Tuesday, September 24, 2013

Grieving Cross-culturally

It was Monday, our usual day off – our Sabbath rest – and we had decided that it would be fun to head to the resort to spend an hour kayaking around the beautiful, aqua blue lagoon.  As we arrived at the resort, a taxi driver called out to me to tell me that a little baby had died, one that we had prayed for in the hospital just a week before.  She was the one-year-old daughter of Pastor Morrison on the island of Tanna, and his wife Rahab.  She had improved enough after we saw her that she was discharged from the hospital.  She had an enlarged heart and congestive heart failure that they were trying to control with medication.  Surgery is not an option in Vanuatu and only a slim possibility in New Zealand or Australia because of the incredible expense involved.  We didn't hear anything from Pastor Morrison and assumed Baby Louise was doing well.  So, we were so surprised to hear that she had died. 

Prima Nazarene Church
We went and spent several hours with the family that afternoon - crying and crying.  When we arrived at Prima Nazarene Church everyone had gathered and various women were holding Louise's dead body.  I was feeling so sad that I couldn't even really think of anything encouraging to say.  The sun had gone down and the church was dimly lit with a solar lantern and a kerosene hurricane lamp. I sat on the mat with the ladies, one of them the baby's grandmother (my friend Rahab, and Baby Louise’s mother's namesake).  They carefully unfolded a woven mat and spread a piece of cloth over it.  Then they folded a blanket and put it in the middle.  They indicated to the baby's auntie that she had to put the baby on the mat, and carefully placed her head and limp little body on the folded blanket.  They began to carefully wrap the baby in lots of cloth and finished by folding the mat over her, then placing another cloth over the folded mat. 

Baby Louise’s mother had been crying a little distance away, and she came over at that point and wailed and wept, caressing the bundle that held her baby.  David described her as “weeping violently” - a good description.  At one point, a woman came with some special clothes, and the bundle was completely unwrapped, in order to dress little Louise's body with the special dress and socks.  So much grief, it was hard to take it all in!

The parents' wishes were that they be able to fly back to Tanna the next day to bury their baby near their home, but the expense was prohibitive.  We helped them with the cost a bit, and then told them that we would be praying for God's provision.  We were asked to return to the village the next morning to preach for the memorial service. 

We arrived there the next morning with lots of vehicles parked along the road, and many people crying at the church.  Women were cooking near Pastor Gideon's house since the family is expected to provide food for all the guests (a very burdensome custom).  Pastor Gideon told us that some of the men had left to get a different coffin for the baby.  A small coffin had been built out of some wood and the baby's body was placed in it, but a few of the family members found it not adequate.  A lovely little white coffin with silver handles on the side and soft padding inside was purchased instead.  When it arrived, the baby was taken out of the first coffin and resettled in the nice one.  That was David's cue to begin the funeral.

God really helped him preach a beautiful message of encouragement and truth about the gospel of Jesus Christ and of God's love.    An amazing thing happened a short time after he finished preaching.  Peter and Jenny's landlord is from Morrison's family and was in the church when we arrived.  She stood up and began to speak to the ladies at the funeral in their language in a very soothing, calming way and finished with singing a little chorus about heaven.  Afterward she came over to us and explained that she had translated what David had said so the ladies could understand!  What a blessing!  Some women here don't understand Bislama (the trade language in Vanuatu), so God provided someone to interpret for the mother and the women who had been grieving all night and desperately needed words of encouragement in their heart language!

Some of the family had called their Member of Parliament (something like our senator), and asked for his help to get Pastor Morrison, his wife and Baby Louise back to Tanna since Morrison had helped to vote him into office.  He agreed to pay their way!  He wasn't even supposed to be available to receive a phone call that morning, but God detained him long enough for the family to share their need with him.  We stayed with the family until it was time to take the baby and the family to the airport. 

While we waited we saw some things that were very different from our own ways of grieving.  A woman came into the church yard carrying a large stick which someone quickly took away from her.  She began to call out for Morrison and when she located him, she began to beat him viciously!  Morrison’s brother, Pastor Gideon, stood between the woman and Morrison, both of them weeping.  It was the woman’s way of showing her grief, something that is culturally accepted and expected.  How very sad and strange to our understanding of grief!

