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Culture Religion

How to Grow in the Grief of Childhood Transition

Childhood Grief Transition

There is loss in leaving, and adults come to know it quickly. Experienced overseas workers learn how to make immediate friendships, grieve good-byes, and move on to the next wave of arrivals. There is a cycle, and most of us are transient. You get used to it.

But children get their hearts broken.

As they get older they learn the system also. Third-culture kids grow resilient overseas. But that first wave is painful, especially when life abroad is all they ever knew.

We stayed in the Arab world longer than many. Our oldest daughter arrived at age three and was twelve when it came time to leave. Her last year was difficult. Friends returned to their home country. Her grandmother in America passed away. And when we departed, she said goodbye to two local friends she met in kindergarten.

Anticipating a year in the United States before relocating elsewhere in the Middle East, we feared the pangs of middle school. But all was well. Teachers were welcoming; students were kind. There was only one problem: Our daughter didn’t make any friends.

Classmates invited her to sit at their lunch table. She preferred to read. Grades were fine, and she joined activities. Her smile never faded, and her spirit never wavered. At home all was normal, and at school all was fine. But nothing of friendship, and little effort to find it.

She knew she was leaving again, come end of school year.

At first we encouraged her to engage. “If you sit by yourself and read, people will think you’re a snob. Just join in, and learn how Americans talk, laugh, and play.” But she did, and she didn’t like it. “They were inappropriate,” she said, “and crazy.” This was without malice or judgment, but the conservative Arab culture left its mark. She was uncomfortable.

But it would be wrong to blame things wholly on society. It was her.

And it was ok. Natural. We comforted her and spoke of adjustments. Having lost friends once while abroad, why lose them again back home? And which place was home to begin with? But she was faithful in her responsibilities, accepting of her circumstances. As a family we grieved, mourning the past and anticipating the future. But this could not be the end of the conversation.

“Your choices are understandable,” we told her. “They are ok. We won’t push you.”

“But they are not best.”

Life involves pain, and there’s no way around it. If we seal ourselves off for a time to recover, we can then reengage. But if we steel ourselves to the world as a posture, we stop living. And worse, we stop giving.

“Others need us,” we counseled. “And we need them. If you make new friends, yes, you will leave them, and it will hurt afresh. But they will fail to experience God’s goodness through you if you keep yourself from their friendship.”

“Take your time; there is no guilt,” we comforted. “Just do not let yourself forget there is a better ideal God calls us to. He is patient, but also maturing you. Use this time to grow deeper into his image, love, and mission.”

We are still in process, and she has friends now. Probably just in time to leave—and grieve—once more. But next time it will be easier, and soon she too will know the cycles of overseas friendship.

Our daughter’s life lesson is also one for adults. These life cycles can mask God’s ideal just as easily as our daughter’s reticence. Happiness comes in communion; life flourishes when we give of ourselves.

Empty yourself, as God did for you. Then enter into the joy of his fellowship—overseas, anywhere, and forever.

 

(This reflection was written with the approval of our daughter and after her review. It was first published at IDEAS.)

Categories
Current Events Religion

Good Mourning America

Good Mourning America

This article was originally published at The Table, of Biola University’s Center for Christian Thought.

In the days leading up to our presidential election, it seemed quite clear that Christians were not happy. But the ennui went beyond politics toward a greater sense that America was changing.

The unhappiness was rooted in good reason. Our principles were lambasted as backward, our policy stances were labeled as bigoted, personalities were labeled as bigots, and our politics were lowered into bouts of bravado. There seemed little for Christians to celebrate, save the requisite reference to our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ.

And then Trump won. Some rejoiced, while others cringed. But I suggest whether salve or acid, the underlying sentiment remains fundamentally unchanged.

With our eyes on the world and our changing national fortunes, we appear marked by vindication or frustration, tempted to pride or anger, either way ready to lash out ineffectively at our culture at large. Since apparently Jesus cannot keep us happy, perhaps with him we should try being sad?

But being sad is no cure all, either. Some of different temperament instead yield to depression, tempted to flagellation, ready to grumble unhelpfully at our Christian culture at large.

Being sad is an emotional response, much like being angry. Whether red, blue, or annoyed we are reacting to circumstances, and we should not be too harsh with ourselves. God has given us our emotions, and they are wonderful tools to tell us something is wrong, or at least, different.

