A soul slipped from life today. A friend of my younger sister’s, a woman our age, after a brief but ravaging bout of cancer.
Her death was peaceful—and tragic. A blessing and a trauma. For her mother, her teenage daughter, for my sister who spent the last weeks sleeping on her floor, now comes the even harder part—that alongside their relief that she didn’t die in a hospital, attached to a thousand wires, but on her couch, fading into a deep sleep from which she didn’t wake—there also begins a new sadness. A world that lacks her shape in it.
And so starts the long, hard process of grief.
Among the many cultures I’ve lived in outside the U.S., most experience grief in a raucous, raging, and very public way. Their expectation of grief is that because life has stopped somewhere, life in general, for all, must pause in recognition.
In those communities, people take weeks off work to travel from one end of the country to another to gather with friends and family to spend time actively grieving. Whole villages mourn for days: singing, dancing, sharing stories that memorialize the person who is gone, connecting that soul with all the others who have gone before it; maintaining a taut connection between the living and the dead, and erasing the strict boundary between those two worlds that our society constructs.
In their gatherings, the loved one’s absence is filled, collectively, with bodies and voices of young and old; the silence of death filled by rambling speeches and open weeping and songs of protest or praise. Professional mourners are sometimes hired in—people who know their grief—to rend their clothing, throw themselves to the ground, wailing, shrieking, marking death as the unmissable, undignified, unassailable force that it is.
That’s different from what we do here.
In the Catholic culture I grew up in, there used to be a larger tradition of grief. Big families—even in my youth—would still spend days together grieving, gathering at a funeral home for three days of visitation, joined by extended family and the wider community to accompany the family’s sorrow with their presence. Physically and emotionally, they would add ballast to the remaining family members, helping them get through those first unendurable days. Among my Irish forebears, wakes were part of that process, all-night affairs of toasts and remembrances that turned sadder and sloshier the longer the night wore on.
Those versions of mourning, too, although smaller than in my villages in Africa, were also public and shared. Gatherings that followed even older traditions: of wearing black for a year or hanging black bunting from homes or doorways in an outward expression of grief. A visible call to the outside world that death was among us.
A reminder. A warning. A shared experience.
When did our grief become so solitary?
In the first days after my beloved step-father died, I remember how startled I was at how life could go on around me so normally. From my perspective, the whole globe had tilted; a huge rent in the skies had opened; a gaping hole in the fabric of life that could not be stitched back together.
Nothing felt like it could or would ever be the same—and yet life around me mocked that truth. I couldn’t absorb the loneliness of that disconnect. I wanted the heavens to pour down, to cry out in pain with me. I wanted people on the street to stumble, dazed, as though their center of gravity had shifted, too; reflecting the reality that I was living. Life had ruptured, after all. How could no one have noticed? Or, what was wrong with me, if I was the only one experiencing this new—and lesser—world?
Then one day while driving my kids to school—doing what I was supposed to be doing, getting on with life—I burst out sobbing for no apparent reason.
“I am bereft,” I thought, giving voice to the depth of emotion I felt, knowing suddenly the concept of that word and how suddenly, I realized how I occupied it. ‘Bereft’ was a word I had never used before in my own context but which fit the abscess in my soul. It made sense of the gush of sadness that enveloped me; it filled the hiccups between my sobs; and described the dark plunge beneath the surface I took in a grief so physical, so palpable that it felt impossible to ever resurface. It was a writhing, aching, solitary pain. And it felt overwhelming.
When I worked in Ganyiel, South Sudan, I had to walk across the Nile. The river, at that point wasn’t the sturdy blue raging stream of other stretches; it was more or less a disperse swamp that bordered a shallow, meandering lake that ended on the other side in another slushy swamp. At the time, I lived on the left bank of the river but oversaw several health clinics on the other side, a several-hour walk away. There were no vehicles, so to monitor the clinics with my Sudanese counterparts, we had to start walking early in the morning, having first got permission from both the local rebel and civilian leaders to ensure we weren’t walking into war. After a two, three, or four-hour hike, we’d inspect a clinic, meet the local leaders, figure out what supplies and support were necessary to keep things running, and then walk the whole way back to our camp, needing to arrive before sunset.
Those were long, hard journeys.
