Just as it was getting time for bed, he got a heart-piercing call: a dear friend’s father had unexpectedly passed. He quickly collected himself, grabbed a jacket, and ran over to this friend's house.
My roommate at the time, returned later that evening and shared that on this first night of loss, the family’s doors had a steady flow from their web of community, and rooms were filled with tears, wails expressing what words failed to do, and a spirit of solidarity amidst the pain of loss.
In Arab culture in Tunisia, when one loses a loved one, the community comes to weep, wail, mourn, eat, and just “be” with one another for an extended amount of time. Sometimes planned celebrations will be canceled for a few months until the set time of grieving is up, in order to honor the passing of human life.
Fortunately, I have not experienced tons of loss in my community, but the seeming expectation to host when it was your family that suffered the loss was counter-intuitive for me. If I would lose a family member, I would expect family members and a few close friends to come together eventually.
At most, people from my extended community might begin bringing food to comfort us after a few days. Surely, on the first night of grief, I would not expect to host those who come to grieve with us.
The Islamic fasting month of Ramadan and the Christian month of Lent in preparation for Easter were almost coinciding this past year. While varying in purpose, religion, calendar, and more, they both share an invitation to participate in the discipline of fasting.
Fasting is abstaining from eating, sometimes from drinking, and sometimes practicing abstinence in other areas for fixed periods of the day. Some of the many reasons include spiritual commitment, cultural commitment, to become grounded in one’s view of God, to create space to ponder the significance of coming holidays and religious themes, etc.
The month of Ramadan impacts all areas of society as the stores, restaurants, and cafes often don't open until dinner time and stay open later into the early morning (one can eat when the sun is down). Business hours change significantly, traffic patterns change, and people become less available during the day.
One night in the middle of Iftar, the dinner meal to break the fast each evening after the evening prayer, I walked in through what felt like a ghost town of my neighborhood - the only sound being the street cats and distant dishes clinking from cracked windows.
This holiday is a deeply ingrained practice in the life of the culture. During this season of Lent/Ramadan, I found myself at a historic Anglican Church in North Africa. I’ve had limited exposure to and experience with Lent in the faith tradition I had participated in up until that point.
The Priest shared that he’d always wondered why Christians get ash, instead of a substance like dirt, wiped on their foreheads to inaugurate the time of Lent. After all, each person gets ash wiped onto their heads in the shape of a cross and it is said “for dust you are and to dust you will return.”
This Priest explained that after sharing his questions about this tradition with his Arab friend, the friend said, “Ah, yes, of course. That makes perfect sense!” Traditionally in Ancient Near Eastern cultures, there were instances when someone died that people would participate in grief by smearing ashes on their face for a period of time.
This outer-posture could help express and embody what few have adequate words for. It connected for him that in Lent and in the fasting, there is an invitation to grieve over the pain, loss, and evil in the world.
Living in a culture different from that of my upbringing continues to expose cultural limits within my home culture (it also can highlight the strengths, too).
While each culture gives different insights into how to make sense of the human experience, what I’ve learned from these specific experiences is that there is wisdom in being present with our community in the muddiness of grief and significant pain.
Perhaps by creating external physical space for the painful parts of life to be processed together, maybe our inner lives will have even a little more space for healing and wholeness.
No matter our cultural background or subscriptions to various ideologies, each people has the wisdom to share. Through this encounter, there was an invitation to allow me to grieve both internally and externally. Perhaps now, there’s an invitation for you as well.
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