For America is different, in her religious composition. Perhaps America is also wrong, in her moral choices. But God invites us first to examine ourselves, requiring of all a greater humility. But to get there, a step beyond sadness is needed, evoking a suffering we are conditioned to dread.

As American Christians, we must choose to mourn that which is different, and that which may also be wrong.

Mourning, unfortunately, carries with it the connotation of defeat, of finality. We know what it means to mourn over the death of a loved one, but here we must mourn over the death of an idea.

I posit that for so many Americans, our fundamental unhappiness stems from an inability to let go of our dream of a Christ-centered nation.

Nor should we. But to find peace we must understand what it means to mourn, to grieve. In the loss of a loved one, we recognize the fact that he or she is gone. The suffering comes not from the death primarily, but from every unfulfilled expectation, every lost hope, every dream for the future that will now never be. Mourning is the necessary surrender thereof.

America is changing, we Christians feel. But we have been reluctant to admit she has already changed. Denial is often the first resistance to grief, pushing off the uncomfortable mourning. Poll after poll bears out the fact, however, that Christianity is losing its national prominence.

Christianity Today recently ran a series analyzing the trends, and one of the most poignant is this: In a 1967 Gallop survey, two percent of Americans identified themselves with no religion; in 2015, a Pew survey finds the now-ascendant “nones” at 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans have no religious affiliation. That is a fact very near to a flatline.

Proper mourning, however, must identify the body. Though we cannot be happy, Jesus is still Lord and Savior. It is not Christianity that has died, and neither the church. The polls bear out this fact as well.

A Gallop survey in 1940 found 37 percent of Americans saying “yes” when asked if they attend church weekly. In 2015, the number dropped all the way to an astounding, wait for it, 36 percent.

Church going Americans are as numerous now as they have long been. What has changed, then? Where have the nones come from? In 1972 a GSS survey found mainline Christians to be 28 percent of the population. By 2014, they were only 12 percent. And as the former standard bearers of Christian civil religion eroded, evangelical Christians have grown to 23 percent.

Nearly one-quarter of Americans are evangelical Christians. That too is a fact, but it is not a pulse. Christianity in America is not dead, but Christian America? Yes.

At this point, it must become personal. I have my story to tell, but that is not what I mean. Every death is mourned differently by every bereaved. Two sons of a deceased mother will each grieve uniquely, for they had different hopes, dreams, and expectations for the life they no longer share with her. One cannot say to the other, “I know how you feel,” no matter the similarity of experience, nor the true comfort they can exchange.

The author of the Christianity Today series reflects on these religious demographic changes and says it may not be a bad thing. As nominal Christian expression recedes it gives the church more opportunity to correctly present the gospel life of discipleship.

Perhaps he is right. Of the 70 percent (according to a 2014 Pew survey) of Americans who identify as Christian, he divides them into rough statistical thirds: Cultural, due to birth and inherited identity; Congregational, due to communal attachment; and Convictional, due to belief and practice.

I do not disagree with his assessment nor the necessity of distinction. An evangelical reading of the Bible emphasizes the eternal importance of personal faith and practice. But as one in his category of convictional Christians, I mourn over our separation from the whole.

Perhaps I am wrong to mourn. Many evangelicals of my youth warned instead to mourn over those who falsely understood themselves to be Christians just because they were born into a household that attends church that way. One must be “born again,” said Jesus. Perhaps those who emphasize this message find vindication they have fewer mainline Christians to mourn over?

Likely not. Their sentiment is genuine, and their concern is real. Their witness comes from the heart. They love their fellow man, and they love America beside. For many, transforming the former is a means to preserve the latter. Some need patience, to endure their zeal. Others give praise, as their lives have been changed.

I, however, rightly belong to all three of the author’s categories. I was born into a Christian home. I value belonging to a Christian people. I adhere to time-honored Christian convictions.

Evangelical faith cherishes and nurtures all three. But I find the statistics are ripping away two-thirds of those who might otherwise be counted with me. And with them is ripped away the Christian ethos of America.

This is the death that I mourn—the hollowed out corpse of a once Christian nation. With it dies the expectation of my country’s inherent goodness, the hope of nominals still near to the gospel, and the dream of enduring Christ-infused values.

But again, some might rejoice that true faith is made clear. “We should be less American, and more Christian,” is a statement increasingly heard from many in the pews. Once more, I do not disagree.

