Losing a child, how must it feel?
How it must affect the totality of life and existence!
I wonder, though: What role does the loss of a child play in fomenting global conflicts and instabilities?
Parents are gifted to love their children from conception through dirty diapers and croup, from crawling to pulling up to faltering steps then to running, potty training, the “terrible twos,” the teenage identity-in-formation and hormone raging years, then transitioning into adulthood with all its attending responsibilities and complexities.
South African friends inexplicably and suddenly lost their eldest child one week ago, a beautiful, bright young woman. Twenty-three years young—yet still their baby. My daughter posted pictures on Facebook—four girlfriends lying on a bed together laughing—reflecting a much earlier time when women were girls, and girls were wannabe women.
For sure, parents losing children is not uncommon or infrequent. Such incidents and stories were part of my childhood:
A little girl struck by a bus as she too excitedly stepped out to welcome home for the weekend her elder siblings from boarding school; a child jumping on the bed with no sense of the imminent danger of a nearby pair of scissors; another child oblivious to the fact that her dress caught in the door of a departing bus; and yet another, having fun white water rafting with Dad and his friend on the Zambezi River, when fun turned to tragedy as their boat flipped over, and after both adults reached shore, turning to see the teenager grabbed in knee-deep water and dragged under water by a large Nile crocodile.
As a middle-ager now, incidences of parent loss haven’t lessened, and is unlikely to as long as death continues to be the great social equalizer.
Loss of a child among one’s concentric circles of relationships occurs frequently, although irregularly. And although I can’t peg dates to days for many friends’ and acquaintances’ tragic losses (like we do with a September 11, 2001, aka 9/11 type incident) nevertheless, those many moments of shock upon hearing of the death of someone loved are indelibly seared into my consciousness.
For instance, a first memory of my family’s relocation to KwaZulu-Natal, South Africa, was attending the funeral of the eldest child, a son, of a prominent Indian family, who died from gunshot wounds after a botched hijacking. Or of a former colleague, whose son died of a seizure as he raced late one night to a not-near-enough hospital for emergency care, or of an extended family member’s son—a friend to my children—who likewise died in transit to critical care treatment—only this time, not in a speeding car late at night, but in a small medevac airplane flying from Kenya to South Africa.
All these shared incidences of loss are tragic, indeed, yet with the exception of the young Indian man shot to death, they were “natural,” in that they were either the result of an unknown at the time, and invisible to the outward eye bodily ailment or condition, or “natural” in their sheer freakish and accidental occurrence.
But what about the millions of parents worldwide, who have suffered the loss of babies, young children, teenagers and aspiring-to-be young adults due to the indiscriminate, flesh and bone-piercing shrapnel of munitions or flesh-eating toxic gas/chemicals often times traced back to our own “developed” nations, or even to hunger and disease resulting from inequitable economic systems and institutions, that privilege those that have with more, and those with little-to-none with even less?
How many hundreds of thousands of those we label in the West “rebel,” “terrorist” or “terrorist sympathizer,” were first parents, and whose political sympathies and activism were ignited the day they held either their own or a neighbor’s limp child’s bloodied body across their outstretched arms?
It is difficult enough to fathom holding the lifeless body of my own children, (such as the following story of a young child’s loss) and unimaginably painful to contemplate holding one of their bloodied, disfigured and lifeless bodies as we daily see via media coverage from war-torn areas such as Syria, southern Sudan, Iraq, and Palestine.
The following is my doctoral mentor’s recollection of day and occasion when he lost his fourth child, a boy:
“On Boxing Day the family decided to go for a picnic along a nearby river. The children were playing together. I was chopping wood and preparing the fire to boil water for tea. We called the children for the meal. David was not with them. The next 7 hours were ‘gethsemane.’ David was nowhere to be found. I must have run miles, hither and thither, up and down stream, tormented, exhausted, panic-stricken. Exhausted and dejected, with encroaching darkness, as the sun was setting, my brother-in-law ran up to me and informed me that David’s body had been located at the bottom of a pool, near the picnic site. As David’s body was being lifted from the water, I recall taking hold of his damp, cold, lifeless body and hugging him to my chest. . . . I felt demented as I carried this treasured child, now cold, limp, and lifeless up to the farmstead. Everything was in a state of disarray . . . what was – no longer mattered. High hopes, expectation and promise had evaporated. The future ceased to be. . . .”
Demented . . . state of disarray . . . what was no longer mattered . . . evaporation of hope, expectation and promise . . . the cessation of all future . . .
Such is one person’s feeling about life and living in the days and weeks following the death of a beloved five-year-old.
It’s to be expected and probably healthy to immediately feel outrage against and demand retribution toward any person or persons, who violently takes or contributes in taking the life of another person.
Society, for instance, should naturally feel outrage against the alleged three men who yesterday murdered Officer Charles Joseph Gliniewicz, a 30-year Chicago veteran with four sons, and we should similarly be incensed against Vester Lee Flanagan, who one week ago shot to death on live TV both anchor woman and cameraman, or the individual who stood over and shot 15 bullets into a Houston officer at a gas station.
We cannot allow ourselves, however, to be naïve, simplistic and detached-from-reality in terms of perception and interpretation of causation of violence or calamity. We can’t allow ourselves to feel unmitigated hatred against individuals who act out violence, without feeling equal or greater indignation against systems, institutions or “cultures” (e.g., “gun culture,” “socioeconomic privilege culture”) that in one way or another are complicit in the social ills poignantly evident in moments of national grief and outrage.
At least two of the above incidences were committed by mentally ill persons, who, in turn, had easy and legal ownership to firearms. There’s something insanely idiotic and skewed when records indicate that more people have died by firearms in the U.S. since 1968 than by all our wars combined, yet as a nation we do little-to-nothing about gun and mental health reform.
Black South African university students were asked a Zen Buddhist riddle (a koan) by their white professor. They were shown a picture of an unbroken bottle with a goose inside, and then asked, “How do you get the goose out of the bottle without killing the goose or breaking the bottle?”
The students perceived this mostly white oriented, Western philosophical question to be superfluous, contemptuous, and insensitive to their daily life reality under apartheid. The real question, they said, should be—“Who would put a goose into a bottle and why?” Their solution? Obliterate, smash the bottle (i.e., the structure, system, institution of racial discrimination and oppression)!
Oxfam predicts that unless inequity is drastically reversed, within a year or two one-percent of the world’s people will own more than the combined wealth of the other ninety-nine percent.
Given the predominance of worldwide conflicts and inequity it’s imperative that we begin seeing each other as gift, family, and co-sojourner.
Even the United Nations is currently experimenting with virtual reality with a purpose to enable/facilitate those who live in relative seclusion and isolation from the “real” world the rich and powerful to be able to identify with and experience empathy with the poor and suffering people of the world.
Perhaps Desmond Tutu’s wise and elderly words are a fitting close to this thought piece. In God Has a Dream: A Vision of Hope for Our Time, he states,
“You don’t choose your family. They are God’s gift to you, as you are to them. . . Can you imagine what would happen in this world if we accepted that fact about ourselves—that whether we like it or not we are members of one family?
Only when we care about each other’s dead can we truly learn to live in the same world together without our irrational prejudices and hatreds. Perhaps this will be possible when we eventually realize that God has no enemies, only family.”
To my South African friends who lost a most precious child this week please know how broken we feel with you; how loved you are as family; how much our lives benefited by knowing your daughter, yet how impoverished by her passing.