Friday, August 5, 2011

Death—What a Mystery!

“When the perishable puts on the imperishable, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall come to pass the saying that is written: “Death is swallowed up in victory. O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” (1 Corinthians 15:54-55)

Yesterday, we buried my beloved younger sister, Irene. As I stared at her cold, lifeless body in the coffin I could not believe that it was all over on this side of eternity. I would never talk with her again. Both the sibling wars and the sibling fun were over. My mind flashed back to the happy—and not so happy—experiences of childhood that we had together.

Irene's children with my sister and sons listening to funeral sermon
Irene had a scar just above one of her eyes. It was a result of one of my childhood pranks. I once threw a stone at her with the hope that it would scare her into hiding but alas! It hit her just above the eye and she bled profusely. Mom was a nurse and attended to it promptly. “You must thank God it did not land on your sister’s eye,” she scolded me, “Otherwise you would have ended up with a sister with only one eye.” That thought haunted me for a long time. Thankfully, we soon made up, as kids often do. However, for the last forty years the scar above her eye has been a very visible reminder of one of my many childhood sins.

There it was again, staring back at me, as I looked at Irene’s lifeless body in the coffin yesterday. I had flown her into Lusaka at the beginning of June and we had spent the last two months fighting hard to help her regain her health and strength. My elder sister, Mwape, who is a medical doctor in the UK, and her husband, Davies, ensured that we had the finances to satisfy the medical demands of this battle. For two whole months, the extended family took turns to bring meals and help in practical ways by Irene’s bedside. My role was that of being available to do the errands. Whatever she asked for, I brought.

My wife, Felistas, reading Irene's life history during the funeral service
However, on Saturday 30th July, Irene finally yielded to the awful hand of death. In 1996, she courageously went for an HIV test and when the results were positive she informed all of us telling us about it and asking for our support. So, for the last fifteen years, we had rallied around her whenever her health really went down. She had been very open about her HIV status, and thus had helped others in her work place (Bank of Zambia), her church (Grace Reformed Baptist Church in Ndola), and her community to live positively. In 2008 she spoke at a United Nations 6th African Development Forum in Ethiopia on the challenges of living positively with HIV. Then she developed cancer and it was this foe that became too formidable for us and finally took her life.

Yet, this blog post is not so much about Irene as about death itself. Again, what a mystery!

Irene's pastor, Maybin Kabwe, preaching during Irene's funeral service
Death can be something you simply hear about and get on with life. Then it can also be something that you hear about and it totally incapacitates you emotionally. And this has nothing to do with statistics. The death of 200,000 people in a Tsunami in Asia can be nothing more than news that you read about while you sip your coffee and then proceed to work. While the death of your new-born baby can leave you totally devastated for weeks or even months.

You see this in movies, don’t you? Often, when it is the bad guys who are being killed, the movie just passes on to the next clip. However, if one of the nice guys gets killed, the movie slows down and you are made to empathise with the close relations of the slain person. The directors choose the kind of background music that can produce tears out of a rock. And we all feel that this is right. You cannot pass on to the next clip without a pause. Why is that?

The pall-bearers taking the casket into the lobby for body-viewing
I think it is because there is a connection that we have as human beings that is difficult to explain in purely technical terms. This is why we can sympathise and empathise with each other. Whereas we need spirituality to do so with others who are not our kith and kin, we simply need to be human to feel for one another in the family. And the closer we are, the more the identity with each other’s suffering and joys. I notice this as a pastor when I attend the funeral of a close relative of a church member. I become quite emotional when my church member is in tears despite the fact that I do not know the person who died. My identity is not with the person who died but with the suffering of my church member.

It is this human connectivity that is severed by death and is extremely painful. We experience it when we are parting for a season, perhaps at the end of a conference that will bring us back together again after a year. We also experience it when a child is going away for studies for a long time (at least we feel as if it is a long time, even when it is only for a few weeks). One hymn-writer has captured this in the hymn, “Blest be the tie.” He says,

“When we asunder part,
It gives us inward pain;
But we shall still be joined in heart,
And hope to meet again”

Looking at Irene's remains for the very last time
If this temporal parting is painful, death simply magnifies it to the nth degree. I have asked myself what it is that gave me the greatest pain at the loss of Irene. Irene did not support me financially and so it was not a loss of income. It is also not so much the pain she went through in her sickness and the possible pain she experienced in her last fight with death (though I will admit that her suffering affected me and gave me not a few sleepless nights).

What has pained me the most is the unbearable thought that I would never commune with Irene again on this side of eternity. That thought alone is almost crushing. Although we never lived in the same town and there were times when we did not get in touch with each other for months, there was the lingering thought somewhere at the back of my mind that she is there. But now, as I saw her cold lifeless body in that coffin, I knew that we would never be together again for as long as this life lasts. That is painful.

Irene's children laying wreaths on their mother's grave
Yet this is why the Christian faith is so comforting. It is because it promises a day of reunion for all those who have died in Christ. Our parting, though painful, is not permanent. There is a blessed hope given to us in Scripture that we shall rise again and dwell together in God’s presence with exceeding joy. It is for that reason that I rejoice that I am a Christian. It is for that same reason that I labour for the salvation of all those who are my kith and kin. I know that if they are Christians then our parting will only be for a season. “We shall still be joined in heart and hope to meet again.”

I am grateful to God for the time we spent together for the last forty-eight years with Irene. I am grateful to God for my wife, Felistas, who went out of her way to ensure that Irene got the best possible care in the last two months of her illness. It makes me sleep each night knowing that as a brother I did the best that I could—with the help of my wife. Finally, I am grateful to God for the healing gift of time. I know that as painful as Irene’s departure is today, one day I will speak about her death without becoming emotional. May that day come soon!

