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Death is universal, but grief is cultural

The Huang family newsletter


february 2020
Recently the teenage daughter of a well-respected community and church leader died. The circumstances around her death were profoundly sad, as her death was emotionally traumatic and completely unexpected.

Though we knew the father in his capacity as a local leader, we were not particularly close to him. We knew little of his wife, his children, or his life outside of the few instances where our professional interactions crossed. We didn’t even know he lived just down the hill from the imposing church building that stands opposite the hospital entrance.
The church across from Bongolo Hospital can seat about 800 people.
Our neighbour and fellow physician, Anatole, was much closer to the family. We saw him a couple days after the daughter’s death.

“Have you been to the family’s house yet?” Anatole asked.

We shook our head. Were we supposed to?

Anatole nodded. “It’s what we do here in Africa, he said. Go to the house, sit, and mourn with the family. I think you should go. The father, he would appreciate it.”

Anatole is himself not Gabonese; he’s Congolese. Having a unique insight into the lives of Westerners and Africans alike on the mission station, he was for us a sort of cultural bridge and interpreter.

Still, we hesitated.

We can’t go until after our kids go to bed, we protested. It will be too late. After dark.

“It doesn’t matter,” Anatole reassured us. “You can go anytime, even in the middle of the night.”

Are you serious? we questioned him. That seems a big imposition.

“Don’t worry,” he said. “I promise you, it is the African way.”
The path to the family's house crosses the local, shaded cemetery before heading halfway down the hill toward the riverbank.
This is how we found ourselves at 10:30 at night, stumbling down a steep dirt path to a small house dimly lit by a couple outdoor lightbulbs. Several metres from the front door was a large circle of plastic chairs, occupied by various family members.

We greeted the father shyly, almost embarrassed to be present. He stood, looked quizzically at us for a brief moment, then gave us a warm embrace.

Are you sure we’re not bothering you? we asked.

“No, no, no!” he insisted. “You bless me with your presence.”

We wondered if he was just being polite, but he continued in earnest.

“You are showing yourselves to be true friends! I’ll be honest, if our places were reversed, I’m not sure if I would have come to your house. But now I know, that you love me and my family.”

His small speech took us aback. Here we stood, in the dark, uninvited, to the home of a deeply grieving father and his family, with whom we were not particularly close. And yet we were greeted with open arms.

It ran contrary to every cultural norm we knew and understood.

He took us around the circle and introduced us to the extended family, most of whose faces were obscured by the moonless night. We shook hands solemnly with everyone, and then we sat silently in the circle, feeling terribly out of place and yet surprisingly welcomed.

The family broke into sensitive discussions about matter of funeral costs and burial services. Our presence did not seem to faze them. We stayed for a half hour, not saying much, not offering much. Then we stood up, greeted the father again, and bid everyone good night.

We decided that there were many things about the local African culture that we would never fully understand: accepting near strangers in the dead of night to your home while you mourn the loss of a child, for instance. But even if we never fully understand it, we participate in it, and we learn from it. And hopefully we become better neighbours because of it.

And now...for some family pictures!

In December anDrew took his plastic surgery fellowship exams in Kampala at the meeting of the College of Surgeons of East, Central, & Southern Africa. He passed(!) along with many of his surgeon friends who also took the exams in general and orthopaedic surgery.
Kim got to travel to Amsterdam in January for several days for a parasitology and microscopy course. She relished the cooler weather and the wealth of cheese.
Nolan & Solène: They don't always play well together; but when they do, they're awfully cute together!
     
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anDrew: docdrew@gmail.com

Kimberley: kimboley@gmail.com
Copyright © 2020 The Huang Dynasty, All rights reserved.

This newsletter is about Andrew, Kimberley, Nolan and Solène Huang: their journey from the US to Canada to France and, ultimately, to Bongolo Hospital in Gabon, West Africa, with the Post-Residency Program of Samaritan's Purse (World Medical Mission).

The views and opinions expressed here are solely ours, and they do not necessarily represent those of Samaritan's Purse or World Medical Mission.

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