Thursday, October 25, 2007

Losing a Son- Death and Grief in Uganda

As I approached my good friend Joseph Ruyondo I could see that something tragic had happened. Jay Dangers (our Director and father) was with Joseph and both had been crying together. Jay looked up at me and said, “Our son Emma has died.” What? Emma? Young, tall, strong, beautiful Emma? Always smiling, Jesus loving Emma? I hugged Joseph as the feeling of shock set in. Jay asked me to walk Joseph to his house and just sit with him. It was the longest walk I’ve ever taken. With my arm around him, Joseph and I began the walk up the dirt road to his house. We were joined by another friend, Rukundo, and together we slowly walked, cried, prayed, and walked some more.
Just as we neared the house I could hear the familiar sound of wailing that accompanies death here. Two women who had been close to the house had already received the news and were lifting up the mourning cry. They joined us as we entered his bedroom and sat down on the bed. As the women began to weep, we all broke out in a sudden onrush of tears and cries. For ten minutes all that could be heard coming from the bedroom was a mix of “Oh Jesus. Oh Yesu.” Intermixed with prayer and crying. Galatians 6:2 and Romans 12:15 flooded into my mind.
As our crying came to a stop I could hear the sound of loud wailing drawing nearer and nearer to the house. The sound grew nearer and then a crowd of women entered the house like a flood, filling every inch of ground in the sitting room (living room). Our own crying renewed, we joined their chorus and lifted our prayers to our brother and high priest, our King Jesus.
Joseph and I sat together and I was able to find out just what had been happening with Emma. He had come back from school over the weekend for some testing at a local hospital, complaining of pain in his leg and shortness of breath when walking uphill. The doctors ran tests but couldn’t find anything. They gave him some medicine (I’m not sure what or for what) and he headed back to school on Sunday. Joseph had heard nothing from him since, so he assumed things were ok. [Emma died on Wednesday from a blood clot that traveled to his lungs (thrombosis). His mother had died from the same condition twelve years before.]
I began to sense the guilt that Joseph was already tormenting himself with. “I should have kept him here and not let him go back to school. I should have called him back sooner for more testing.” By God’s grace I was able to speak into the self-condemnation. We prayed a bit more together before his attention was drawn to all of the practical matters that go into preparing for a burial here. Calling and informing relatives, finding out where the body is and where it’s being taken, figuring out where the burial is taking place and arranging transport to and fro for the family and the community who will accompany to the burial, getting a coffin made, and arranging with people in the home village to prepare for the burial- including digging the grave, getting food and cooks ready for the all night wake that occurs in the house with the body the night before the burial as well as the burial itself the following day.
We stepped outside the house and noticed that the gathering crowd had grown to over 75 people, most just standing around processing. A fresh wail was rising from inside the house. Joseph’s oldest daughter Esther was sobbing over and over again in waves that would continue on for hours as she processed her brother’s death. Benches began to be brought to the house and set up in the yard. Cell phones were going off all over as the network of community were informing as many people as quickly as possible. Villagers began to come from outside of New Hope, most carrying mats and blankets for the long cold night ahead of them. When someone dies here, everyone who knows anyone related to the deceased will come and spend the night with the family. The old women sit in the house on the floor, everyone else sits outside, just to “be” with the family in their grieving.
After a few more minutes fire wood began to be piled into a stack and was lit as the sun began to set. Off to the east a storm was blowing in and the hot day was cooling off in preparation of a cool night of mourning. “Oh Lord, where will these people go if it rains?” After getting our boys in bed, Laura Beth and I joined the crowd around the fire. The night would be passed by singing and sharing stories about Emma’s life. Laura Beth soon felt rain drops on her head and it seemed the storm had made its way to us. Funny, a wind suddenly began to come in from the other direction and throughout the night no rain fell. The Father’s care for us was so sweet as we sat around and sang of His goodness and the beauty of Emma’s life, a beauty that God Himself had formed in him. At one point my own grieving was renewed as we cried out “Blessed be Your Name.”
Sometime after midnight I was able to be with Joseph again. He was still making phone calls and worrying over how things would work out the following day. It was a privilege to walk with him as Uncle Jonnes made him turn off his cell phone, go into his bedroom and at least try to rest in the quiet of the night. We returned home to sleep a bit before Elisha and Noah would wake up with the first light of dawn.
Tomorrow I will be traveling with around 50 other people the long miles to Ft. Portal where the burial will take place. We will return the same day. Most of the Ugandans going will be paying around 20,000 shillings for transport, about 15% of their total month’s salary! I know of no event in this culture that causes everything (EVERYTHING) to stop and shut down like a burial. Shops close, work stops, schools are out, and crowds of people head out to attend the burial. Pray for grace, mercy and comfort for the Ruyondo family and for those who are traveling tomorrow to be with them.
Everyone here will miss Emma. He was a leader, a lover of God, and an example to everyone who knew him. If you could pick one of our “young men” would grow up to impact Uganda, it would be Emma. One thing that impressed me about him (besides the light of his constant smile) was his work ethic. He was willing to work hard to get to University and did not look to “sponsors” as the answer to all of his needs. He was a man of integrity and love. We are excited that Emma is able to see his mother and his Jesus and we look forward to seeing him again when we are with the Savior.
Though I haven’t yet attended the burial, I am already moved anew when I look back on the community response to yesterday. At times being in such a tight knit community can feel oppressive to our Western minds, yet when we are away from it we miss it terribly and realize what a blessing this community truly is. Yesterday demonstrates part of the blessing of living here in Uganda, where community is community and where people put people before everything else.

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