A grim catalogue of grief and loss
So today we were expected to receive the remains of our brother Benjamin Kachale and his wife Futhi at Chileka Airport; but due to some logistical hitches we have to wait till Friday the 29th January. This double funeral marks the culmination of the most distressing 10 days I have so far known in my rather brief sojourn on earth. If I kept a daily diary it would make the most morbid reading: on Monday 18th January 2021 we got the sad news in the morning that our brother-in-law Evangelist Stephen Lungu had succumbed to covid after a rather gallant fight. According to the public health protocols we had to arrange for his burial that same day. Thankfully, due to the amazing grace and kindness of God we managed to arrange the funeral for 4pm at Area 18 Cemetery. While in the course of that funeral we received more heartbreaking news from Joburg that our brother Benjamin Kachale had collapsed suddenly on his way to visit his wife Futhi (who was battling for her life on a machine at the time): by Wednesday Futhi too was gone. On Thursday 21st January more bad news followed: our Pastor at Lilongwe Word Alive Assembly Reverend Patrick Semphere was gone: again, we had to arrange his funeral the same day. If it ended there, that would be overwhelming grief for one week; but that wasn’t all. On Friday morning we woke up to the news that our very good friend from church had also succumbed to covid: I could not travel but my wife and our daughter managed to attend the funeral in Blantyre. On Saturday we were burying yet another close friend.
Setting the appropriate context for sharing the subsequent thoughts
Why do I share all this? Is there some morbid delight in narrations of death and loss? No; rather I wish to place what I would like to share later in its appropriate context. I would not want anyone to mistake my thoughts as coming from an insensitive and unconcerned person who has no experience with pain and suffering. While I cannot claim to have a monopoly on suffering, I have had a fair share of grief over the past few days. With the help of God alone, I have recently had to carry the heavy burden of having to be the strong one when everyone is so heartbroken (but I have also witnessed the fortitude of others in the face of loss, from which I have drawn great inspiration to endure my own grief). Bearing the painful responsibility of having to identify your beloved and manage all the grim arrangements necessary to grant the departed a decent send off. While ordinarily such arrangements involve several family members and friends who coordinate their efforts even as they share the grief, the present circumstances have rendered such coordination untenable. While the requirement to conduct the funeral hurriedly may give rise to many conflicting emotions and leave one feeling that may be our beloved have not received a fitting and proper dignity, the urgency of such brisk measures only goes to underscore the severity of the crisis covid has brought into our lives. In the end, one might draw comfort from the fact that even the death and burial of Our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ might have appeared unfitting for one who claimed to be The King of Kings; yet out of such gloom and distress came the very cornerstone of our faith i.e. victory over death!
Unresolved and unresolvable questions still linger
Like any other person who has lost close family and even closer friends in such short order the list of questions plaguing my mind is endless: I could choose to focus on my perplexity and in the process denounce God and walk away from the truth….for the record all these funerals have been happening in the midst of caring for 2 octogenarians-one of whom was suspected of having covid and could not even attend his late wife’s memorial mass on Saturday 16th January. While another was living under our household where I was recovering from the covid while our 8-year-old son was also positive but asymptomatic.
So yes, I have and continue to bear considerable emotional pain from this scourge: but in the midst of all the confusion I choose hope! My hope is not some make-belief delusion that chooses to bury my head in the sand and pretend nothing bad is happening. Rather I have hope that there is a God who will sustain me even through this storm! I may not explain what is going on; but on the authority of His Word and the reality of my lived experiences I have confidence in His capacity for compassion and comfort right in the depth of our sufferings. His name remains Emmanuel: The Lord who has made His abode with us! His redemptive capacity is beyond explanation: I choose to place my full confidence in Him alone! It is within that context that I would like to take a few moments to share from one frail human heart to any who might be benefitted by these personal reflections arising from the recent experiences I have gone through.
Some important disclaimers are in order
Before I share the substance of my reflections, I wish to make something very clear: I am neither a theologian nor a public health or medical expert. So, what I intend to say is not some expert advice (for that let us continue to rely on the appropriate authorities). Rather I am a human being processing some very difficult experiences due to the ongoing covid pandemic; through my sufferings there are certain things I am learning which have helped me deal with the pain, loss, confusion and perplexity which the current predicament has generated. It is my sincere hope that another person reading through my story may find some encouragement as they too seek to process their own emotional, medical, philosophical and theological turmoil. I believe I have some reflections worth sharing because of our common humanity. More importantly, my faith teaches that we overcome suffering through sharing: one should never waste one’s pain and suffering by being too inward-looking. One should always learn the discipline of every once in a while, turning away from one’s pain to seek out another who might be in a similar or even worse situation. One should learn to render a helping hand even if it is a bleeding and broken one: compassion and not perfection is the hallmark of Christian dogma. A dying Savior has time for His desperate mother (whom He assigns to the care of His friend John) as well as a repentant malefactor (whom He invites to Paradise with His dying breath). As Steven was being stoned to death, he had the presence of mind to intercede for the forgiveness of his assailants (who were being egged on by a young man called Saul of Tarsus, later to become a great preacher of the gospel he sought to violently suppress). So, it is my hope that in sharing these thoughts someone might be edified. Thus, if even one person is helped in that manner, it would all be worthwhile for me.
