Recently, my sister-in-law’s mother died much too young. It came very unexpected. She lived on the other side of the world, so my brother and sister-in-law couldn’t just go there. In fact, because of corona, it took longer for my sister-in-law to travel to Indonesia and my brother was not allowed to come with her. The sadness could be read in their eyes when I called them. They cried and I cried with them.
Apart from the fact that I find it hard to see my brother and sister-in-law so sad, the death of their mother-in-law made me think for two other reasons:
- it made me think about the importance of giving positive attention to people;
- it confronted me with my own feeling of powerlessness, because I do not know how to assist a grieving person.
“Appreciate each other”
When we lose a loved one, we tend to focus on the positive aspects of the deceased during the commemoration. This is not surprising: you miss someone for all the valuable input that this person brought into your life, not because of the negative things. What I know about my sister-in-law’s mother is that she was able to work hard, stood up for day and dew to pray, loved her husband and children deeply, always provided enough good food and helped her son and daughter-in-law (who lived with her in the house) take care of their three children.
I also thought about my sister-in-law’s relationship with her mother. They were two women who loved each other intensely and both in their own way were busy giving to the world around them. I admire my sister-in-law because she has an unprecedented ability to connect with people, is able to maintain many friendships, because she adores my brother, lovingly supports and helps in his responsibilities, because she is so brave to move halfway across the world for her husband, far away from her family, because she is very generous, because she loves God very much, because she always puts a lot of time into making good meals for people and because she likes to make people laugh.
I realized how important it is that we help each other to name the positive things we see so we can help each other grow. That we don’t do this only when someone has died, but when someone is still alive. It is a natural mechanism that God has put in us: when we receive positive attention, we feel loved and will want to pass on love.
“A broken heart”
Although my sister-in-law draws strength and comfort from the knowledge that one day she will see her mother again with God, I also know that she will have to mourn and that she will continue to experience moments of intense grief. In these times, she needs support, love, encouragement and recognition. It became my prayer that I could be one of those people for her, but at the same time I was confronted with my own feeling of powerlessness: I absolutely don’t know how to do this! I asked God to show me His thoughts on this.
I had to think about the next Bible verse, which tells how God deals with people who have a broken heart:
“He heals the broken in heart, and binds up their wounds.” (Psalm 147:3)
It was then that I realized that we all have moments when we go through mourning processes. The loss of your mother, your child, your partner or another loved one… The unwanted childlessness, the longing for a partner that is not fulfilled, having to give up certain dreams for the sake of your family, learning to live with the consequences of an illness or accident, a divorce, or whatever kind of heartache you have to endure. Mourning processes can go deep and they can disrupt you. And during these periods you need your broken heart to be cared for and healed again.
How does God heal our hearts? Man who knows a personal relationship with his Creator, will be able to experience this from Him in the first place. People draw comfort from their faith, which has been a given in all centuries. But those who know the Bible well also know that God requires us to act just as He does. He wants us to reach out to broken people, people with grief, pain and effort, people who mourn. If we don’t know how, He wants to give us inspiration. All we have to do is ask him. It is His desire that people are comforted in their grief. This means that we have a responsibility to do everything in our power to ease the pain of human hearts.
“A quick phone call”
A few weeks passed since the death and my sister-in-law was still in Indonesia. Occasionally I had sent a message to my brother and sister-in-law and I had prayed for them almost daily. This morning I knew: I have to go and call my sister-in-law to ask how she is doing. But I was tense and nervous: was she waiting for me? Hadn’t I waited too long? Could I say something meaningful? But I knew: this isn’t about me, this is about her. I simply have to put my uncertainty aside and focus on her. I asked God to help me and I called her. We had a good conversation. My sister-in-law told me freely about how she had experienced the past few weeks.
