It was the day after Valentine’s Day when my brother died.
My husband and I had done what many couples do for the occasion. We had gone to our favorite restaurant, which happens to be Iranian, ordered kebabs, ghormeh sabzi, and zereshk polo. We had reminisced, taken stock of what we call our “brave marriage,” and talked about life in our empty nest.
Earlier in the evening, my brother had sent a message to our extended family group chat. It was a picture of the weather app on his phone, showing a gorgeous seventy-nine degrees and clear skies in Chiang Mai, Thailand, where he and his wife were both working as well as visiting his daughter and family. I texted back from a bitter cold Boston as only a sibling and younger sister could with the words “I love you. I hate you.” It would be the last text I sent to him.
At the time of his death, my brother was trimming the vine on a trellis. He loved God’s good creation and had dedicated his life to working with farmers in Kazakhstan and other parts of Central Asia, primarily exploring more efficient and effective ways to plant orchards. On the day of his death, he talked about trimming vines, cutting away the old to make room for the new. He fell from a height onto concrete, incurring a head injury too severe to sustain life. In our large, spread out family, the shock and tragedy of his death reverberated across the world. From Thailand to Saudi Arabia, from Turkey to Greece, from California to Massachusetts, we felt the loss in our souls.
In February, fears of Covid-19 and the rumblings of interruptions to travel and border crossing were a whisper across the globe. Two other brothers, a sister-in-law, and I traveled over the whispers, arriving in Thailand a couple of days later. We spent a grief-filled five days together before heading back to our respective homes – Boston, Istanbul, Rochester. The rest of the family waited for further plans to be made where we could gather as a larger group.
Plans were made for an April 18 memorial service in Colorado. There, with people from around the world, we would grieve the untimely death and celebrate the life of this man we loved, this man who was so alive that we could scarcely believe he had died. A man whose laugh would echo through a room, whose passion for creation and working internationally had an impact on everyone he met.
But on April 18, we would not gather, and we would not collectively grieve.
The rumblings of interruptions became a resounding roar across the world. Suddenly borders were no longer accessible, shelter-in-place and quarantines had become orders, and we all began to live in a new reality.
Within the new reality of the pandemic was a world already groaning under the weight of displacement, a refugee crisis, locusts plaguing countries in East Africa, and the global south continuing to face disproportionate burdens across every sector of life.
But the pandemic had no respect for those already struggling, and the death toll began to rise. The last thing on the minds of decision-makers was the impact that quarantines and limited gatherings would have on funeral practices. The concern was for the living, to make sure they continued to live. Funerals for those who died would have to be, in war terms, collateral damage.
I saw my brother’s face as I read story after story.
With every new day and death, every funeral I heard about that could no longer go on, I felt profound grief at the loss of my brother. I felt it in every article I read that took the statistics and changed them into actual stories of those who had died. Who were they? Who had they loved? Who would miss them? Who would mourn their absence for years after the pandemic ended? Though he had not died of Covid-19, I saw my brother’s face as I read story after story about the loss and collective grieving experienced worldwide.
Every article fell far short of describing what it is to grieve in isolation. The intensity of the grief, the surrealness of the loss, the inability to use touch to reach through a phone or Zoom call, the missed body language resulting in miscommunication and further pain.
The hardest by far was the absence of others to surround us, bearing witness to our pain as individuals and a family. Bearing witness is not about observing the grief and pain of others through words, it is about entering into their story through physical presence. It is about entering with our bodies, minds, and spirits. Bearing witness is about being an empathic and active participant in grief, offering hope and healing through our whole selves.
Growing up in Pakistan, I was introduced early to the idea of bearing witness to grief. Funeral practices in Pakistan are community events. While men went to the local mosque, where large tents were often set up outside to accommodate everyone, women went to the home of the person who died. There, we would sit beside others who had come to grieve as a community, and we would wait. Sometimes verses from the Koran were read, but mostly, it was just sitting. Food was rarely served. The entire focus was on allowing people to sit beside the grieving family, bearing witness to their pain and sorrow.
A couple of years ago, an article in the Boston Globe talked about a woman who was near death who had invited some friends over for a luncheon, a chance to celebrate while she still had life. One of the friends verbalized her feelings of awkwardness and helplessness in the face of her friend’s suffering. “There’s only one thing we really want,” the woman who was dying told her. “We just want for you to be here with us. Just your presence.”
“If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him.”
I thought about how much this reflected the place where I was raised, the bearing witness to grief and pain that was a part of funeral practices in Pakistan. Peter Kreeft, a Catholic philosophy professor from Boston College, said something similar in an interview with Lee Strobel for The Case for Faith: “If your friend is sick and dying, the most important thing he wants is not an explanation; he wants you to sit with him. He is terrified of being alone more than anything else. So, God has not left us alone. And for that, I love him.”
I remembered these words recently as I went to God, begging for his comfort. Not just for me, but for my sister-in-law who is learning to live without her beloved, for my niece and nephew living without their father, for my mother who lost a son, for the rest of our family, and for the millions now grieving over unexpected loss of life in this season.
I go to God, begging for his comfort, but also his perspective. The immense worldwide loss of this pandemic began during Lent, and now continued through the Easter, or Paschal, season. It is in prayer and asking for comfort that I consider Christ in the garden of Gethsemane in a new way. As he went to the garden, surrounded by olive trees, he took his three closest friends with him. Humanity intersected with divinity in his deep need for human connection as he anticipated the coming hours. I see in this his understanding of us, understanding our need as he experienced the need for his friends to be with him, to bear witness to a grief that caused his body to sweat blood.
He who entered our humanity and bore witness to our pain, he who experienced what it was to be fully human and fully divine, grieved in isolation.
Through the grieving of Christ in the garden I have found solace. Though his disciples were present, they fell asleep and he ended up grieving alone. He who entered our humanity and bore witness to our pain, he who experienced what it was to be fully human and fully divine, grieved in isolation, begging the Father to take away his cup of suffering. Yet ultimately, he surrendered – surrendered to grieving alone, surrendered to a mockery of a trial, surrendered to death on the cross.
I sit alone in the garden of Gethsemane and stay there a long time. Aware of the risen Christ and the glorious truth and hope of the Resurrection, I find that Gethsemane is where my heart sits. As I sit, I feel the power of Christ bearing witness to my grief and loss, bearing witness to the grief and loss of the world. His fellowship, his sufferings, his Gethsemane. I rest in this, my isolation slowly dissolving in his presence.
We still hope to gather one day, to surround my brother’s wife and children with our presence. Until then, we can only hope that the one whose presence is eternal will offer comfort and grace.