Collective Suffering

How the world has changed since my last post. Little did I know when I completed my previous entry that I would soon receive a front row seat on grief. And now, people the world over are dealing with some form of loss. On the last Friday of February, I went to work suspecting that the day would be like any other. Since my schedule changes every day and no two days are alike, I am accustomed to surprises. But nothing had prepared me what was to come. My thoughts at the time centered on happy events, like helping my son move into his first solo apartment…

During my break, I peeked at my phone for a text from him, and saw a note from one of my sisters. Our mother had suffered a stroke, but it appeared to be a small one. She had arrived at the hospital still smiling at staff, so I thought she would survive this setback the way she bounced back from other scares. My mom had also lived through the hunger years in Holland, and the constant uncertainty of whether the Germans would take over her home or school. After the liberation, she spent seven years as a young wife and mother in the remote new kingdom of Saudi Arabia. She went on to raise five children, and found her joy in serving God through loving others. Few things gave her more pleasure than cooking for her family and friends. After a bout of colon cancer in her 70s, my mother’s appetite for both food and life came back stronger than ever. She was a model of resiliency.

At an age when many of her peers were passing away, mom still had a zest for life: whether serving in her church coffee hour ministry, cheering on her favorite hockey team, or celebrating her many grandchildren’s latest milestones. Our family had spread across globe early on; by the time I was in high school, my parents had returned to Saudi, my oldest sister was in Bangladesh, and we remaining four siblings were scattered between three Canadian provinces. We came together over the years for weddings, either our own or our children’s, or to celebrate our parents’ big anniversary years. We siblings had enough to tend to with our own growing broods, that we did not banter on the phone much, except for birthdays. Now, it was all hands on deck as we all scrambled to reach the hospital to be there for my mom and dad. The ones who always cheered us on through all our endeavors were now ones who needed support.

My strong mom hung on for nearly a week, after a massive brain aneurysm. Suddenly we were all immersed in a surreal bubble of shared mourning. We aired past hurts, laughed over common memories, and comforted each other through our tears. And we bonded. Emotions once held back in life came flooding out, as we processed our final farewells while fading with fatigue. Within days we orchestrated a beautiful celebration of life and graveside service. There is something cathartic about a communal suffering. Little did we know, that we would stumble from one surreal experience to another. And that the whole world would be experiencing a widespread grief.

How many others went to work one day, not realizing that their life was about to be turned upside down, never to be the same. The losses were perhaps smaller at first, like hints of pending doom. Just as we experienced, the gravity of the situation became more clear with each passing day. For many people, it was at first a change of routine; they might have to work and study from home due to the Corona virus threat. Or their travel plans might have to be delayed. Jobs were terminated or furloughed and health insurance benefits were severed. Then came the park and border closures, and group bans. Each day brought new rules.

While some lamented these restrictions, others faced more severe traumas, like the one we had just experienced. Instead of losing one family member, some lost several, one right after each other. Patients who had suffered a sudden change of health had no way of knowing they would be fighting for their lives, only to succumb to the virus days or weeks later. One wonders where God is in all this, but I am comforted to think that Jesus knew the pain of isolation and death. He took on human flesh to understand our pain intimately, and He sacrificed His own life for the sins of the world. Upon ascending into Heaven, he left his Holy Spirit to help and guide us, so that we would not be alone. Now the whole world grieves and everyone seeks solace from whomever and wherever they can, as we process the shocking developments of the last few months. Where do you find comfort?

What unites us in our common plight also isolates us in quarantine. Those in hospitals face the ultimate fear and isolation. Medical staff become the extension of family. Patient recoveries and deaths are broadcast to the world in daily tallies and newspaper reports. Nurses and doctors, usually the ones to inform and assure, are left with little comfort themselves at a time when nothing is certain. Professions we may not have thought much about previously, have suddenly taken on much more significance. Flattening or squashing “the curve” determines when our “normal” lives will resume. For most of us, life will take on a new normal.

We may not know the fight that health care providers and patients are currently facing. However, I hope that loved ones and strangers alike will rally around them, the way my family recently experienced. There is no loss perhaps so final as death, or moment as profound ushering from one world to the next. But there are moments every day where we can make a major impact in alleviating someone’s suffering here on earth. We are ALL on the “front lines.” In this unsettling era of COVID19, I hope we can all unite as family and console one another. Not like the dysfunctional families who fight over inheritance and look out for themselves, but the ones who support each member. I hope that our worldwide global family will lift others up and look beyond their individual losses. Because there is something beautifully bonding in shared suffering.

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