But another tool to postpone mourning is improper substitution. Less apt if comparing to the death of a loved one, consider the reaction if your dog dies, or your girlfriend breaks up with you. How many people offer false comfort with the well intentioned words, “Just get another one?” And perhaps you will, wanting the replacement to fit the hopes you had for the old. Rarely does it work.

The dream of a Christ-honoring culture cannot be replaced by substituting out America for a more singular Christian priority. Likely a needed corrective, but it does not address the pain.

Nor do the more common reactions of striving harder and fighting back. How many people have you met who numb the loss of a loved one by drowning themselves in activity? Even if done to honor the deceased, it leaves unaddressed the underlying grief.

Many evangelical thinkers have outlined their “what do we do now?” strategies. Some say we should embrace our role as a prophetic minority. Others suggest we must reclaim the institutions of cultural influence. Some recommend a renewal in the church. Others encourage a revived evangelism.

Each is likely a fine way forward. But not yet. Wait. Rest. Mourn. Identify the dream you had, cry, and humbly suffer. Then, let it go.

What Christians attained in America past may or may not have been God’s will. Undoubtedly it fell short of his ideal. In so many ways, it was good. And as long as we live here, we have obligations to seek her best.

But the fact at this moment is that America is moving on from her Christian heritage. Perhaps I am wrong, but it is sorrowful that something so precious is being lost, a glue that holds much together.

Yet a loss fully mourned brings healing. Healing brings wholeness. Christ brings completeness. From here, God can give us new hopes, dreams, and expectations for ourselves and our nation, fitting a new reality.

American Christians—triumphant or frustrated, depressed or angry, denying or striving, of any and all statistical categories—should dream with him. The nones are waiting, as is Jesus, our Lord and Savior.

 

 

Categories
Culture

Dealing with Death at a Distance – 5 Tips for Saying Goodbye

Death at a Distance

The expat life has many benefits, but one of the hardest challenges is being far from family.  This can be felt the most when you hear of someone who is sick, receives a bad medical prognosis, or is in an accident.  Living in a foreign country is hard when a loved one is dying.

What can you do if you can’t travel home as they near the end of their life? Sometimes job, school commitments, or extenuating circumstances prevents travel.  This was our situation last Spring when my mother-in-law succumbed to cancer.  Fortunately, my husband made it home the day before she died, but her health declined too quickly for all of us to travel in time.  My four children and I had to say our good-byes from afar.

1)      Be creative in saying “I love you” and other significant emotional statements.  When I heard my mother-in-law entered hospice care, I knew her time was short. I videoed each of my children telling their grandmother the things they appreciated about her and doing with her. Then I did the same, and was in tears the whole time. Over Skype, we played them for her.  Whatever she heard in her deteriorating shape, it was healthy and healing for us.

2)      Communicate honestly and openly with your children about what is happening.  Sometimes we have the idea that we must “be strong” for our children, our spouse, or others around us.  Actually, this is unhelpful in grief as emotions are better verbalized.  I sat down with my children and we talked candidly that their grandmother would die very soon and we would not see her alive again.  I cried as I said this, and all four kids followed suit.  We talked about what was happening.  We said what made us sad.  We said what we wished could be different.  And we hugged and we cried.  Together.

3)      Make special time to grieve.  That night I received the message that my mother-in-law passed away.  In the morning, I held the kids home from school so we could remember her, cry when we wanted to, and laugh when we could.  We did some favorite activities from times together, like play-doh and blowing bubbles.  We knew that we would be grieving for a while, but though the day was hard, it was memorable and set us on the path toward healing.

4)      Travel to attend the funeral or memorial service.  Though we made a good beginning in Egypt, I still felt like her death would not sink in until we traveled to New Jersey.  We figured out missing school work and made preparations, but time and money are resources well spent on grieving together with family.  The memorial service or funeral brings even more friends together, allowing memories to be shared and sorrow expressed.

5)      Give your kids a picture or special memento of the one who died as a physical reminder.  Even though it hurts to see it at times, triggering emotions for all the things we will miss about her, it is still better to remember.  That which is tangible connects best with our senses and emotions.

To be honest, I don’t want to go through this again.  I don’t want to have to say good-bye from afar.  But I have many more loved ones that may die or go through serious illnesses when I am living overseas.  Following these steps has helped our whole family grieve well, even at great distance. I hope they will also be helpful for you.

