Last week started out as any normal week but as the days unfolded, it turned into an abnormally normal one. Let me try to unravel the tangled mess that we walked through and have found, unfortunately, to be all-too-common on this side of the planet.
After an amazing weekend at church, I received word early on Tuesday morning from one of our church members, Joseline, that her 5-year-old niece, Grace, was very sick with malaria. She had been transferred from a local clinic to a government hospital on Monday and had taken a turn for the worse. I had planned to be out around lunchtime and said I’d pass by around 1 p.m. to pray for Grace. She immediately replied, “Come now.”
Gripped by the urgency of the moment, I jumped into the car with Selenie, one of our leaders and a dear friend, who lives nearby our house and headed for the hospital. Joseline met us outside with worry written all over her face; she briefed us on how the child had suddenly taken a turn for the worse overnight and doctors were scrambling to treat her. More tests were needed, we all gave some money to pay quickly as nothing is done here without up-front payment, and Joseline ran off to pay for the ordered exams.
By this time, we were standing outside the intensive care unit where Grace was but had not yet been allowed to enter. Grace’s mother came out momentarily and was able to escort us to the bedside of her little daughter. An older relative, who I assumed was her grandmother, was stroking her head as she was convulsing and praying desperate prayers. Selenie and I, unprepared to see what was happening before us, laid our hands on Grace’s flailing arms and legs and began to pray. Little can be said in such a moment of anguish so we cried out to Jesus. A few moments later, I noticed some movement out of the corner of my eye and knew the doctors wanted to tend to her (I assumed the ordered tests had been paid for and they were prepared to perform the tests). We concluded our prayers and exited the room, the heavy metal door locking loudly behind us.
We did our best to enourage Grace’s father and other family members we found outside, but our words felt so very inadequate. Grace’s father had married her mother after his first wife died and Grace was their first child together. His facial expression belied his worry and I had no words; I could only be present.
After some time, Selenie and I made our way home, praying for the best. What we had hoped and prayed for, a miracle healing, did not take place and less than two hours later, Joseline’s message came, “The child has died.”
I had no words.
I had alerted women in the church to pray when news first came of Grace, I had hoped not to have to bring them the news of her death. With a heavy heart, I forwarded the message to the ladies and what came next was what I find to be one of the greatest qualities of the people in this part of the world: their ability to comfort grieving families by simply being present.
By Tuesday afternoon, just hours after Grace’s death, the family made arrangements to transport Grace’s remains to a local morgue as there aren’t funeral services here to make arrangements for families. I am not sure why she wasn’t placed into the morgue at the hospital where she had been treated; I suspect it was full. By Tuesday evening, a “kilio” (literally translated, “a crying”), a time of mourning with the family, was being held at the family’s home on the outskirts of town. Since Grace came from a believing family, the feeling at the kilio was full of hope, comfort, and love. Family, friends and church members filled the house for the three days leading up to the funeral.
At a kilio one doesn’t have to do anything; you go, sit, pray, offer whatever words you may have to offer but the main point of the kilio is to be present. Together with Selenie and another lady from church, we went and spent time with the family for a few hours. The women sat apart from the men on the floor in the house; ladies came in, greeted one another, prayed, sometimes even slept, and sat with Grace’s mother. The men sat outside under a makeshift tent in chairs doing the same for the father. The understanding of the pain felt by loved ones in the death of family members runs deep here; everyone unfortunately has felt the sting associated with death many times. Here, it is understood that to be present is the greatest gift that one can give.
Friday morning arrived and according to custom, we met the family and others at the morgue and waited for the body to be released. Those who wanted, were allowed to view the body, called “jicho la mwisho” (literally translated, “the last eye”), and when all paperwork was complete, the funeral procession made its way to the graveyard about 30 minutes away by car.
Under the blazing sun, we filed to the graveside where a short but very poignant ceremony began. All did their best to remain brave, however, when the time came to read Grace’s short biography, the tears flowed. She had finised “ecole maternelle” (kindergarten) and was preparing to enter first grade, how short her life was and the unspoken question “why” settled in our minds but all of us determined to release that unanswerable question to an all-knowing God. Parents, family and friends took turns leaving flowers at the grave and finally, it was time to say goodbye – for now. We know that one day those graves will open when the sky lights up (1 Thess. 4:16) and all tears will finally be wiped away (Isa. 25:8).
A short ceremony was held at another venue after leaving the graveside by the family to thank all well-wishers and those who had helped the family at their darkest moment. As custom has it, the kilio for young children doesn’t extend beyond the burial. It was formally lifted at this short ceremony, but it was easy to see that for Grace’s parents, the kilio was ongoing.
Malaria kills 1,200 children daily, about 50 per hour, around the world. 90% of those deaths occur in Africa. Earlier this year, we handed out 200 mosquito nets in a rural area outside of Bujumbura city and I wonder how we can do more, help more and prevent more deaths. Grace, whose story we lived last week, is just one of 1,000s. Since she died, approximately 8,400 others just like her have succumbed to the disease. Pray with us and for us so that we can reach more families in the coming year with mosquito nets and malaria prevention classes, it is the least we can do.
And when we have done what we can, while there may not be words, we will simply be present.