A few days ago I started writing a blog post about our doorman’s wife, Aaza, a woman I mentioned in a blog post before (click here). The idea for the post came because she has been in the hospital for at least three weeks awaiting an operation for a second brain tumor. Her first tumor was removed in mid-August. After that, she seemed to have some ups and downs. Some days I would see her hanging laundry, walking around her yard, drinking tea, talking with her girls … slowly and sometimes in pain, but recovering nicely. And then other days she couldn’t talk, her tongue seemed numb. She couldn’t move her hands; she walked only very slowly and with great help from her husband who seemed desperate to help her regain her full strength. She took lots of medicine and stayed in bed most of the day, and then we heard, her brain tumor was back and she would go for another operation—this time at a better hospital with a better doctor. Yet, the next news I got was she went to the hospital, and then the operation was postponed one week as the doctor went to a conference?! It sounds crazy to my western ears. Each time I asked a family member, it was the same story. “No, she hasn’t had an operation yet. They keep postponing it. I don’t know why.”
She died on Sunday, December 20, and that made me wonder if they postponed it because the doctors knew she didn’t have a chance, or if it was because she was in a government hospital getting free medical care and perhaps she had to “wait her turn,” which, unfortunately, didn’t come soon enough.
That same day, before the news came, her two youngest children, Wilaa (age 10) and Omar (age 4) were here visiting. You may remember Omar from an earlier post (click here). Ever since their mom has been in the hospital, the three school-aged girls have basically missed a lot of school. It seems the oldest, Yasmine (age 16), has attended fairly regularly. She is older and missing school makes it difficult for her. The next youngest, Hibba, seems to have spent most of her days at the hospital with her mom. I am happy for her in that. Usually Hibba is the one who works very hard in our building … two times a day coming to our door to run errands for us or take our trash out … and this for everyone in our building … probably about 12 apartments. So I am glad she got to spend these last days with her mom. I have seen the two older sisters with their mom … it seems their bond was very strong. I don’t know how they will handle this loss. The youngest daughter, Wilaa, told me she has only been going to school for tests. She has basically taken over the job of her sister running errands for everyone in the building, taking her 4 year-old brother along with her. Anyway, I think the two youngest have been bored around home and yesterday they finally came here to play. As far as I know, they didn’t know of their mother’s death at the time, and perhaps she was still alive at that hour. But they had a good time and maybe they will come again. I hope so. Jayson and I want to help this family any way we can, and maybe giving the younger kids a place to play will be a help to them. Time will tell.
I learned of her death on Sunday afternoon. Hibba came to the door dressed in black, and I definitely noticed she was dressed differently, but it didn’t register with me exactly. She asked if we needed anything, and I said “No,” then asked “How is your mom?”
At that point, she told me she died … however, she used a word I didn’t know, so I didn’t understand.
I asked, “Did she have her operation yet?”
Again, she told me she died, but I didn’t understand.
“Did they postpone it again? Do you know when?”
This time, she used a word I knew, and it all sunk in.
“Oh Hibba, I am so sorry. When?”
I was ready to cry and hug her, but she said, “Today. Oh, it’s normal. Praise God.”
“It’s not normal … she’s your mom. I am so sorry.” Then I added, as is customary, “May God have mercy on her.”
She left and I closed the door and felt so stupid. I should have noticed the black. The poor girl had to tell me three times that her mother died. Sometimes it is very hard to be in another culture and I feel the language barrier keenly in a situation like this. I want to tell her how very sorry I am that she has lost the most important person in her life. I want to tell her to cry, cry, cry and if she needs a place to cry or a person to be sad with, I can be that person. I have seen her cry before one of the times her mom couldn’t talk or walk, and I saw one of her uncles reprimand her and tell her to be strong. I want her to be free to grieve. Still, I am not of this culture, so there is so much I don’t understand. There are things I want to say, and yet I either don’t know quite how to say it or I stumble over it, and someone who is grieving doesn’t need to expend extra energy to try to understand a foreigner. So, I pray for wisdom and for God to give me the right words for this situation. We pray that God would show us ways we can help this family. We are the foreigners who barely knew their mom, and yet, we’ve connected somewhat with the kids. I hope we can help in some way.