Click here to read the original post, as Julie tells the full story of how she processed grief from afar. This summary reflection was requested by our organization, IDEAS, to help expats around the world dealing with similar situations.

Categories
Family

A Long Good-Bye, From Far Away

Tayta and Taxi

Today, September 12, would have been my mother-in-law’s 67th birthday.

Tayta, as our children call her, passed away six months ago. She fought courageously through two bouts of cancer, and the first time she triumphed. The second time, she succumbed. We remember her well, but the relationship will never be the same.

Complicating things completely is that we live in Egypt, an ocean away, where she visited us consistently. Jayson, my husband, got word she wasn’t doing well, and should come home immediately, just in case.

One day later, Tayta breathed her last. She was surrounded by her children and husband, and died peacefully.

But the children and I were not there. Immediate preparations are difficult for a large family, and we had the idea that we would follow Jayson a bit later. There was no guarantee she would die.

With only a few hours before Jayson had to travel, we tried to gently explain to the kids that Tayta was not doing well and it was important for Daddy to go be with her. And as she might die soon, all of us will go to see her as soon as we can.

The kids were saddened by this news, yet not totally surprised. Through Skype a few days earlier they saw that Tayta was not feeling well, even though she still had her same spirit and sense of humor.

But with Jayson in the air, the message came that Tayta entered hospice care. My prayer was that the boys would make it in time to see their mom, but it also hit me that we likely would not. And almost as bad, I had to tell the kids.

Funny the things you don’t think about, and living abroad perhaps it should have been obvious. But I never expected I’d lose a loved one and not be there, nor that my husband and I would not be together.

Years ago, Jayson and I were privileged to receive training in how to handle grief. One of the principles is to communicate clearly with your kids about what is happening, without trying to be strong for them. To let them see how this loss affects you, and learn appropriately.

Another principle is the importance of saying good-bye and communicating important statements, if possible, while the person is still alive.

I wasn’t sure how much time we had, so before school I recorded each of them saying, “I love you, Tayta,” recalling different memories and things they appreciated. It was somewhat easy for them, as they didn’t know the full reality, and now was not the time to tell them.

But privately, I blubbered through my whole recording, knowing that I wasn’t going to see her alive again.

After school, it was time to talk honestly. It was a hard conversation. They loved her very much, and it was a shock to hear she would die before they saw her. We cried together a long time.

Meanwhile, Jayson was grieving in New Jersey. He had spent most of his day with his father and brothers by his mom’s bedside, holding her hand, sometimes talking to her, and not seeing much response.

It was hard to grieve with him and for him from so far away.

Skyping later, we gave the kids the option of seeing a very sickly Tayta on screen as we played their videos in front of her near-comatose body. They chose not to, at first. I did, and it was hard to look. She was no longer who I remembered, and she didn’t respond as I talked.

But perhaps she heard; hospice workers say that it is often the last sense to go.

Afterwards the kids came back into the room one by one, and bravely looked at Tayta and said their good-byes. They cried with Sidu, as we call my father-in-law.

Our oldest daughter recited Psalm 23, and we also laughed and smiled at some good memories. It was a hard time, but a good time.

Tayta died later that evening, and the kids stayed home from school. We had a full day to cry when we wanted to, laugh when we could, and do some things that Tayta would do with them … like Play-doh and bubbles. It was a hard day, but a good day.

We Skyped with Jayson a few hours later, and I saw the empty living room where we had so many memories, but also where her hospice bed had held her. Just like that it was gone, as was Tayta.

It hit me: The loss of a special mother-in-law. The loss of a grandmother to my kids. The loss of a mother to my husband. The loss of a wife to my father-in-law, who now has his whole life turned upside down. And the loss of a friend, as her many close relationships reached out through Facebook and email.

If I was there, I could have more easily shared in this grief, at least some of it. But as we made plans to travel back for the memorial service, I grieved also that we must continue to grieve apart, and from afar.

The tears still come sometimes. They did as I wrote this and remembered the pain of saying good-bye. They will flow again when we return to the states for a visit, and she isn’t there to read books to the kids or laugh at her sons’ playful arguments at the game table.

But sadness isn’t the only emotion that fills me when I think of Tayta. There are good memories every time we discuss her with the kids. They have her dolls; we have her pictures. Today we made apple pie, her favorite dessert.

We miss her a lot, but we said good-bye well. It was hard, but it was good.

