Death, Dying and Why I Went To Sierra Leone

I am never more thankful for my Jewish upbringing then when I need to start processing the death of someone close to me.  All religions have their own way of helping people through grief and mourning, and for many people this is one of the biggest ways that religion and spirituality manifest and impact their lives—especially nowadays as people become more and more secular. Religion helps people figure out what to do and how to process the enormity and absoluteness of death. I wasn’t able to truly understand the recent passing of a family member until, per Jewish custom, I put a shovel full of dirt on their coffin. This ritual, helped me realize that my loved one was not with me in the same way as they used to.

Burial practices are in many ways the most profound form of wisdom that is passed on to us. We learn to understand who and what we are by coming to terms with death. We learn what it truly means to be Human—to be impermanent.

Judaism helps me face what is hard in my life. How do people process the even larger tragedies they face? I am wealthy privileged person living in the first world. How can human beings handle tragedy and strife that is profoundly unfair? It sometimes feels easier to forget that the horror we hear about around the world is weathered by real humans with all the same emotions and fears as westerners have. While those living outside the first world certainly have learned grit from their circumstances, it isn’t as if they are anymore equipped to handle trauma.

Lawrence has a field experience program in Sierra Leone, a country that suffered intensely from Ebola and that was not too long ago scarred by a bloody civil war. During Ebola, traditonal Islamic burial practices were banned. Not only would people lose loved ones, they would not be able to have a proper burial for them; some people don’t even know where their loved ones are buried. I wanted to go to Sierra Leone to learn peoples’ stories and hear from them how they suffered and how they survived. I wanted to develop an understanding of the place of Ebola graves—and the burial practices that were used in Sierra Leonian religious life.

I am incredibly grateful to Lawrence and the people I met in Sierra Leone who shared their stories, homes and country with me. I have spent much of this term working on a writing project that uses my journals, notes and interviews to try to help westerners understand the Ebola Crisis and Sierra Leone by hearing my story of meeting amazing, resilient people.

Ebola’s victims were chosen because of geography, poverty and privilege—or lack thereof. Homes emptied and sprayed with poison chemicals. Families torn apart. A corrupt government lacking enough resources solved as many problems as it created and inadvertently killed people.

The helplessness I felt while I was hearing stories and seeing the living conditions of survivors was the most intense instance of a feeling that plagues me often that I think we all have. To be human is to be helpless. Something I was told a lot as a child that has seemed truer and truer as I move through life is that you can’t decide the problems you face, just what you do about them. While at first this may seem like a truism or a cute aphorism, I think it actually says something profound. All you get is this one miserable, crazy and beautiful monkey life and it is always an inch from catastrophe. Any control you think you might have is just illusory. One of the Imams I interviewed in Sierra Leone preached during the crisis “If you can help others, then you must.”