Hiking with my nearly 7-foot-tall Sudanese counterparts, whose legs extended to somewhere around my shoulders, I’d walk last (always the slowest) in a single file line through brush and forest and open fields until we arrived at the edge of the green, swampy river. There, we’d remove our shoes and wade into the slow-moving, reedy, insect-filled waters. Because of their height, the water reached my colleague’s waists but it hit closer to my chest, so I had to carry my bag and shoes on my head across the river, hoping that the water never got so high I’d have to swim. Like so many other bodies of water pooled between people and animals, the Nile was polluted by human waste, animal waste, and tiny parasitic worms that could, if they crawled through human skin, cause all kinds of bother.
Had my life been a movie at that juncture, I would have crossed that historic river in full grace, backed by crescendoing music and good lighting that would make me look determined; accepting the challenge heroically.
Instead, I grumbled across, always off-balance as I trudged, afraid with every step of falling in, or getting schistosomiasis, or dysentery as a result of accidentally gulping the water; always trying too hard not to look ridiculous in front of my colleagues.
I hated those crossings.
Then, at some point, on my third or fourth trip across, I decided that I didn’t want to spend the rest of my hike trudging in dripping clothes. It was time to take control of the situation.
That morning, I waited until my two colleagues were already in the water ahead of me, before rolling up my t-shirt, tucking it into my bra, removing my skirt, and tying it around my neck like a scarf, before wading in.
It took about two thirds of the way across the river until it dawned on me that my colleagues, already waiting on the other side, would get to witness my emergence from the Nile: mud-swamped and wading ashore in my underwear and bra.
Clodding forward on two blue-veined legs, chilled and mottled from the water, I yelled ahead. “Hey guys! Could you turn your heads? I took off my skirt to cross.”
Which, of course, elicited the opposite reaction.
Meaning, that as I sloughed my way to shore, feet sinking deeper and deeper into the gooey peat, they dashed forward, hoping to rescue me from the suction force of mud that threatened to topple me over.
“Something is wrong!” they cried as I emerged, staring at my too-white, too-mottled, too-freakish body that contrasted so drastically to their sleek, blue-black skin.
“You’re right!” I agreed, fully humiliated, nearly naked and enraged by every career decision I’d ever taken that had landed me in the Nile.
My poor colleagues, after wincing in shame at the sight of me, recovered enough to turn away and give me the privacy I needed to brush off the mud and sludge my body had collected on the way across, so I could dry myself with my not-so-dry-anymore-skirt and we could continue our hike.
“Blue veins look a bit strange,” I tried as a conversation starter, trying to normalize the awkwardness of what we’d all just been through. And as our walk progressed, we continued a conversation about skin and skin color; about red blood looking blue through white skin and the science that explained it. We talked our way through the unspeakable, the unknown. And on the journey back, they offered to carry my bag and shoes on their heads so I could use both of my hands for balance. They kept an eye on me, but only until I started to emerge, and then they turned away, waiting patiently until I was at their side again. What started with my isolation, humiliation, and embarrassment developed over the next weeks into a delicate camaraderie that continued throughout my time there—and through many a difficult walk.
I recently read that when someone is going through difficulties, they should cast their mind back to a time when they felt at their best and concentrate on what, exactly, they felt about themselves at the time. What strengths did they recognize in themselves? What emotions did they feel? What characteristics did they exhibit or drawn on?
Let’s be clear: I was not at my best when crossing the Nile, but in those moments, I realize now, I became my strongest.
There was a mix of determination and will power that kept me going, but also an acceptance that I was in the middle of something larger than me and there was nowhere out but through. There was humility in accepting the fact that I was not in control, and circumstances that forced me to be vulnerable enough to seek a connection that made my way forward possible.
Those Nile crossings turned out to be a highlight of my time in South Sudan. As life-affirming as they were grueling. As companionable as they were isolating. As full of my wrath and insecurity—as they were of my colleague’s support and understanding.
Something about trudging through all that muck and heaviness makes me think of grief.
Maybe that’s how grieving works. An effort we don’t want, but one that stays with us, even when we do get to the other side. Slinking out exhausted, mud-covered, war-ravaged—but seeking the sun as we go forward. Expecting time to dry us out, crisp us up, allow us go more humbly and vulnerably through life. And hopefully, in good company, as we allow the folks around us into our troubles; opening our difficulties to them—hoping to discover in that sharing an unexpected grace.
And maybe, too, making the journey not just more manageable, but more meaningful.