by Annie Hardison-Moody
For a lot of reasons, I’ve been thinking this week about hope. Key among those reasons is a piece that Monica Coleman posted on her beautiful mind blog, Ordinary Saints. There, she writes about pregnancy loss and the trenches of grief that often surround us when we try to find hope or joy or life in the midst of loss. It’s difficult (and feels, at times, impossible) to see life where you only know death. But, she writes, there are saints among us who show us that hope is possible, even when we can’t find it.
With my colleague, Dara Bloom, I’m working on a project with the women’s committee at the Islamic Association of Raleigh (IAR). Maryam Funmilayo, a gifted and passionate nutrition educator, has been holding classes with immigrant and refugee women there through our Faithful Families Eating Smart and Moving More program (which I direct), to connect spiritual and physical health in an effort to help faith communities have access to healthier foods and physical activity. Through that project, we learned that the women at the IAR wanted greater access to fruits and vegetables that they grew or ate in their home countries. We started out with Maryam offering tours at the local farmer’s market, but the project has evolved into working on a community and school garden, and doing some container garden workshops so that women can grow food from their home countries here in the U.S. Dara and I have loved working with this group of women – when we show up on a Friday night for a meeting, the room is always filled with smiles, good food, hugs, and such care and concern for us. The project has been a model, for me, of what academic and community partnerships should look like.
So you can imagine how we felt when we learned that the three students who were killed in Chapel Hill this week were members at the IAR, and they grew up going to the Al-Iman school, where we are working with Cooperative Extension to revitalize the garden. The funeral was yesterday. It was across the street from the school, the site where soon we hope to watch the garden come alive again.
Yesterday at the service, Monica’s post kept coming back to me. Her words echoed as I saw them carry the three coffins away: “I want my babies back.”
I feel like all I write about on this blog is loss. But it is so hard to talk about, and so I write, hoping that in doing so I can better understand grief. But it’s incomprehensible. I try to imagine what might be going through the minds of the parents of these young people – Deah Shaddy Barakat, Yusor Mohammad, and Razan Mohammad Abu-Salha. I hear Monica’s words again: “I want my babies back.”
The father of the two women who died, Dr. Mohammad Abu-Salha, spoke at the funeral, encouraging all of us who were there to learn about Deah, Yusor, and Razan. He urged us to learn about the example that they set for others in the world – the way they cared for their communities, the way they honored God with their works.
The hope they had for a better world, where does (did) it go?
Their former teacher, Mussarut Jabeen, spoke to NPR this week, to follow-up on the beautiful Story Corps piece she recorded with Yusor in 2014. In it, Jabeen recalls their bright smiles, their caring hearts, and the hope that Yusor had for a world where we could show love instead of hate:
Jabeen remembers when Deah was growing up, he was getting so tall that he started to outgrow her.
“And because I’m a short person, he would stand behind me and put his hand over my head,” she said. “And I just told him, ‘Deah, you can never outgrow my heart.’ “
“You can never outgrow my heart.” Is that hope? If so, it’s still here, even if we can’t feel it right now.
By Elizabeth O’Donnell Gandolfo
My children have been obsessed with death lately. The older two are five and almost four, and their imaginary play has been focused an awful lot on scenarios that involve dramatic exclamations of “I’m dead,” “I’m dying,” and “I killed you!” The questions they ask about the world have come to include things like: When do you die? Can you die when you are zero, eleven, fifty-five, etc.? Can you live to be 100? After you die are you “with God to infinity and beyond?” When will you die? I know that their curiosity is completely normal and, like Claire (whose August 2013 post, Backyard Life Lessons, inspired some of my own thinking on this subject), I do my best to respond to it with a level head and honest answers. But I have to admit that all of this talk of death coming from the mouths of babes—my sweet, innocent babes—is just killing me!
It wasn’t always like this and I can’t help but long for the fleeting days when bugs and birds didn’t die, they were just sleeping; Scar didn’t kill Mufasa, he just made him go away; their grandfather (my father) was not dead, he was just living with Jesus; and their mommy and daddy and all of us were just going to live forever. During my eldest daughter’s early years, I avoided saying anything at all about death or dying. D-E-A-D really was a four letter word in our home. And I was very good at censoring my vocabulary—I may have even spelled the word out in conversation with my husband rather than expose my daughter to its fearsome ring. I’m not sure when or why it happened, but things have changed since those days of blissful ignorance, of course, and the younger children inevitably are being exposed to talk of death and dying at a much earlier age than their big sister—which is probably a good thing. But my own feelings towards death and dying have only heightened in their level of discomfort and anxiety.
You see, becoming a mother to these heart-breakingly precious beings has made me more than a little uncomfortable with mortality. I suppose that in my youth my own mortality and that of those I loved seemed very abstract, far off in the future, and not something to give a second thought. But once I began having children, the truth of our mortal condition hit me like sucker punch to the gut (the kind that knocks the wind out of you and leaves you breathless). I suppose that falling in love as deeply and irrevocably as I have with my children has heightened and deepened my awareness of the fragility and fleetingness of existence in general, and that of the lives of myself and my husband, our children, and other family members in particular. My own mortality now scares me half to death, with my sentiments echoing those expressed very simply by ecologist Sandra Steingraber in Having Faith, a memoir of her pregnancy and early motherhood: “Now I cannot die.” And neither can my husband. These thoughts often cross my mind. But when it comes to contemplating the possibility that something could happen to one of our kids—I don’t even go there.
