Death, Privilege and Death

We all have certain smells that we associate with memories. Fresh cut grass might inspire memories of rolling around in the yard on a spring day as a child. Smell salty sea air and you are transported to a sandy beach, hearing the crash of the waves along the shore. Death too, always seems to be accompanied by a particular smell.

This is going to be a difficult blog to write, and I would assume a difficult one to read as well, but the fact is that death is an extremely prominent part of my Peace Corps experience. I have been to more funerals in the past year that I hoped to ever attend in a lifetime. Some of these deaths were easier than others. Some were older community members who I didn’t know well, but whose funerals I attended out of respect for the community. While sad, these funerals held less of a somber tone as they were older individuals who has wonderful lives, and we celebrate together that they have made their way home to god.

Others were far harsher for my emotional state. A three year old boy that I knew well from the Creshe I work at died of malaria. There is something extremely hollowing about lowering a tiny casket into the back yard knowing that he died of a disease that is treatable. A disease that in many parts of the world had been removed entirely. There are no words that can comfort his family. It is extremely painful to explain that no, children where I am from don’t die of Malaria, that it is a disease we no longer have. To register and read the confusion, why is it that my kids don’t get the same opportunity to live that kids born in a more privilege place of the world get? I cant seem to understand how it is that as humans, we can accept that money in fact means life. That birth right and country can make the difference between living and not living. That we can have treatments and cures and yet depending on where you are, you may die from treatable and curable ailments. I don’t know what exactly the answer is, but I do know that I will hold the memory of the tiny casket in my mind each day until I find an answer that I can live with.

This past Friday I went with my work on a home visit. One of the more emotionally challenging aspects that the caregivers at my org deal with are the bedridden patients in our community. These women will go to bath, clean and feed patients who are unable to take care of themselves. This is one aspect of the job that I typically do not participate in. I know that I am a big softy. I know that when I see people in that state it breaks my heart and I will cry. It is uncontrollable, it is just how I react. And no, having a strange white woman crying in your sitting room is not what most families or patients need at that stage, so I typically avoid going on home visits.

This past Friday however, I went on a home visit. The reason I went along was because the man we were going to visit is a part of my family here. So my Gogo, my supervisor and my neighbors all piled into a car and made our way out to go visit the rest of the family and check in on how he is doing out of the hospital. I wasn’t exactly sure what all had happened to him, just that he had been sick for a while and that he was in the hospital for the past two weeks and that his family had taken him home to die in peace.

When we walk in the room, you are instantly hit with the smell of death. He was laying on the bed, staring at the ceiling. He recognized my Gogo and my neighbor and could tell he was excited when he heard their voices. The bandages that were previously wrapped around the sores on his legs had fallen to the side, and periodically Auntie would shoo the flies away as they circled his wounds. We sat for a few hours in the room with him, as various other members of the community came by to check in on the family. The group worked to sit him up so that he could be fed some porridge, and even assisted him to get a puff of a cigaret he very adamantly requested.

It was very hard for me to see the reaction my Gogo and neighbors had to seeing him in this state, though it is nothing compared to the emotions that they all were feeling for this man that they loved. Before we left, we all stood around in a circle, sang songs from church and then had a group prayer. While I’m not sure what intentions my family prayed for at that point, I do know that in that moment, with my eyes closed I was really unsure what to ask for. No one wants to see anybody suffer, and he was absolutely in pain. The juxtaposition of comfort level that we were able to provide him vs what we would have done in the states is another staunch example of privilege. From birth even through to death, it is inescapable. So I asked for him not to be in pain, for his family to have peace and for the whole community of wonderful, wonderful people I have had the extreme pleasure to get to know can be spared from the seemingly constant arrival of death.

I managed to make it through the visit without crying, but the moment I closed myself into the comfort of my room that night, I sat on my bed and let myself feel all of the emotions. Not just for him, his family, my family and for my community, but for everyone who is going through a loss or is in a place of suffering. I cried because I am tired of death. I cried because I hold so much guilt for being born and raised with immense privilege, yet I have not done nearly enough in my life to acknowledge that and to use it for good. I cried for the shame I feel knowing that people will continue to die of curable and treatable illnesses. I cried for the people of my community, and for the gross effects colonialism and apartheid have had on them, and will continue to be ever present in their lives.

Today, we begin preparations for his funeral, as he left this world on Sunday. It is a somber day here in South Africa as my exhausted Gogo and extended family begin to cope with the loss. I know that this will not be the last funeral I attend while here in SA, but it is the one that finally pushed me to share with all of you some of the more emotionally challenging aspects of being a PCV.

My hope is that in explaining this, you all can take some time to examine your own privilege. I have a long way to go before I can fully comprehend just how far my privilege reaches and just how much I need to work to address inequality. I hope that you too can start to recognize aspects in your daily life that come from your own privilege, and that you can do something, any small thing, in your life to use your privilege for good.

As always, thank you for reading and I am sending my love out there to anyone who needs a little extra help today.

6 thoughts on “Death, Privilege and Death

  1. Hi Alyssa, great post and I know you feel guilty about where you were born but that is something that is beyond your control so focus on what you can control. We are all so proud of you and your commitment and you can be sure that you are making a difference. Focus on that part and it will grow and grow! Lots of love, Laure


  2. Oh Alyssa, I adore you and appreciate all the you are giving and gaining in South Africa. Thank you for being an ambassador of love and compassion! Here is a poem that quiets my sadness and fear when it comes to death.

    What is this thing that men call death,
    This quiet passing in the night?
    ’Tis not the end, but genesis
    Of better worlds and greater light.

    Jean Ann Michie


  3. Alyssa,

    I am speechless. Reading your accounts humbles me. I think what you are doing is so incredibly admirable. Please be safe. Peace be with you.

    Love, Nancy

    Sent from my iPad


  4. thank you for sharing. while those of us at home cannot fully comprehend i think we can all appreciate that you are willing to share difficult things particularly topics that make us uncomfortable.


  5. Alyssa
    You are doing such a great thing…not only in your physical work and your emotional support there in country but also in reflecting these images back to us so that there may be change for the better long after you have left SA.
    May the peace of Christ be with you.

    Patti Barnes


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