What I will not be able to answer or explain
- I will not answer why covid is here, one thing I know for sure is that this is not necessarily the end of the world. Anyone propagating such a view need to review their eschatological doctrine very seriously (I would happily share my own views on such matters at the appropriate time).
- I cannot explain why some are getting healed while others are not i.e. why some live and others die. That is the exclusive preserve of God alone. But I would like to encourage those who have survived like me to guard against what is sometimes described as “survivors’ guilt”: this is the emotion experienced by those who return from the battle front having lost their buddies. One may feel bad (and even guilty) for having lived while others (who one may even consider to be better people) have not survived the ordeal. Remember, nobody deserves to live anyway; life is a gift of God’s grace and mercy, it is not given on merit! Accept the Sovereign Grace of God who has chosen to be kind and allowed you to live!
- I will not even provide a commentary on the effectiveness of government responses to the current crisis: the experts and officials charged with that task are competent patriots whose responsibilities require the goodwill and support of all well-meaning citizens rather than the crude critiques of ill-qualified busy-bodies. We will all be well advised to pay serious attention to the directions being given for our welfare and refrain from the tendency to argue just because we can: lives are being lost and we cannot afford to play smart with human life.
My Main Points of Reflection
- The first point I would make is this: be vigilant, covid can attack anyone. For me, I have no clear clue where I got infected. According to the Doctor who made the diagnosis, by that time I had been infected for around ten days (and I had no clue), thankfully I had been quite scrupulous about wearing a mask in that period (and could say I hadn’t needlessly exposed others in that time). Take the advice of 3 Ws seriously…Wear a Mask, Wash your hands regularly and Watch your Distance. You could save both your life and those who come in close contact with you. The scientific evidence for the effectiveness of these 3 Ws is beyond dispute: those who wish to argue with it are simply playing games with human lives.
- In the event that you receive a positive covid diagnosis do not panic: people are able to recover from this illness. In other words, remember the real fight is more mental (or spiritual) than medical: do not allow defeat and death to overcome you without even giving your body a chance to take on the illness. For me, my positive diagnosis was not my first encounter with covid; mid last year during the first wave of covid in the UK my brother and his wife fell ill and both survived by God’s grace. The one lesson he taught me (and anyone who will listen) is this: “Do not fear.” So, when I got my diagnosis, I resolved not to allow fear to dominate my mind.
- The other point to make is: guard against over medication. There are so many well-meaning people who will offer or suggest various concoctions and drug combinations as therapy for covid. Do not embrace everything you see on social media; my advice is to listen carefully to the advice of medical or public health experts. Do not be superstitious; listen to scientifically sound remedies. Be prayerful: God is able to heal anything, even covid.
- There is some truth in the old proverb ‘mbuto yakalulu inakula ndi tadzaonani…” in this context it means be prudent who you share information concerning your positive diagnosis with. Some people have a tendency to make a bad situation worse by amplifying the negatives and adding to your stress instead of relieving your concerns. Of course, you have a responsibility to inform the people you have been in close contact with so that they too can seek medical attention (or get tested at least). Otherwise, you should determine not to be melodramatic about your diagnosis; with the help of God it is possible to overcome even this foe! (In suggesting selective sharing of your diagnosis, I am not talking about the arrogant refusal to be vulnerable when one faces a crisis, no. I am rather talking about choosing not to inform your ailing mom at the village because you don’t want to give her a heart attack, or keeping the news from people who will only make a story out of your predicament).
- You must quickly identify your psycho-social support network (these are primarily the people you should share your burdens with). Whether that is your immediate family or close friends or prayer partners: recognize a circle of people from whom you can draw your strength and can safely share your experience-people who will encourage you and when they tell you ‘we’re praying for you’, you can be sure they mean it. Share your experience as appropriate and be ready to receive encouragement and feedback (which may include the need to seek more medical attention if necessary). This circle is also important even for the person who is taking care of you (who might be battling his or her own fears too). These people may also prove useful for supplying you with much needed supplements or medication that is fast becoming scarce. For example, immediately upon my diagnosis my brother in law who himself had survived covid brought me supplements that have helped me greatly.
- In order to fend off fear, one needs a constant supply of encouragement: you can get this through listening to uplifting or inspirational music as well as preaching of the word. Sadly, not everything being shared in God’s name on the subject-matter is edifying: one has a responsibility to discern what is sound and appropriate from what is false teaching (as Our Lord stated we need a solid foundation of the truth in order to weather the storms of life).
