Grieving while away from home

My friend Vi died while I was working in Serbia on a large-scale international development project. So, even though she had asked me to write her eulogy, I never heard it delivered in person – because I was in Uzice when I got the news of her death. It was second hand, in a sense, through a condolence message from another friend. Her husband had tried to reach me, but didn’t know how, and her computer, which had been such an important link to her friends around the world as she was dying at home, had been damaged in the flurry of the end.

We had been friends for a long time, during most of the 25 years I lived in Yellowknife. We used to have lunch together every Wednesday, and we shared much that grew from our initial work at a local newspaper – the impact of dysfunctional childhoods, seeking public office, travelling to Siberia to run a women’s conference. I could go on for a long time….

She had become ill after I went to Serbia in the late summer of 2001. She chose to share her experiences of illness, and then of dying, via email messages shared with friends around the world. She tried many things to deal with the illness.

One I remember vividly to this day. She was having a major operation in Edmonton the same night I was expected to be at a dinner in Uzice hosted by the man who led the organization carrying out the project. My agency was a sub-grantee, and there was a great deal about the relationship between the organizations that I didn’t know then, but learned later. However, even not knowing that history, it was clear that the grantee somehow saw our organization as a threat – not a partner.

It was one of those typical Balkan dinners – noisy, lots of alcohol, people fawning on the organization’s leader, lots of self-congratulation, and smoky. It was when they pulled out the big cigars, and the man was smoking his, that I was asked to speak.

I don’t remember what I said, in truth. It was as yet a long way from the time when the people working for his organization would be calling me a ‘witch’, and I didn’t at the time fully realize that the way our team worked – and thus the way I worked – was seen as a threat by his organization. I didn’t fully realize myself, in fact, how different my approach was to the typical Balkans one – that I saw myself as enabling my team to do their job effectively, to plan collaboratively with them, and to support them in doing their work. This was also different from how the grantee organization organized its work within the country team. It was, in hindsight, a clash of cultures.

At any rate, back to the dinner. The subtext, as I saw it, was a kind of gloating about his agency’s success and prowess. (And not long afterwards, I was called to Belgrade for a discussion with our agency about an imbalance in messaging that he had seen during his visit. As it turned out, this referred to the opening of the sub-office in Valjevo for which our agency had been made responsible. We had just moved in, and to ensure that local people could find the office, there were two 8.5×11 pages with our agency’s name on it, and only one page with his agency’s name on it, temporarily taped on the gates outside the office yard.)

The overall project was about revitalizing communities through democratic action, and so I spent a lot of time in the 60 communities we worked with. That was what I was focused on – the ways in which communities were finding hope, and new possibilities, through the work of our project. But it was hard, because my heart was back in Edmonton, wondering how Vi’s operation was going.

Later that year, as her health status worsened, I had to make a hard decision. When was I going to go home for a yearly visit? She was determined to stay alive until Christmas, to see her newest grandchild. I decided to go in November, rather than waiting til Christmas.

She had persuaded the health authority to let her die at home. She had a hospital style bed in the living room, and people gathered there regularly to talk to her. For years, ever since her mother’s death, when some friends crossed the street so they wouldn’t have to talk to her, she had worked quietly with bereaved families, helping them put together the small booklet about the loved one that is such a typical feature of northern funerals. And she took the same compassionately unflinching approach to her own passing.

I remember several evenings in her living room, as we talked. What I most remember is the time when I had to leave. Our friend Anke, who delivered the eulogy, came with me to drive me to the airport. But she, and Vi’s husband Richard, went into the kitchen to give us time alone.

We hugged, and she told me she would say hello to another friend who had died a few years earlier. And then she began to cry, great wrenching sobs from the heart. We knew we would not see each other again.

When I got back to Uzice, I worked on the eulogy. Vi had asked me, during that visit, if I would write it. She also was working on her own pamphlet, choosing pictures and stories of the significant events in her life – and it was beautiful. Anke had agreed to deliver the eulogy, and so I knew I needed to give her time to read through and reflect on it. But it still didn’t seem fully real, in a sense, particularly because I was regularly working 14 hours a day with few breaks.

I was in the office just after our Christmas (Serbians mark Christmas on January 7th, so our Christmas Day is just an ordinary day) when I got the condolence message from a friend. I sent my own condolence message to her family, and then I began to hear the details from friends, including the women from the Siberian trip who had helped with the memorial service. Typically, Vi had found a way for ministers from all the churches in town to take part. And people said the eulogy had touched people. She had celebrated Christmas with her family, and (through the infinite grace of hospital staff) had been able to see her newest grandchild. She had achieved all that she had hoped for.

After I was back in Yellowknife, the next year, I ran into George Tuccaro, who had done similar work with bereaved families and as quietly as Vi, and he hugged me and said “we gave her a good sendoff”. That was healing, for me.

But that day, I was alone in a small office, in a community not my own. I played music, and I grieved, and my friends in the office did their best to give comfort. It was something they knew how to do, because they had so often had to provide similar comfort to bereaved friends during the bleak years of sanctions against Serbia, and then the war in neighbouring Bosnia, and then the bombing of key Serbian infrastructure in a western bid to force Milosevic out of Kosovo.

I tell this story because, given the many times we debate the practicalities of international development work, we rarely talk about how this work affects us as human beings while we are doing it. My New Year’s resolution, this year, was to begin reflecting on this process for myself. This is the first of an occasional series of posts on that topic.

(This post was inspired, in part, by a thoughtful and lovely talk I just listened to this morning. With thanks to Meghan O’Rourke and Hanya Yanagihara, who talked about grieving as part of Foreign Policy’s Global Thinkers podcast.)