight on our shoulders, trying to lift it, trying to carry on with life," he said, adding that the teaching of Navajo elders is to continue to look forward and not to dwell on death.
"Ours is to be concerned about living," he said. "Life has to go on in spite of losing our friends. Life has to go on. That is the teaching of our way of life."
He said in their memory, everyone must resolve to do all they can to stay away from the things that kill - alcohol and drugs. He also asked the student to pray to help them with their pain and to ease the suffering of the girls' mother, father, siblings and relatives.
"You need to share cards, letters, pictures, flowers to let them know that we're there, that we care," he said. "Our elders teach us there is much power in prayer."
He said Navajo elders also teach that the journey of life is long, hard and rough, filled with hunger, thirst and lack of sleep.
"You have to be ready for anything," he said. "You don't know what's around the next corner."
President Shirley told the students that if they need to cry to help them get through their pain, that there is no shame in that.
"Cry if you must but don't forget to move along," he said. "Talk to parents, grandparents, the teachers here. Do not keep it to yourself."
He also advised them to read the scriptures for strength and comfort.
"Take faith in sacred words," he said. "You have it within yourself to get through these sorrowful moments. We can get power, knowledge and wisdom if we're in communication with the Creator."
Following the President's talk, Thomas took the microphone to thank all the students for remembering her daughters and being their friends.
"Next year, we'll be here supporting the Skyhawk team," she said. "My two girls were very special to everybody. I never knew how much our family was well-known."