Monday, June 22, 2020

The Courage to Live


In 1994, Rwanda experienced a civil war in which close to a million people, many of them ethnic Tutsi,  were slaughtered.  Statistics vary, but whatever the exact number, of victims, the human mind can barely comprehend violent death on such a scale.  As we know, human beings continue to perpetrate murder upon each other.  This happens regularly, and it hasn't stopped.  All of us will die, but not everyone has to die through hatred.  And yet...

That year I was finishing up my career as a homicide bereavement counselor, working with loved ones of people who had been murdered.  It was a challenging job, and I found my heart breaking regularly.  I continued as a grief counselor in private practice, and had begun teaching mindfulness under the training of Jon Kabat-Zinn at the Center for Mindfulness at the University of Massachusetts Medical School.  So I was able to experience some relief from the impossible grief of the people I worked with.  And yet...

In the grief training I had received in graduate school and at the Connecticut Hospice where I did my internship, we were taught to listen, and listen more, and then listen more, as our clients poured out their stories.  Ultimately, healing began when people began to find some ease in the love that remained, and some renewed purpose in their lives -- almost like the people who had died had found their way into the crack in our broken hearts.  And yet...

I still miss my parents and other loved ones who died decades ago.  They visit in my dreams, and especially these days, with the deaths spreading throughout the world from the two pandemics of COVID-19 and systemic racism, I feel a renewed grief for them, and for this world of love and hatred intertwined. 

This morning I read a short story in the June 22 issue of the New Yorker magazine.  It's about a woman who fled Rwanda just before the genocide.  Most of her family,  all of those who remained in her native country, were murdered.  She returns home seeking healing.  The story, called "Grief" is by Scholastique Mukasonga, a Rwandan author who lives in Paris, and it's translated into English by Jordan Stump.  Towards the end of the story, overwhelmed by horror and heartbreak, she receives the following counsel from an old man who guards a church where many people had been massacred.  He says:

"...You won't find your dead in the graves or the bones.. That's not where they're waiting for you.  They're inside you.  They survive only in you and you survive only through them.  But from now on you'll find all your strength in them -- there's no other choice, and no one can take that strength away from you.  With that strength, you can do things you might not even imagine today.  Like it or not, the death of our loved ones has fueled us -- not with hate, not with vengefulness, with an energy that nothing can ever defeat.  That strength lives in you,  Don't let anyone try to tell you to get over your loss, not if that means saying goodbye to your dead.  You can't:  they'll never leave you, they'll stay by your side to give you the courage to live, to triumph over obstacles...They're always beside you, and you can always depend on them... "

In these times, as in all times in human history, we must cultivate the courage to live, the strength to persist.  May we never forget our dead, and may we stay in close touch with their example, finding the power to go forward and fight for justice in this wild world. 

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