I have so many questions about what happened and what will happen. I don’t know if the younger kids will be sent to the village with relatives to be raised there. I am guessing the two older girls will stay here with their father, and continue to study and work and run the house. I have no idea how Muhammad, the husband, will grieve. I worry about Omar. He is such a difficult child already. How much does he understand that his mommy is never coming back? And the burial/funeral procedures are very different here. They buried their mom the same day she died, and then spent that evening and the next morning preparing their house and yard for the visitors who will come for the next three days to offer their condolences. God help them through this time. And God help us to do what we can.
On Monday I attended the first night of the condolence giving, and what I learned bothered me deeply. I went downstairs and entered the yard of the family and was directed to the women’s section. Yasmine, the oldest daughter was there looking very sad. I greeted her and said, as per custom, “May what remained of her life be added to yours.”
And she replied, as expected, with, “May it be to yours.”
Hibba was inside but came out to greet me. I guess I feel the closest to her just because I see her the most. I felt so sad for her and gave her a big hug and was near tears as she was. I repeated the customary phrase, then added that I was so sorry for her loss and if she needs anything, or a place to cry just come up to our apartment. Her little sister, Wilaa, was nearby, and Hibba said something to me along the lines of … “because Wilaa.”
I am not sure what that meant, but at first I thought she meant to greet her as she was nearby. So I did. I said some of the same things … please come up anytime you want. Then it seemed Hibba was encouraging Wilaa, who was near tears, not to cry. I kind of stepped in and said, “No, cry, cry. This is sad. This is hard. Cry. I’m so sorry for you.”
All the while, Hibba was saying something to me that I didn’t understand. What I did catch was, “No, don’t be sorry. This is normal.”
Ugh. More of that “normal” stuff. It’s not “normal” to lose your mother at age 10 or 14. I kind of argued the point, “No, it’s not normal. She was the closest person to you.”
Then Hibba said something which I thought meant that her mother was in heaven so praise God for that, meaning, we shouldn’t be sad.
Again, I had a rebuttal, “Okay, but the problem is she’s not HERE with YOU. This is why you can be sad. Yes, praise God she is out of pain, but cry because she’s not with you any longer.”
At this point, we kind of all sat down, and a few minutes later, as I was sitting feeling very sad for this family … these girls especially, Hibba once again tried to explain to me why they won’t cry. And this is where I felt the language gap because there is so much I don’t understand, but from what I gathered, she believed that for every tear they cry for their dead mother, a drop of fire will fall on her skin. Now, understand that I may not have heard that right. But I think the principle was there, that if they cry because she died, she will suffer more in the grave.
Whoa. That blew me away. It made me angry. What! Before, I thought maybe they were just trying to be strong and somehow culturally it’s not okay to cry. But, to be forbidden! To be told that IF you cry, you will cause your mom more pain! So what do they do with that?! They need to cry, they want to cry, but if they do, they have hurt their mom. Did you ever try to keep yourself from crying when you really need to cry? It physically hurts! Wow. I was even more sad for them now. What could I do? I wanted to be there to cry with them, but now, if I cried, it was actually going to harm them! I sat there for another 15-20 minutes listening to the conversation around me, watching young Omar repeatedly hit his brand new car toy with a stick, and just thinking about how I could get around this “rule.”
When one of the relatives came and sat with me, I tried to ask her about what Hibba just told me. Again, I wasn’t sure if I understood correctly. In answering me, at first it seemed this relative said it was okay to have tears, but not to make sound when crying. But then it did seem, she basically summed it up with, “It’s forbidden to cry.”
So I would love to hear from some Egyptians who know this culture and this language. Did I hear and understand correctly? Can you explain the ideas behind this? I believe that all cultures have harmful ideas of what to do with grief. A few years ago, Jayson and I received training in coping with grief (The Grief Recovery Handbook), and we began our course with learning many of the wrong ideas that we have adopted in American culture regarding grief. I could totally see those things when we studied it. And now I know that it’s so important to feel your loss strongly. To cry. To grieve. To wail. To sit in silence. To be with people. To be alone at times. To remember. To laugh. To cry some more. To pray. To rejoice. To mourn. I don’t mean to be judgmental of Egyptian culture, but I want to understand it better and better, and especially now as I see my neighbor girls hurting, and it seems they aren’t able or allowed to express their deep grief. Must they suppress it?