Tayta and Apple Pie

Categories
Culture Family Julie

Saying Good-Bye: Part and Parcel of an Expat’s Life

Saying Good-Bye

Growing up I lived the first 18 years of my life in the same house, only moving to go to college.  My mom has lived in the same town her entire life, and all four of my siblings still live within 20 minutes of that town.  I didn’t grow up saying too many good-byes for the first 18 years of my life.  The second 18 years, however, were quite opposite.  College, grad school, first job, marriage, and then life overseas; lots of changes and lots of moves.  Since my husband and I first moved overseas, we have lived in three different countries, four different cities, and five different apartments.

While not every expat moves often, saying good-bye to people and places is a common part of the expat lifestyle.  Even if you are one who stays put in the same foreign country for many years, you must still say good-bye to the others who filter through year after year.  And then add factors like childbirth, children’s schooling, medical needs and a revolution, and there are good-byes all over the place.

Good-byes are a reality for us, but they don’t have to be a negative aspect of expat living.  Before traveling overseas, my husband and I took a course in grief counseling.  We didn’t exactly realize it at the time, but it was great training for this lifestyle.  Every good-bye is a loss.  And every loss causes grief.  Sure there are some losses more painful than others, but all losses are felt at 100%.  Given this reality, how can we keep from shutting ourselves off to new friendships or new opportunities that we know may eventually require another farewell?

Stay ‘complete’ in your relationships

You never know when a relationship could end or be interrupted.  There were people I could not physically say good-bye to when the revolution occurred two years ago.  I didn’t anticipate needing to say good-bye, and so I wasn’t complete in all my relationships.  I wasn’t able to tell people I was thankful for them, or that I loved them, or that I was glad they were in my life because….

On the other side of that spectrum, we have to deal with the difficulties that come between us and another person.  If we work through the problems, we won’t let the pain of a strained relationship be a burden to carry into our next assignment.

We’ve all heard people lament, “I just wish I had said this to her before she died.” Or, “If only I told him I loved him before he left.”  Living with those ‘unsaid statements’ makes you less free to join in a new relationship.  Communicating them does not remove the pain of saying good-bye, but it does help to heal the pain.

Say ‘good-bye’ to people, places and things

This is one of the most practical points I took from the training those many years ago.  Don’t be afraid to say good-bye.  Embrace it.  Hug. Cry. Say the words you hold within you.  Saying something simple instead, like “See you later,” may seem like it will hurt less, but if you know the good-bye is for a significant period of time, you must say it.

This is especially true for our children.  We hate to see them hurting as they say good-bye to yet another friend.  Sometimes we try to comfort them by telling them we can visit their friend next year, or maybe the friend will visit us again.  But instead of offering such hope, which often proves false, grieve with your children.  Agree with them that saying good-bye is really hard, that the friend they just said good-bye to can’t be replaced.  That’s it.  You don’t need to make promises or try to make it hurt less.  Let them grieve and help them to say good-bye well.

Saying good-bye to places was a new concept for me, but we have done it in every flat we’ve lived in since living overseas.  I am sure our 9-month old daughter doesn’t remember our apartment in Tunisia, but we still walked with her through each room of the flat and said good-bye to the rooms. We talked about what we enjoyed doing in those rooms or how we would miss them.  It may seem trivial, but if you think about it, you can probably vividly picture some special places in the home where you grew up.

While the flat you have lived in for the last year may not seem as significant as your childhood home, it is still good to treat it as a place to say good-bye to.  Again, for your children, you may not know what their special memories are in that place.

For some, Cairo is a tough place to live.  As you move onto your next assignment, or return home, you may do so with a sense of relief.  And yet, living here has changed you.  The people you’ve met have affected you, for good or for bad.  Even if you joyfully skip through you apartment on moving day, and say good riddance to your bawwab as you walk out of the building, it would still be good to close off those relationships and places completely.

Life overseas is exciting: It is a chance to visit ancient sites, interact with people so different from yourselves, perhaps also to help the poorest of the poor.  But it also has its challenges, and the ‘good-byes’ are among the greatest.  Learn to be complete in every relationship and say good-bye well, and this challenge will be just a little bit easier.

This article was originally published on Maadi Messenger.

Categories
Culture Julie

A Grief Suppressed?

