blog

the story of everyone i’ve ever met

Second hand grief is an incredible thing. Feeling the sadness of those we love hurts in a similar yet entirely different way than losing the ones we hold dear. Is second hand grief ever really second hand? Or is it a reminder, like pushing in a bruise, over and over, of our own grief? My grief began eight years ago and has grown up with me. My grief is intertwined, climbing like ivy on an old building, gnawing at and struggling to keep the light from the bricks. There are some days when grief and I get along. We co-habitate. At this point, it is almost like one could not exist without the other. I am my grief. And that is okay.

In the past three weeks, second hand grief hit me like a truck. Three of my close friends lost their people. And when we lose our people, we break. You don’t recover from this break. You will heal and you will grow but you will never be the same as you were. The second hand grief I felt for my friends comes from knowing what it is like to lose your person. It isn’t fair. It is never justified. And it hurts. Most people don’t tell you about the pain. They say “You’ll move on – remember, they wouldn’t want you to be sad.” Maybe. Maybe our people wouldn’t want us to be sad. But they would want us to feel something. I haven’t been sad about my person in a long time. I still feel things for her each and every day. Not a day passes without her crossing my mind. Eight years later, I think of her and our years growing up together with fondness. I attribute a lot of who I have to become to how I lost her. I am finally okay with it. But I will never discount the depression and emptiness that happened when I lost my person. These past three weeks have been a collection of me attempting to find the right way to help my friends know that they can make it through this. The bricks don’t completely tumble from the ivy. They become one intertwined, beautiful, crumbly mess. That is the kind of relationship I have come to have with my grief.

I haven’t been sad about Esme’s death in a long time. While her death was not fair and came much before her time, she lived more in her thirteen years of life than most older adults that I know. This was a fact I could not reconcile with when I was twelve and lost her. It was not until I was almost nineteen that I recognized that the young woman I looked at in the mirror – someone full of authenticity with endless drive, bad jokes, and a complexly creative mind – contained a story of everyone she had ever met and especially a certain person she had lost. I am becoming a combination of everyone I have ever known and loved and lost. Knowing Esme will always be one of the greatest joys of my life.

Losing your person is hard and inescapable and will leave you feeling scarred. My mind will not calm until I receive the “I’m home!” text from those that I adore. I always jump to conclusions that my people are going to go missing. As those fears and anxieties began to interfere with my daily life, I addressed them head on. But the generalized anxiety that arose from losing my person reminds me daily that I care endlessly about my communities. Telling someone “they wouldn’t want you to be sad” is telling someone “they wouldn’t want you to care as much as you do”. Emotions are complicated and natural and human. Rumi once said, “You are not a drop in the ocean. You are the entire ocean in a drop.” The ocean is vast and deep and tumultuous – you are too. You are entitled to address these complexities in your own time until one day when you look in the mirror and see that you too are a combination of everyone you have ever known and loved and lost.

Second hand grief is hard. Grief is even harder. Day by day, you will heal with your grief and grow and bloom into the by product of your communities. It is hard. But it will get better. And you will be okay.

M

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hearts & stars

I’ve always been moved and motivated by stories, of why people do what they do. My project during this trip to Malawi has been to work on a verbal autopsy program. That is to say, I read about the stories of why people die. Although many narratives of the autopsies are clinical and the interviews are in a language I do not understand, there is something fundamentally human and heartbreaking about the common experience of death. Death has been something I have been trying to run from since I was twelve years old and here I am, at twenty, looking it right in the face. It becomes exhausting and draining. The work is filled with breathing breaks to remind myself that I am still here. Markus Zusak described this feeling perfectly, albeit ironically because it is spoken by the narrator, death, in The Book Thief: “my heart is so tired.”

As is mine.

As dusk falls and dinner wraps up, I’ve often made my way down to the beach of Lake Malawi or up the hill overlooking the lake, just to look at the stars. The stars here are different than the stars at home as a result of being in a different hemisphere. However, it is still the same sky. And, much like death, stars are a common experience. Since I’ve been here, I have seen seventeen shooting stars in total. That’s seventeen bright glimmers of hope that make my tired heart weigh a little less. I am grateful for the stars for bringing about light, even when the world seems so dark.