The final photo before leaving the grave containing Irene's remains


  1. I struggled to hold back my tears as I read through the blog concerning one I regarded as friend and sister. The memories of happy yesterdays with her when we were church mates at Grace Reformed Baptist flooded my mind as I read on. I got close to Sister Irene when I noticed her frequent absence from church on account of ill-health. With a view of giving hope to the afflicted, I would visit her at home from time to time.

    When you say that she was open about her HIV status, you are dead right. For it was just during my first visit that she told me she had discovered that she was HIV positive four years before (then it was the year 2000). Her openness was striking especially that I was a new member of the church – fresh from Lusaka Baptist. During those visits she shared with me that she prayed that the Lord would give her years many enough to see her children educated before she was called to glory.

    We continued to communicate by email when I left Zambia briefly for studies and was ever encouraged by how positive she was about life in spite of having been unwell. She had persevered in her studies in accounts against all odds. And while studying she was busy rearing chickens for sale. The last time we met was when she found me at my workplace, the Copperbelt University, where her university was doing residential school from.

    One other thing that I will ever remember her for is that her hospitality gave me opportunity to spend time with the girl I had fallen in love with. Charity, my wife now, had been staying with her then and in the course of visiting Sister Irene’s home I discovered that Charity had temporarily moved in with her to prepare for exams and so I would kill two birds with one stone by my visit. One would not be surprised that I was teased in years that followed that my motives for visiting had changed. The last time I saw Charity before going abroad for studies, was at Sister Irene’s home. I had not yet made known my intentions to marry Charity then, but I later learnt that both had become very “suspicious” of me. Charity remembers her as a very determined person.

    My last update of her well-being was about a week ago from, Mwansa Mbewe, who Schools at my work place. He explained to me how the whole family had been affected and the sacrificial efforts that were being made to try and make her life as comfortable as possible. Charity recalls how she would, from time to time, commend Mrs. Felistas Mbewe for the support she received from her from the very beginning. May the Lord renew your strength and be your great comfort in this time of bereavement. To her children;Pinje, Mwaba and Mwindula, may the Lord be your Shepherd. Keep looking to the God of your mother who saw you through the many years of looking after your her as she looked after you.

    We shall miss Sister Irene. Thank God she was a Christian. Our comfort is indeed “We shall still be joined in heart and hope to meet again.”

  2. I'm very sorry for the death of your sister. My brother-in-law, Heath, died of colon cancer three years ago at the age of 38, leaving my sister and her two young sons, ages 5 & 3. Heath was a wonderful Christian man who loved Jesus and his family very much. From the time the cancer was discovered to the time of his death was just six weeks. We were left reeling from the sorrow of his loss, especially because we believed with all our hearts that a miraculous healing would come. Our God is a God of hope, however. My sister just remarried to a very good man who loves the Lord and his new family. Although our hearts will always long for the day when we will be joyously reunited with Heath, we have reason to hope in this life as well. God is good.

  3. My brother, we were very struck and saddened by the sad news. May our good Good rest our departed's soul in eternal peace! We also pray for the pouring of God's grace over you and the entire family - to bring about healing speedily. Grace to you and peace from God our father and the Lord Jesus Christ (Eph. 1:2)

    Mark Torokwa

  4. Two days before going to meet with the Lord, I was called to see her as her physician. It was thought she had malaria because of a raging fever and headache on that afternoon. Irene had just been at home for a week after discharge from hospital where she had been for a full month. Malaria was ruled out by means of a blood slide. It was not the first time she had this fever. It was on and off. Apart from a very high temperature the other vitals were normal. I had seen her worse than this before many times. She was coherent and not as breathless and in so much pain as before. We talked for some time.
    Little did I know this was the last time I was seeing her. The much awaited tissue biopsy result (done when she was in admission) only came out on the day Sister Irene answered her call. It was a cancer (Hodgkin’s lymphoma) for which treatment was never commenced. Oh how painful! All the hope we had of life on this side of the grave completely shattered.
    Pastor, you indeed did the best with your wife to give the best to our departed sister. You provided everything that was required for her medical needs. Time and again you took samples to labs outside the hospital where she was admitted and this was at great cost.
    Despite the best that you put in, Aunt Irene went to be with God. In answer to the prayer by our Saviour in John 17:24 all saints go into the immediate presence of the Lord. Jesus says, "Father, I want those you have given me to be with me where I am, and to see my glory, the glory you have given me because you loved me before the creation of the world." In response to this prayer sister Irene departed from this life and went to be away with the Lord. This is indeed our comfort. While she will be fondly missed here below, Irene is in the world where
    "From sorrow, toil and pain
    And sin we shall be free
    And perfect love and friendship reign
    Through all eternity."

  5. The Lord has been gracious to us as a family. In 1996 when Irene, my young sister was very ill, we agonised about looking after her children since the oldest was only 5 years old and the youngest was not yet one. I worked full time and had 3 children. The Lord gave me the peace that He would undertake. He provided treatment at a time when it was not widely available and sustained her. Now her oldest will be 20 years next month and her youngest is 15 years.For that I say, thank you Lord Jesus for your mercies.
    I also thank Conrad, Felistas and the family and friends for looking after her during her last illness.

    I have learnt a lot from my sister Irene, her thorough knowledge and care for our extended family and her courage and determination. She worked hard to provide for her family.
    I will miss our visits to her home in Ndola and the long phone conversations. I know that on my next birthday there will be one email missing.

    Mwape Kabole

  6. Death stings! But blessed are the dead who die in the Lord. They shall rest from their labour and their works shall follow them. She has gone ahead but ‘in the sweet by and by we shall meet on that beautiful shore’. Pastor Mbewe and family, may you know God’s continued comfort, peace and strength during this period. We are with you in prayers.