What she shared was: “I really miss mom very much because she called me three or four times a day and was always there for me. She was very involved in my life. But I did find peace and comfort with God. I cannot thank my family and friends around me enough for what they have done for us during this time. When I arrived in Ambon after a long journey, mom was so cared for and everything was so beautifully made for her. That’s what my friends did. They arranged everything in detail for the funeral so that I could mourn with my family. The day before the funeral, it rained all day and I mentioned that it might be good to put an extra tent outside the house in case it would rain during the funeral service, so people wouldn’t get wet. Within two hours my friends had arranged a tent and set it up. We still get food almost every day and people visit us every day. I have also felt carried by all your prayers.”
“Learning from other cultures”
The Indonesian culture is a we-culture. People really share joy and sadness together and are used to be together a lot, do things together and take care of each other. I spoke with my brother on the phone shortly before the funeral. He said: “People used to often tell me that I came from such a close family. And that’s how I saw it myself. Now I don’t want to take anything from that, but when I got to know my wife’s culture, I realized that they have something we don’t have in our culture. They are always looking for closeness. There is not easily felt shame in approaching someone else. You just drop by unannounced. You tell each other that you love each other. Not once, but very often. When someone is sick, they are not left alone for a moment. Emotions are widely shared and expressed. There is a lot of attention for each other. I think that is one of the most valuable things I have received since I met my wife.
My memories go back to that time of his wedding day. My parents, my brothers, my husband and I travelled to Indonesia to attend. We spent three full weeks there and experienced the culture. Several things have stayed with me ever since: how the whole family crawled into bed together in the morning to cuddle (yes, my brother crawled into bed with his parents-in-law!). How children called their aunts and uncles mom and dad. How we as Dutch people sometimes got averse to the fact that we couldn’t just say what we thought if something didn’t suit us, because it was experienced as hurtful. We thought: you have to be able to say that, don’t you? That is also respecting each other. But for an Indonesian that creates distance and giving criticism shows disrespect. It is a culture in which you learn to really serve another person, to give, even if that means sacrifice for yourself. I realized that this is exactly what I had to do today: not to focus on my own insecurity, but to focus on assisting my sister-in-law.
“Breaking through shame”
With the death of my sister-in-law’s mother, the two different cultures once again came very close to each other. We attended the funeral via Zoom and saw how it differed enormously from the funerals we attended ourselves in The Netherlands. Even though we didn’t understand the language, we could perceive all the emotions, see the enormous amount of people present, experience the tribute to the deceased as people blew trumpets from the roof of a car during the drive to the cemetery…. The funeral service simply took place at home. Family and friends had arranged everything.
When I called my brother, he said that the loss of his mother-in-law had also made him think about how much energy he put into his own family. In the Indonesian culture everything is so natural in standing next to each other in joy and sorrow. In the Dutch culture you quickly feel a kind of shame: am I not too much? Are they waiting for me? We soon feel that we should do better than that and not attract too much attention. You don’t just bother someone. You do more by appointment. People easily say it’s not a good time, because you don’t make phone calls when someone already has visitors. All those things are very different in the Indonesian culture. There they don’t mind hanging out on the phone with someone while there is someone else. You also get to talk to the visitors when you call! If you’re still in your pajamas and someone comes by, that’s it. Maybe they put a pan with food on the fire, or they are playing with your children, so you can take a shower.
For a long time I thought: ‘that’s all very well, but that’s not how Dutch culture works’. Of course that’s true. We also have our beautiful habits, and we experience things in our own way. But the other side is: sometimes you can just learn beautiful things from another culture. And certainly when this culture comes very close to your own family, it’s good to open up a little more to it. Concerning the topics of mourning and encouraging I can learn a lot from the Indonesian culture. Maybe it would be good set my feelings of shame a little more aside. If somebody thinks it’s too much, they really will give signals. But I think more often we stop too early reaching out to someone who is having a hard time. Who doesn’t like to be carried when he or she doesn’t have the strength anymore? Who does not like to be cuddled in case of sorrow? Who does not want to hear that he or she is thought of when everything has collapsed? Who doesn’t want to eat a meal lovingly prepared for you when you can’t bring up the strength to get something decent on the table?
“Putting it into practice”
Ask God which person right now can use comfort, support, and encouragement. Also ask what you can do and then reach out to that person this week!