I am someone who considers themselves up to date and in the know about all current events. In my free time, I can be found frantically updating twitter and the NYT app to see if there is anything I’ve missed. In this day and age, something new and world-changing can happen at any moment. Lately, I have found the news overwhelming and anxiety inducing. Take this morning for instance – I woke up and made oatmeal and popped down on the couch to catch up on the news from home and around the world, as usual. The first thing I see on the NYT home page is “‘Appalling Terrorist Attack’: 22 Killed in Bombing at Pop Concert in Britain”. My oatmeal about fell out of my mouth from the awe – even on a bright Tuesday morning at six am, death is a heavy presence. I took a deep breath and caught up on the known details and felt incredibly weary although I had just woken up. Starting my day with something that heavy made reading the stories of how and why people died all day that much harder.

It is in times like these that I am reminded of the brightness of the stars and the brightness of the people I have sat and watched them with. My good friend Gaby and I laughed under the stars and made cheeky wishes on the shooting ones. We shared our heavy moments and concluded that “Hey, that’s life. It has it’s ups and downs. But we are still here, wishing on shooting stars, trying to make the world better.” Gaby is going into her fourth year of medical school and is a natural healer. Her empathy and wit will take her farther than many other soon-to-be doctors that I’ve met. As Gaby departed to continue her journey back to the capitol, I thought that I was going to be lonely, without a friend to stargaze with. I readjusted my thinking that “being alone does not mean I have to be lonely” and was mentally prepared to watch the stars by myself the next night. As luck would have it, I stumbled upon some travelers who were brighter than the stars themselves.

Tom and Warren are two South Africans who hiked Mt. Kilimanjaro and are now walking from Kili back to Johannesburg, all on a mission to raise funds and awareness for early childhood development. I forgot to mention – they are doing this all while living on $2 a day. I was astounded at their selflessness and willingness to put their own comforts to the side and push their boundaries all with only the good heart of wanting to help others. Over the few days they were on a rest in Chilumba, we hiked and swam and ate and laughed and gazed at the stars. I was happy to find people to hang out with for the long weekend but I was even more ecstatic to have found some inspiring friends. The guys reminded me of why I am here, both in Malawi and in the world. I am grateful to have been a part of their journey and to watch them continue to change the world.

Gaby, Tom, and Warren were all stars that I saw in the dark sky that is the current state of the world. And while stars might change based on where you are, the sky is still the same. Even though my heart is tired from the constant bombardment of bad news and stories of death, I am humbled and encouraged by the smaller things in life.

It is with this tired but recovering heart that I am reminded of a short poem:

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Remember: you are still here and the world will continue to spin and bad things will continue to happen. But good things will too.

wonderful people

I have been in Malawi for a week. The places I’ve explored, stories I’ve heard, and lessons I’ve learned in the thus far have caused me to reflect more than I usually do about life. I am not one to write in places other than my trusty grid-lined moleskin, but there is something special about archiving the experiences in a shareable platform. Bear with me in my attempts to articulate my experiences of traveling alone. Here we go…

There is this magical and grown-up-feeling about traveling alone for the first time. With my passport and boarding passes in hand, I felt like the world was at my fingertips. There has been more time than I thought possible to think about myself and my life than I anticipated. There has also been more time than I thought possible to learn about the world that happens outside my own bubble. I have been alone much of this trip, but never lonely. This trip has taken me to new airports, neighborhoods resembling nothing I’ve ever seen before, bustling hospitals, and beautifully humbling landscapes. This trip has fostered new friendships and given me faith in humanity. And it’s only been a week.

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I’ve found that long layovers in the international terminal of a foreign airport is great for people watching and endless pondering. On the long haul of a flight from Washington to South Africa, I sat next to a woman from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Bibiche. We talked for about an hour and a half about conflict in the Congo, her strong faith, empowering other women, and legacies that we can leave behind with our work. I am not a religious person in the slightest but I felt connected to her – her kindness and openness were welcoming in the face of this new adventure. It was then that I had met the first wonderful person of this trip.

Upon arrival in Lilongwe, Malawi, I met some Americans in customs who were living in Cincinnati and were part of a trip to build a school via GE. Even half way across the world, Ohio remains a prevalent and strong force. I cleared customs, collected my bags, and headed out to meet my ride. While leaving, I heard a “Go Bucks!” from across the hall – again, it really is Ohio against the world. This group of Americans come back into my trip about a week later. I was met at the airport by a very tall and thin German epidemiologist, Steffen, and his daughter. She was six years old and had made me a handmade sign greeting me at the airport. I would soon learn that Steffen is a man of few words but when he does speak, his words hold much brevity. Steffen moved to Malawi about a year ago to work on epidemiology research full time. The work of him and his team impacts the public good of the community of Malawi. Steffen welcomed me to Malawi and set up as many learning experiences with his team as possible. I did not want to be a burden on the work of his team but he made sure that I would be hands on and contributing rather than just taking up space.

