Second day back on the job for real and I'm reminded once more that death awaits us all.
A little boy who was severely malnourished passed away today. He wasn't quite the big belly kwashiokor kids you see in pictures of Africa but almost there, complete with rib bones sticking out every which way, generalised pitting oedema (swelling) and superficial skin erosions and ulcers from micronutrient deficiencies. As was the very day I left in April, he died in front of my eyes. One minute he was breathing (rapidly) and the next he wasn't.
What made a big impression on me this time was his mum's reaction. We had placed him on our resuscitation table and his mother was seated some way away and obviously hadn't realised what had just happened. My senior colleague sat both parents down and started explaining how their son was very sick when he was admitted, gradually deteriorated over the past few days, and when he got to the part about him breathing when he was brought into the room (his mum carrying him there, mind you) but that was now no longer the case, she just stood up and left the room. Having a bad feeling, I followed her and saw her wailing and throwing herself to the ground despite her being heavily pregnant, heedless of the stares of the other patients and their visiting family and friends. I couldn't understand what she was saying and neither could she understand me when I tried to remonstrate.
Thank God one of the ladies visiting another patient managed to calm her down for a time and maybe even comfort her a little. This lady later told me that her own four children had all died and she too felt suicidal then but did not take her own life because she wanted to be with Jesus. Confronted with such grief and the stark finality that a loved one is never coming back, what can you say? Over and over again, you ask yourself if you could have done something different - whether it's in the role of a doctor or a carer. Sometimes your heart breaks so much you ask God why He didn't take you instead.
And this grief turns into despair when you believe that God hasn't heard your prayers for help, or worse, that if He had, He doesn't care. Coming from a devout background, you may even try to blame yourself, saying that this is punishment for your sins (or the sins of your forefathers). Is it? Did He not say that He has "no pleasure in the death of one who dies...therefore turn and live!" (Ezekiel 18:32)? Did He not "humble Himself and became obedient to the point of death, even the death of the cross" (Philipppians 2:8) so that "death is swallowed up in victory" (1 Corinthians 15:54)? "For He must reign till He has put all enemies under His feet. The last enemy that will be destroyed is death" (1 Corinthians 15:25-26).
How to convey all this when it is not your grief to share? Sympathy and empathy are both fictional constructs in a sense; can a mind truly comprehend, understand and feel what another experiences? There will always be a wall in between one being to the next, for how else are we distinct from one another? In answer to this conundrum, the Bible has some interesting points to make. Firstly, it admonishes believers to "rejoice with those who rejoice, and weep with those who weep" (Romans 12:15). The whole book of Job is a lesson in what to do (and more importantly, what not to do) when one's family/friend/acquaintance is in distress.
Sometimes, all you can do to show that you stand in solidarity with another person is to keep company; mourn together if you can, keep silence if not. Teach me, Lord! You who know the depths of misery and pain that this life offers and that this world holds.
"He is despised and rejected by men, a Man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. And we hid, as it were, our faces from Him; He was despised, and we did not esteem Him. Surely He has borned our griefs and carried our sorrows; yet we esteemed Him stricken, smitten by God, and afflicted. But He was wounded for our transgressions, He was bruised for our iniquities; the chastisement for our peace was upon Him, and by His stripes we are healed." (Isaiah 53:3-6).