I had been to Mozambican weddings, parties, homes, schools, and rituals, but never to a funeral. A month or so ago, I was comparing cultural experiences with some other expats, and I remember feeling low on some vague and frivolous cross-cultural point system because I didn't have funeral attendance on my list. But now, my former selfishness has rapidly faded away in the commemoration of the life and death of someone who I cared about.
My boyfriend’s father passed away on October 6th. I saw him that previous Sunday and heard his struggling voice and felt his clinging grip as he refused to let post-op complications and sickness get the best of him. He was recovering, but quickly declined in his final days. So it was quite a shock when Victor returned to the car after a routine check-in at the hospital with the news that his father was gone. I held him in the car and took him back to my place to pack my bag, but I felt so helpless. I then drove us to his home where we rocked our heads in our hands with his family, and I felt so unhelpful. In the following days, I stayed, ate, cried, talked, and stared into space with his family, and I felt so useless.
I had no words in any language, I had limited skills for hosting the communal masses, and had nothing to offer for comfort. I am not a legitimate family member, and have few memories of this man to share. I look differently, I talk strangely, and am all things foreign. But I stayed. I had no words so I was quiet. I had no actions so I was still. I took time off work so I had nothing to do. And somehow there was immense peace in just being. There was no awkwardness in silence and no longer anxiety in inactivity. I was there, and that was the biggest gift I could give.
At some points, I had time to be alone as Victor was in family meetings and guests ebbed and flowed. I read a book by Henri Nouwen in these spaces, and I came across a passage that I found fitting for my situation.
“Those who do not run away from out pains but touch them with compassion bring healing and new strength. The paradox indeed is that the beginning of healing is in the solidarity with the pain. In our solution-oriented society it is more important than ever to realize that wanting to alleviate pain without sharing it is like wanting to save a child from a burning house without the risk of being hurt.”
I had already explained to his family that I wasn't going to spend time with them only in good times when there was celebration and happy moments. I was willing to be by their sides in times of grief and pain as well.
I think that part of the cause of our suffering in moments like these is realizing that life is out of our control. We had plans of things to do with Victor’s father, places to go together, words to say, and love to show. His family strived hard to get the best medicine, talk constantly with doctors, and seek out every possible treatment. But when God allows such an interruption to the flow of our normalcy and intentions it throws our perceptions of control out of order. The acceptance that God’s plans are better, bigger, higher, and more logical than ours is seemingly ludicrous in these situations. But while I can’t offer any other advice or wisdom or condolence to his family, I can offer solidarity in the struggle of what they’re going through, acknowledging that it’s not about me or us in the face of a larger plan. Nouwen continues to say:
“The movement from loneliness to solitude is a movement that allows us to perceive interruptions as occasions for a conversion of the heart, which makes our responsibilities a vocation instead of a burden, and which creates the inner space where a compassionate solidarity with our fellow human beings becomes possible.”