A few weeks ago, I spent an afternoon with a dear couple from my parents’ church. Last year they celebrated their sixtieth wedding anniversary, and with the advance of years and experience, their hope in Jesus has grown deeper, more solid. They pray regularly for me, as they do for countless others around the world – faithful each day to remember people whose names they’ve jotted down on a slip of yellow legal paper tucked into their Bible. Even as they deal with increasing frailty that can frustrate plans and limit mobility, these two dear ones have an incredible imagination for what God is doing in distant lands. For more than an hour, they asked me question after question about Nepal, utterly absorbed in a world far from the rural Pennsylvania cul-de-sac neighborhood where we sat.
At one point, I shared with them a story from Tansen Hospital about a teenaged girl dying of kidney failure and rheumatic heart disease. Sadly, this was a fairly typical story, something I was already learning by that early point in my time at Tansen. I remember bringing this girl’s father out into the hospital’s corridor (our most secluded space) to discuss her poor prognosis. She clearly had very little time left, mere hours to days, and there was nothing more that we – or anyone – could do to reverse her disease. Although there’s a huge role for palliative care in such situations, families will often instead choose to bring their loved one home before death, for pragmatic reasons as well as cultural and religious ones.
How clearly I recall him standing there, this humble man trying to grasp news that no human should have to fully absorb. Yet it was what he said next that I remember most: “I am such a poor man; oh, if only I were not so poor, she would live!” In his poverty, he felt utterly powerless to help his dearly beloved daughter. It’s a memory that haunts me – one of many that point not only to the wrenching pathos of grief, but also to the vicious toll poverty takes – physically, psychologically and spiritually.
At that moment, it struck me that above all, this man needed to hear that his daughter’s death was not his fault. She was not dying, as he seemed to indicate, because of something he’d failed to provide. This young woman was indeed very ill; I felt confident to say that nowhere else in the world, even with the most sophisticated care, could things have gone any differently for her at that point. I wanted him to hear that message from me, a doctor whose words carry a degree of authority – words that might mean something when he recalled them down the road. I wanted to ensure that, of all the burdens of grief he would carry home with him that night, the weight of guilt would not be among them.
As I shared all this with my friends, a tsunami-wave of emotion surged forth, entirely unexpectedly. Caught completely off guard, I barely maintained my composure, struggling to avoid sobbing right there in the living room. At Tansen, this sort of “case” was so typical, really – anything but unusual. It’s a story that continues to play out day after day across Nepal and around the world. It hadn’t even been a particularly emotional experience for me at the time; with the pressure of the day’s tasks shuttling you from one thing to the next, there’s rarely an inch even to pause and breathe. Not until that wintry afternoon, with a chance to see their story through the lens of time, ample rest, and the norms of my own affluent culture, did the tragedy of it fully hit me.
I’m told that these waves of emotion are a normal thing, that re-entry is not all that different from other forms of grief. I’m told that I should expect that sort of thing, and more. (This post from the blog Velvet Ashes already resonates deeply with my own experience of return, and is worth at least a quick glance.) In the midst of all the busy-ness of the holidays, the fun and laughter, the times spent with family and catching up with friends, I’d failed to recognize that a turbulent sea swells beneath this experience, a vast ocean of thoughts & feelings that still remain to be “processed.” (How sterile and mechanical that word sounds!)
In a few days I head to Colorado to do exactly that, through a week-long “Debriefing and Renewal” program held periodically for those returning from cross-cultural missions work of a year or more. I’m looking forward to this dedicated space of reflection, in which to give focused thought to the past few years alongside a small group of others who share a similar story. Yet at the same time, I wouldn’t want you to think that you should stop asking questions! As best I can, I want to share this world with those willing to enter it. And, time and again over these past few weeks, I’ve deeply appreciated your making room for me to do just that.