- The greatest source of peace of mind is an assurance of one’s Eternal Destiny. Moments of illness are good reminders of our mortality. Prudence requires that mortal man reckon with the reality of his own mortality. This realization should not overwhelm us, because unlike covid which has no cure, death has a remedy found in The Person of Jesus Christ, who is also known as The Resurrection and The Life. Carefully resolving what one believes about eternal things in moments of vulnerability is one of the wisest ways to spend your isolation.
- Remain humble and positive. Do not worry about what you cannot control. Learn to relinquish the need to remain in control of all your life and its attendant circumstances. Even your official (or formal) responsibilities can wait while you recover your health. You cannot carry the weight of the whole world upon your feeble human shoulders. Determine to draw strength from the Carpenter of Galilee; He is also called The Man of Sorrows. He is well acquainted with grief and suffering: in moments when it feels too much call on Him. Jesus Christ is near the downcast and brokenhearted. He is near us even in our pain and distress!
- Pray continually for The Mercy of The Lord-this is where our faith will be tested: it is hard to continue to believe when others are succumbing to the same condition. But one must remember that Only God is Sovereign and Omniscient: we must acknowledge that we are incompetent to explain what we do not know. We pray based on God’s promises (not based on our present experiences). These promises are contained in the scriptures. God will never change; our negative experiences will not change Him and His Nature of Love, Goodness and Kindness and Perfect Righteousness! We must learn to trust God based on what He has declared in His word. We need to learn to rise above the storm and focus on His sure promises. God still heals. He still protects. God is our refugee: He remains our surest source of help even in these troubled times!
- When we attend funerals, please let us not allow the emotion of the moment to cause us to lower our guard. As difficult as it might be, it is still critical to mask up and to keep our distance. Indeed, we must realize that in these moments, staying away from certain funerals might be more appropriate: it reduces the risk of spreading the infection (even though it makes it harder to mourn those we love appropriately). Remember even those who loved Jesus were mostly unable to perform proper funeral rites for Him (because of the perilous circumstances of His death): by the time they came to do the needful Jesus had already risen from the grave. Whilst it is fine to desire that we conduct our funeral a certain way, but prudence requires we adjust to the threat that currently hovers around our communities in the name of covid.
- As we mourn our loved ones, we must appreciate the grief of those who for one reason or another may not be able to join us in person: the use of technology therefore may need to be adopted. Let no-one frown upon people taking videos or photos using phones and cameras during such funerals; it may be their attempt to help other relatives participate in paying the final respects to a beloved too. Because of the strict same-day burial protocols, covid has rendered it well nigh impossible for people to travel from far to attend funerals of beloved parents, children and friends: this makes the loss so much harder for such people and allowing them to participate through technology is quite significant.
- Because of the ravages of covid, people may lose both parents all at once: society needs to be prepared to step in and provide social safety nets to protect the interests and welfare of the vulnerable children. Let us remember that looking after orphans and widows is true religion: this is our opportunity to minister the love and care of Our Master!
- We need to take more deliberate steps to help each other handle the psychological stress of covid: calling each other up and sending positive and encouraging messages is one way. Where necessary we must not hesitate to seek the input of professionals on mental health. As parents take time to discuss whatever is happening with your children: do not downplay or ignore signs of stress or confusion. In these moments your presence may be more useful than your wise counsel; be intentional about spending time with your children (if possible). Human company can help to reduce stress.
- Finally, resist the temptation to be an expert concerning everything. Allow the relevant professionals to provide the leadership we need to steer us from this crisis. Too much (unsolicited) advice might just add to the confusion. If unsure about anything, identify relevant expertise for appropriate input: do not trust unverified social media posts concerning covid. Learn to be critical about what you see and read: reduce the consumption of negative messages by exiting certain social media groups if necessary.
- Additionally, let us learn to appreciate and encourage our frontline health-workers: while the rest of us can choose to stay away, their job requires them to provide care and attention to all patients, including those suffering from covid. It is a very stressful experience; the gravity of our current situation and the acute shortage of health personnel at various levels means that these people are working long hours without adequate supplies in most cases. Taking care of oneself (by adhering to all the public health protocols to prevent the spread of covid) may help reduce their burden: if you have close family and friends working in the health sector, be supportive and accommodate their very unusual working schedules in this moment of crisis.
Some parting thoughts….
In closing, let me encourage each one to please turn to The Lord for comfort and peace in these difficult times. I can find no better words to close than the scripture which my pastor (Rev Patrick Semphere) shared with me on 16th January (at the time, I had no idea that would be one of the last texts I would receive from him before his departure for glory)
“But the eyes of the Lord are on those who fear Him, on those whose hope is in His unfailing love, to deliver them from death and keep them in famine. We wait in hope for the Lord; He is our help and our shield. In Him our hearts rejoice, for we trust in His holy name. may your unfailing love be with us, Lord, even as we put our hope in you.” (Psalm 33:18-22)
LET US CONTINUE TO PLACE OUR HOPE IN THE LORD!