With many children all around the church playing quietly with each other, we watched as a woman and her little girl who was about five years old came near the coffin and began crying.  I recognized the woman as one of the relatives.  It surprised me that the little girl was also sobbing and crying.  She kept wiping the tears from her eyes, and even after her mother stopped crying, the little girl continued.  I wondered if she just had a tender heart and cried when she heard others crying or had she known Baby Louise and helped to care for her in the village?  One thing was clear, she was very sad. 

Not long before it was time to leave for the airport, some of the men got their screwdrivers out and began to take the cover off the coffin.  One of the family members who owned a camera wanted to take a picture!  The family carefully unwrapped the mat and multiple layers of cloth until Baby Louise was visible.  Many people stood around, cameras flashing, to get their last recorded memory of this precious little one.  A few weeks previously, a young mother who had lost her baby at birth pulled out her cell phone and showed me a picture of her dead baby’s body. 

Our truck became the hearse and carried Morrison, Rahab, and the baby's coffin, with David driving.  I jumped in another bus to make room in our truck for family members; my bus led the long, slow procession to the airport.  We waited another hour or so until the coffin went inside the plane along with the family, and then another long wait before it actually took off heading to Tanna.  Once the family landed on Tanna they had a long drive to their village, but Morrison's brother Ken arranged a truck to get them there.  Baby Louise was buried the following day and the family continued to cry together for five days.  On the fifth day, they have one more big meal together, and the crying is finished – at least the family’s obligation is finished.  I’m quite sure that Morrison and Rahab are still grieving the loss of their precious little Louise.

The Lord reminded me about the story in Ann Vos Kamp’s book, One Thousand Gifts, about the parents who had two little boys die of a rare lung disease.  I looked up that part of the story to read it and was reminded about "hard eucharisteo" (difficult thanksgiving).  The father had talked to the author and said he and his wife felt blessed because they had been able to spend some time with their boys before they died.  And, the father said that he had remembered the story of King Hezekiah who begged God for healing and God gave it, but it was not for the best.  This father had learned to trust God's plan, and found comfort in praising God.  So, throughout the days that followed, I looked for ways to thank God in the midst of the grief and sorrow and loss.  Here are some of the things that I found to be thankful for:
  • ·        Little Louise's illness was severe enough that the doctors on Tanna suggested she come to Port Vila.  Had she not come, she would have died on Tanna, and her grandmother Rahab would never have met her, nor would many of her family who are living in Port Vila.  They got to see what a happy child she was and got to spend some time with her before she died.
  • ·        God provided for her to be buried on Tanna at her village rather than in Port Vila, which would have multiplied her parents’ grief.
  • ·        God used David to speak words of comfort and encouragement, and then provided for the translation so that the women (and men) could hear the Good News again.
  • ·        Because of this little baby's death, many people came together who would never come to church, and they got to hear the gospel.  We are praying that someone will trust Jesus for salvation and receive life forever because of this little baby's funeral.
  • ·        Both Morrison and Rahab are believers and know the hope of heaven.  They do not grieve as those who have no hope!  They know that little Louise is in God's hands and totally healed forever!
Most of us never realize how differently the people of other nations respond to life events.  Even after living among Melanesian people for the last 20 years and having attended many “cry-cry’s” with them, the experience never feels exactly right.  I wanted so badly to help comfort others as they cried so violently, but all my attempts seemed to only intensify their grief!  The truth is that everyone is expected to cry, especially the women, and a lack of tears might indicate that you are to blame for the death.  One thing that we’ve come to realize is the same in both my home culture and my host culture - grieving people really appreciate having others come and be with them as they mourn.  As I sat quietly crying with Morrison and Rahab, I prayed knowing that the God of all comfort hears our cry and answers us.  One day, God will wipe away every tear from our eyes and there will no longer be any death or crying.  Until then, I will cry with those who cry.

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