I read an Arabic passage a few months back that translated to, “Be it the same loss – my loss is not your loss and yours is not mine.”
This came about in the loss of a family member in early 2015. He was my wife’s younger brother and had bravely fought the ravaging effects of the monstrous disease of Multiple Sclerosis (MS) for about 18 years. Those weeks before he passed, the Skype sessions my wife would have with her 6’6” ‘little’ brother, the tears and how she climbed deep into herself to hide away were the hardest times to watch. And, when we were finally told he was close to leaving, packing up our family of 4 to make the 18 hour flight only to land in the U.S.A. 2 hours after he had passed changed the way I looked at death and brought back painful memories of my own loss.
As an expat, your phone remains on at night – you never know when a call might happen. You always know that you are far away from being able to just hop in a car and get somewhere. You have the 24 hour number of a travel agent, your residency and passport is always kept current.
In Montana, I listened to her father and mother talk about their son in the hours after we arrived – both very much in different planes of grief, both in sheer relieving exhaustion from days of bedside vigils. While divorced for many years, they came together for several days before and stayed at his bedside to have seen him come into this world 37 years earlier and watch him pass from this world together. Their father still trying to grasp the idea he was gone – continually saying that no parent should have to watch their child die before them – it shouldn’t happen – it wasn’t right. Their mother, the pragmatic matriarch, was prepared, dealing with it and more than angry at the onslaught of people that would be descending unwittingly upon her house when all she wanted was to curl up and be alone.
As the family came together, each grieved in their own corner, each lashing out in whatever way they knew how while the familial bond continued to strengthen no matter what force tried to pull it apart. His own children not fully understanding the loss of their father and his wife and the children’s mother trying to hold pieces of normalcy and love together for them. Each one held their role trying to figure out who needed comfort, who hated the world, who needed to fight and who needed all of the above. And there I was, with the girls, who had missed meeting their uncle for the first time by 2 hours and who didn’t understand what was happening around them. I was the odd man out. And, in fact, so were my girls. They were 5 and 1 at the time. Death was a Tom and Jerry cartoon when Tom would be set on fire by Jerry and turned into ash (ironic). It wasn’t someone going away forever whom they had never met. So there we were, very much alone and floating in a sea of other people’s pain and where I desperately wanted to whisk them off to a sanctuary somewhere else far away from this.
I write this remembering the death of my own father 3 years before. I remember like it was yesterday, getting the call and going back home on the next flight. I missed his burial but while my parents and sisters sank to the bottom of their own mourning, I had to step up and be the eldest son and handle the administrative aspects of the end of life in typical Arab fashion.
I look at it now and think that the only thing that held me together was having to take care of paperwork, sell vehicles, register death certificates, arrange the tomb build out, handle the banks and government bureaucracy. At night, dealing with family and friends, comforting my family and all the while falling apart on the inside, crying for my father at night, knowing that life would never be the same, fighting with regret of being so far away, not saying everything I meant to say and not knowing how my mother would survive without the love of her life.
As I put this formally to paper after reviewing the painful scribbles of both episodes of my life, I realize that it’s been almost a year since my brother in law’s passing (who I never had the pleasure of actually meeting – only talking). I see the shift in dynamic in how my wife dealt with his death – the loss of a light that she had comfortably carried – the guilt she held inside of her – the lack of ability to have been able to cry since other than at the sight of his lifeless body – she just crawled back into herself with an understanding that she had to be strong for ‘who was left’ (as she put it). She had to be the one that was ok and no worries for her family so that they could deal with whatever was lurking around the corner in their temporarily dark worlds. They are coming out of it. They do divert conversations away from him most of the time, as she does with her father. She refuses to acknowledge anything other than harmony (aside from a nasty head cold) to her mother and she lets her sister fight whatever thoughts are in her head until she realizes they only have each other. But this was a family dynamic that they are in. And the binding elements of that dynamic are far stronger than any dysfunction – which I’m quite confident their son/brother/husband/father is laughing hysterically about how mundane this whole thing is from high above us.
I write this because the loss of a child, seeing the pain on the faces of what a mother and father went through was something that I would never be able to try and describe. It was not a matter of him being 37 years old. It was a matter of him still being the baby they had and raised. The child that they watched gradually lose physical abilities but his mind so dramatically intact and intelligent and be the ones to care for him, in whatever capacity that was to each of them, until the end.
My loss and pain to this day for my father is unbearable. The fact that he never met my youngest or that I can’t call him and have the most crazy conversations about why I should send him American Viagra (because apparently it’s better than Egyptian Viagra) and his big plans to buy another apartment building or maybe a restaurant since he’s retired, are things I will never let go of and wish for again.
I don’t know if that compares to the loss of a child. I can’t even word the idea for me to even conceive of dealing with that type of pain. Is it different? Is it because there is the most immense love between a parent and child that it will ultimately become the highest form of pain? Is the suffering at a different level? Is it suicidal? What is it? But I know that death is part of everything we are. It’s what will be. And, no matter what we do, anything we buy, sell or offer, nothing goes with us. We leave nothing but a legacy to whoever is willing to take it.
I applaud my mother for remaining strong and holding our family together when my father passed – and taking the lead to lean on her son when she needed to. I praise my mother and father in law for the absolute pain, suffering and blessing they incurred in letting their only son and youngest child, go. I admire every parent out there that has lost or will lose a child.
I end this as I started it, “Be it the same loss – My loss is not your loss and yours is not mine.”