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|