A few days ago I started writing a blog post about our doorman’s wife, Aaza, a woman I mentioned in a blog post before (click here).  The idea for the post came because she has been in the hospital for at least three weeks awaiting an operation for a second brain tumor.  Her first tumor was removed in mid-August.  After that, she seemed to have some ups and downs.  Some days I would see her hanging laundry, walking around her yard, drinking tea, talking with her girls … slowly and sometimes in pain, but recovering nicely.  And then other days she couldn’t talk, her tongue seemed numb.  She couldn’t move her hands; she walked only very slowly and with great help from her husband who seemed desperate to help her regain her full strength.  She took lots of medicine and stayed in bed most of the day, and then we heard, her brain tumor was back and she would go for another operation—this time at a better hospital with a better doctor.  Yet, the next news I got was she went to the hospital, and then the operation was postponed one week as the doctor went to a conference?!  It sounds crazy to my western ears.  Each time I asked a family member, it was the same story.  “No, she hasn’t had an operation yet.  They keep postponing it.  I don’t know why.” 

She died on Sunday, December 20, and that made me wonder if they postponed it because the doctors knew she didn’t have a chance, or if it was because she was in a government hospital getting free medical care and perhaps she had to “wait her turn,” which, unfortunately, didn’t come soon enough.

That same day, before the news came, her two youngest children, Wilaa (age 10) and Omar (age 4) were here visiting.  You may remember Omar from an earlier post (click here).  Ever since their mom has been in the hospital, the three school-aged girls have basically missed a lot of school.  It seems the oldest, Yasmine (age 16), has attended fairly regularly.  She is older and missing school makes it difficult for her.  The next youngest, Hibba, seems to have spent most of her days at the hospital with her mom.  I am happy for her in that.  Usually Hibba is the one who works very hard in our building … two times a day coming to our door to run errands for us or take our trash out … and this for everyone in our building … probably about 12 apartments.  So I am glad she got to spend these last days with her mom.  I have seen the two older sisters with their mom … it seems their bond was very strong.  I don’t know how they will handle this loss.  The youngest daughter, Wilaa, told me she has only been going to school for tests.  She has basically taken over the job of her sister running errands for everyone in the building, taking her 4 year-old brother along with her.  Anyway, I think the two youngest have been bored around home and yesterday they finally came here to play.  As far as I know, they didn’t know of their mother’s death at the time, and perhaps she was still alive at that hour.  But they had a good time and maybe they will come again.  I hope so.  Jayson and I want to help this family any way we can, and maybe giving the younger kids a place to play will be a help to them.  Time will tell.

I learned of her death on Sunday afternoon.  Hibba came to the door dressed in black, and I definitely noticed she was dressed differently, but it didn’t register with me exactly.  She asked if we needed anything, and I said “No,” then asked “How is your mom?” 

At that point, she told me she died … however, she used a word I didn’t know, so I didn’t understand. 

I asked, “Did she have her operation yet?” 

Again, she told me she died, but I didn’t understand. 

“Did they postpone it again?  Do you know when?” 

This time, she used a word I knew, and it all sunk in. 

“Oh Hibba, I am so sorry. When?” 

 I was ready to cry and hug her, but she said, “Today. Oh, it’s normal.  Praise God.” 

“It’s not normal … she’s your mom.  I am so sorry.” Then I added, as is customary, “May God have mercy on her.”

She left and I closed the door and felt so stupid.  I should have noticed the black.  The poor girl had to tell me three times that her mother died.  Sometimes it is very hard to be in another culture and I feel the language barrier keenly in a situation like this.  I want to tell her how very sorry I am that she has lost the most important person in her life.  I want to tell her to cry, cry, cry and if she needs a place to cry or a person to be sad with, I can be that person.  I have seen her cry before one of the times her mom couldn’t talk or walk, and I saw one of her uncles reprimand her and tell her to be strong.  I want her to be free to grieve.  Still, I am not of this culture, so there is so much I don’t understand.  There are things I want to say, and yet I either don’t know quite how to say it or I stumble over it, and someone who is grieving doesn’t need to expend extra energy to try to understand a foreigner.  So, I pray for wisdom and for God to give me the right words for this situation.  We pray that God would show us ways we can help this family.  We are the foreigners who barely knew their mom, and yet, we’ve connected somewhat with the kids.  I hope we can help in some way.