I cope rather well with my newfound fears and anxieties—I am very skilled at blocking them out. Not only am I am so busy and exhausted that it is not too hard to keep the thought of mortality at bay, I also have found myself strategically avoiding anything that might call to mind the contingency and fragility of my family’s existence. I have begun to evade news stories, films, or books that involve violence or childhood death of any kind (just a bit strange for someone who is writing a theology of human vulnerability through the lens of maternal suffering). In the aftermath of the Sandy Hook massacre, for example, I simply could not bear to read or listen to any accounts of the violence that took place, the analyses of the shooter’s motivations and psychological well-being, or—worst of all—the stories of the children who were killed. Similarly, while I was once a passionate crusader for social and economic justice, I no longer even allow myself to be confronted with the human face of what Gustavo Gutiérrez calls the “early and unjust death” that erases tens of thousands of children (and adults) from existence on a daily basis. I put all of this out of my mind and heart with great skill, but the prevalence of death and dying in my kids’ imaginative play and curious questions keeps bringing my discomfort with our own mortality more and more to the foreground of my mind and heart. I think the time has come for some spiritual reckoning with the big “D.”
It seems to me that my real problem is NOT that I can’t bear to contemplate the fact that I or my children could suffer and die prematurely. This is completely normal and healthy – who wants to think about the possibility of leaving or losing our loved ones? And how could one possibly “come to terms with” such loss preemptively? The real problem, rather, is my avoidance of others’ suffering because I psychologically project myself and my family into the horrific situation, which just causes me too much pain. This evasion of suffering has locked me into a selfish mode of being, in which my discomfort with death due to my passionate love for my husband and children is all that matters. I have been operating under what I know intellectually to be an illusion—that the blissful comfort of my intact relationship with my nearest and dearest is more important than compassion for the suffering of other human beings (and creation, for that matter). I have anesthetized myself to suffering and have thus blocked the divine power of compassion that might emerge from a genuine encounter with others as others on their own terms and not as placeholders for what, God forbid, could have happened or might one day happen to my family and me.
Perhaps this is where I ought to begin, then, with a renewed sensitivity to the suffering and mortality of those beyond my own kith and kin. The life of every human being is as valuable and precious as the lives of my own beloved children. Contemplating and acting with compassion for the vulnerability and mortality of others is a first step towards coming to terms with my own vulnerability and mortality, along with that of my family. Compassion for others is not, of course, a means to this personal end. Rather, it is the end, in itself, of a truly human life lived in communion with the divine pathos for a suffering world.
by Claire Bischoff
In the past two weeks, my sons and I have learned a bit about life and death without leaving our backyard. Most recently, I was inside tying my shoes in anticipation of a walk to Panera for dinner, when my five year old came running inside, yelling, “Mom, come quick! Come quick!” Fearing the worst, like blood gushing from my three-year-old’s head, I ran outside to find a squirrel swimming for its life in our inflatable wading pool. Dumbfounded, I watched as the squirrel tried in desperation to climb up the rounded plastic sides, only to fall back in. My three year old tugged my hand, pleading, “Mom, do something.”
An image formed in my head: me donning a gas mask, oven mitts, and knee-high waders to face this foe who could scratch me/pathetic creature who needed my help. I quickly realized that I did not own any of the equipment that would make this vision reality, so I ran inside and got a bucket, intent on scooping the squirrel out of the pool with it. After a few attempts, complete with me whispering to the terrified squirrel that I really was trying to help it to safety, the squirrel got a grip on the edge of the bucket. Now terrified myself, I tossed the bucket, and squirrel with it, toward the hosta plants that ring our yard, arms shaking violently. At first the squirrel did not move, but then we saw it shake its head, ever so slightly. Giving it a wide berth, we headed out for dinner. When we returned home, it was gone, and I am going with the story that it finally recovered its breath and scampered off (rather than becoming the dinner of some bigger critter preying on its vulnerability).
Had my kids not been there, what would I have done? Would I have waited long enough, hemming and hawing about what to do or who to call to do it for me, that the squirrel would have drowned, quite literally, in my indecision? But my kids were there, and in the face of their innocent faces, I felt an urgent need to protect the life of this squirrel. They will encounter, if they have not already, so many situations in their lives that make it seem as if death always wins. Instinctively, I wanted to do everything in my power to make sure this was not one of those situations. Along with my urging that they not step on bugs just for sport or pull the leaves off of trees, I hope this rather dramatic incident was a living example of what it means to value the life of all God’s creation.
Possibly, my strong desire to save the squirrel was intensified coming on the heels of an incident the week before in which nothing could be done. Again, my sons and I were in the backyard, this time playing soccer. Just as my five year old was dribbling toward the goal, our attention was caught by something swooping in front of us, dropping something else, and then flying away. Upon closer examination, the dropped object was a malformed baby bird. Similar to the squirrel situation, my three year old implored me, “Do something, mom.” As the three of us gathered round, my five year old listed possible solutions, including trying to return the bird to its nest in the second story rain gutter on our house. However, I sensed that there was nothing to be done, and so we just stood there, watching the bird as it took its last shuddering breath. “I’m sad, mom,” my five year old said when I pronounced the bird dead. “Me, too,” I said, and then I added without thinking, “At least we were here with it when it died. It did not die alone.”
We have talked about God and heaven at other times, but in that moment, it seemed more important that we had borne witness to the short life and quick death of this fragile creature. Rather than callously ignore or in fear run away from death, we had allowed ourselves to feel death’s sadness by staying put. God, empower us to do the same when we inevitably face the deaths of our loved ones, so that we might teach our children that death need not be feared, but rather mourned as the end of life in this world and celebrated as the beginning of life in the world to come.
How do you demonstrate a respect for life in your life? Upon what foundation does this respect for life rest?
Have you found yourself in a situation when you have had to explain death to your children? What have you said? Do you find faith helpful in the face of death? What do you want your children to believe about life and death?