Throughout the last week, I have been shadowing public health workers from the Malawi Epidemiology Intervention Research Unit (MEIRU). With them, I’ve experienced poverty stricken neighborhoods and desolate hospitals. With them, I’ve also experienced the kindest people in these settings. Lawrence, one of the interviewers for house visits, showed me the ropes of the day-to-day life in these areas of Malawi and taught me about the culture and customs, as well as some Chichewa, the native tongue of central and southern Malawi. During my time shadowing, I had a brilliant conversation with a pastor named John about corruption in the government of Malawi and of the hope and happiness of the people here despite it. What stood out most to me is that even in the face of political and economic hardship, people here are still trying their best to share what they have and to welcome anyone with open arms. The world is full of wonderful people.

Aubrey, a researcher at MEIRU, gave me a tour of the Kamuzu Central Hospital, KCH. The conditions were unlike anything I had ever seen in the US healthcare system. I was taken aback and found myself wanting to make it better, or at least what I thought would make it better. These thoughts were ones that I had been having throughout my experiences of the past week and I had to continuously check myself and those thoughts. My culture may be different but that does not make it better. We each can learn from the other. One of the patients we interviewed at KCH for a study was a Rwandan refugee. She did not speak any English or Chichewa and had her granddaughter translating for her. I found that I admired this woman, despite our language barriers. Her strength and dedication to her family, safety, and prosperity in the face of a genocide were prevalent in the ways that her son and granddaughter respected and loved her. I do not know her name or the exact details of her story but I know she has left an impact on how I think about hardship. I can learn how to persevere from stories like hers.

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Within Lilongwe, I have been staying in a hotel/hostel called Korea Garden Lodge. The staff are warm and welcoming and have become some of my good friends here in Malawi in the past week. I chat with them over meals and even went hiking with one over the weekend. The Lodge has a wide array of people coming in an out – older Europeans, traveling during their retirement; young Americans, post Peace Corps and other volunteering treks, hoping to leave an impact bigger than themselves; African families on holiday with their kids in beautiful Malawi. The group of Americans from GE that I met at the airport stayed at the Lodge on their last night in Malawi. I bonded immediately with them over Ohio State and mutual friends and stayed up late drinking and laughing with them. I am one to make friends wherever I go and thus I have heard some intriguing stories and had stimulating controversial conversations over meals with other travelers. The world is full of wonderful people.

The markets of Malawi are a hectic and bustling center of activity in each area. I couldn’t help but explore after shadowing one day. While bopping around town, I was approached by three Malawian men. I nervously said I was in a rush but they were kind and we were outside in public so I did not see the harm in chatting for a few. Many Malawians, especially kids, had been enthralled with me as a foreign visitor over the week, and I had quite enjoyed sharing stories from the States. As we chatted, the guys, named Mike, Respect, and Masias, shared stories from the northern district of Karonga, their home originally. They taught me how to play a very popular game within Malawi called the Bao game, and showed me their paintings.

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After an hour of hanging out, I had to go home but not without playing one final round of the Bao game and buying a painting. I later was frustrated with myself that I had originally thought that any stranger who approached me was a threat. We grow up in the States thinking that it is me vs them and that everyone is out to get me. That simply isn’t true. Yes, there are some bad people in the world and it is good to be cautious. On the contrary, it is also true that the world is full of wonderful people, but only if you open your heart and mind and let them in.

 

The past week in Malawi has taught me a lot. I am sure the next three will teach me even more. Before coming here, I had a preconceived notion of what a less developed country and its people would be like. I was wrong. There is a tendency as members of the developed world to distance ourselves from “others”. But the fact of the matter is that we must see ourselves in one another. There is more that bridges our great divide than that which seemingly distances us. It is only through sharing that we begin to see ourselves in all stories, making the divide between our worlds seem less daunting. There are wonderful people all around, if we just choose to look outside of our biases and challenge what we are used to. Maybe my altruistic view that the world is not entirely bad is optimistic and naïve. I am incredibly aware that altruism will not save the world. But it might help make it better. And in the end, that’s what matters – leaving the world a little brighter than when you first arrived.

The world is full of wonderful people.