I have so many questions about what happened and what will happen.  I don’t know if the younger kids will be sent to the village with relatives to be raised there.  I am guessing the two older girls will stay here with their father, and continue to study and work and run the house.  I have no idea how Muhammad, the husband, will grieve.  I worry about Omar.  He is such a difficult child already.  How much does he understand that his mommy is never coming back?  And the burial/funeral procedures are very different here.  They buried their mom the same day she died, and then spent that evening and the next morning preparing their house and yard for the visitors who will come for the next three days to offer their condolences.  God help them through this time.  And God help us to do what we can.

On Monday I attended the first night of the condolence giving, and what I learned bothered me deeply.  I went downstairs and entered the yard of the family and was directed to the women’s section.  Yasmine, the oldest daughter was there looking very sad.  I greeted her and said, as per custom, “May what remained of her life be added to yours.”

And she replied, as expected, with, “May it be to yours.”

Hibba was inside but came out to greet me.  I guess I feel the closest to her just because I see her the most.  I felt so sad for her and gave her a big hug and was near tears as she was.  I repeated the customary phrase, then added that I was so sorry for her loss and if she needs anything, or a place to cry just come up to our apartment.  Her little sister, Wilaa, was nearby, and Hibba said something to me along the lines of … “because Wilaa.” 

I am not sure what that meant, but at first I thought she meant to greet her as she was nearby.  So I did.  I said some of the same things … please come up anytime you want.  Then it seemed Hibba was encouraging Wilaa, who was near tears, not to cry.  I kind of stepped in and said, “No, cry, cry.  This is sad. This is hard.  Cry.  I’m so sorry for you.” 

All the while, Hibba was saying something to me that I didn’t understand.  What I did catch was, “No, don’t be sorry.  This is normal.” 

Ugh.  More of that “normal” stuff.  It’s not “normal” to lose your mother at age 10 or 14.  I kind of argued the point, “No, it’s not normal.  She was the closest person to you.” 

Then Hibba said something which I thought meant that her mother was in heaven so praise God for that, meaning, we shouldn’t be sad. 

Again, I had a rebuttal, “Okay, but the problem is she’s not HERE with YOU.  This is why you can be sad.  Yes, praise God she is out of pain, but cry because she’s not with you any longer.”

At this point, we kind of all sat down, and a few minutes later, as I was sitting feeling very sad for this family … these girls especially, Hibba once again tried to explain to me why they won’t cry.  And this is where I felt the language gap because there is so much I don’t understand, but from what I gathered, she believed that for every tear they cry for their dead mother, a drop of fire will fall on her skin.  Now, understand that I may not have heard that right.  But I think the principle was there, that if they cry because she died, she will suffer more in the grave.

Whoa.  That blew me away.  It made me angry.  What!  Before, I thought maybe they were just trying to be strong and somehow culturally it’s not okay to cry.  But, to be forbidden!  To be told that IF you cry, you will cause your mom more pain!  So what do they do with that?!  They need to cry, they want to cry, but if they do, they have hurt their mom.  Did you ever try to keep yourself from crying when you really need to cry?  It physically hurts!  Wow.  I was even more sad for them now.  What could I do?  I wanted to be there to cry with them, but now, if I cried, it was actually going to harm them!  I sat there for another 15-20 minutes listening to the conversation around me, watching young Omar repeatedly hit his brand new car toy with a stick, and just thinking about how I could get around this “rule.”

When one of the relatives came and sat with me, I tried to ask her about what Hibba just told me.  Again, I wasn’t sure if I understood correctly.  In answering me, at first it seemed this relative said it was okay to have tears, but not to make sound when crying.  But then it did seem, she basically summed it up with, “It’s forbidden to cry.”

So I would love to hear from some Egyptians who know this culture and this language.  Did I hear and understand correctly?  Can you explain the ideas behind this?    I believe that all cultures have harmful ideas of what to do with grief.  A few years ago, Jayson and I received training in coping with grief (The Grief Recovery Handbook), and we began our course with learning many of the wrong ideas that we have adopted in American culture regarding grief.  I could totally see those things when we studied it.  And now I know that it’s so important to feel your loss strongly.  To cry.  To grieve.  To wail.  To sit in silence.  To be with people.  To be alone at times.  To remember.  To laugh.  To cry some more.  To pray.  To rejoice.  To mourn.  I don’t mean to be judgmental of Egyptian culture, but I want to understand it better and better, and especially now as I see my neighbor girls hurting, and it seems they aren’t able or allowed to express their deep grief.  Must they suppress it?