Saturday, March 21, 2015
When I was in Makeni at the beginning of March, I received news that a very close family friend – Benny – had passed away. Benny, who always reminded me of my own grandfather, was 93 years old and I had visited him in the hospital before I left for Sierra Leone so the news wasn’t unexpected, but it was still a shock. Two days after receiving this news, I returned to Freetown only to hear more bad news. My Uncle Ernie was in hospice. That was a complete shock to me. He too had been in and out of the hospital and I had visited with him several times before I left for Sierra Leone, but this was totally unexpected. He passed away the next day.
You’re probably wondering why I’m telling you all of this so let me get to the point. After receiving all this bad news at the same time and losing two people that I loved very much, I was pretty upset. I was upset that they were both gone, but I was also upset that I wasn’t there in Rhode Island. There are two main reasons I wanted to be in RI and not Sierra Leone when I heard all this bad news. First, when things like this happen, you want to be there to have the chance to see your loved ones one last time. Yes, I had visited both Benny and Uncle Ernie before I left, but I wish I could have been there in the hospital with each of them before they died. Some of you may feel differently, but when my grandfather was in the hospital before he died, I spent every possible second there that I could. That’s just how I react in situations such as these. So I wanted to be there to see Benny and my uncle one more time. I also wanted to be in RI for another reason – to be able to comfort my family and friends who were suffering far more than I was from the loss. It was crushing me that I couldn’t be there. I didn’t take the news of these deaths particularly well (I spent the next three days in my room alternating between crying and watching Netflix), but the reason why isn’t what you might expect. Obviously I was saddened by the news of the loss, but that’s something I’ve unfortunately dealt with multiple times before. What I’ve never dealt with before is being apart from my family when a loved one has died. A couple of years ago when I was living in DC, my 101 year old friend, Virginia, died. When I heard she wasn’t doing well, I jumped in my car and made the 7+ hour drive home after working all day just so I could be with her before she died. Not being there is just NOT an option for me. Until now.
I had to try to find some positive from a situation that was so overwhelmingly upsetting. So I thought about why I’m here in Sierra Leone. At first I started questioning whether I had made the right decision in coming here. Was this even really where God wanted me to be? If it was, why would all of this happen right now while I’m here, separated from my family? There had to be a reason. As I thought about it, the answer hit me like a ton of bricks. Yes, this is exactly where I’m supposed to be. I’ve always known that. I knew that from the moment I first heard that there was an Ebola outbreak. With that question answered, I moved on to trying to figure out why all of this was happening right now. And I think I found the answer.
I spend my days working on projects which have been designed to encourage people to seek treatment if they have a fever or to not touch dead bodies/perform traditional burials. These things seem so obvious to me and I’ve gotten frustrated more than a few times at the fact that there are still people not following these simple guidelines. But the loss of Benny and my uncle and the fact that I’m not able to be there with my family during this time has taught me a valuable lesson in empathy. Straight from the mouth of Wikipedia, empathy is “the capacity to understand what another person is experiencing from within the other person’s frame of reference, i.e. the capacity to place oneself in another’s shoes.” I’ve begun to empathize with and feel more compassion than I ever imagined I could for the people who are doing all the things they aren’t supposed to be doing during an Ebola outbreak. One of the main reasons that people don’t call the Ebola hotline when a loved one has a fever is that they are afraid (for good reasons) that they will never see that loved one again. When a person is taken to an Ebola Treatment Unit (ETU), their family members will not be able to see them again until they recover. If the patient dies, it is unlikely that the family will ever see the patient’s face again as safe burial requires them to be buried in a body bag that has already been disinfected. If the treatment unit is far from where the patient and his family live, it is unlikely that the family will even be able to go stand outside the ETU (safely outside the buffer zone) to await news about their loved one. They still have work to do and children to take care of every day. They may be unable to afford transport to the ETU if it is far away. There are many reasons for not calling for a safe medical burial (if you’re really interested, you can read all about them in my CE). The most prominent reason for not calling is because people want to perform traditional burial rituals which have great spiritual significance and which provide comfort and closure for the family of the deceased. For both Muslims and Christians, these burial practices involve some type of washing of the body. Various ethnic groups have differing practices, but often times many people will touch or sleep next to dead bodies. This might sound somewhat shocking to you, but it really shouldn’t. We have rituals of our own, but we just don’t think of them in the same way. Have you ever attended a wake and kissed the forehead or touched the hand of the person who had died? I have. And I’m sure plenty of you have as well. We do something physical to feel a connection to the person we have lost even though we know they aren’t there in that body anymore. This really isn’t fundamentally different from what happens here. We even wash and prepare the body just like Sierra Leoneans do…we just happen to have specialized people who we have assigned the task of carrying out this process.
As I was feeling upset about not being with my family, I realized that families all over Sierra Leone are facing the same struggle every single day. I didn’t have the option to go home to be with my family or to visit Benny or my uncle right before they died. The people here do have an option. They can choose not to knowingly separate themselves from an ill family member. They can choose to hold the hand of or hug a recently deceased family member just like we do. Obviously these are not wise decisions during an Ebola outbreak and I don’t condone them in any way, but I do understand them now. Not having the opportunity to be part of the traditions that we have surrounding death for our loved ones, I’ve come to realize just how important these traditions really are, both to us in America and to the people of Sierra Leone.
This video by United Methodist Communications nicely highlights the struggle faced by both Ebola patients and their families. It's very well done and we've actually been using it as part of our dialogue sessions with community and religious leaders.