I wrote this piece a few months ago at the request of my dear friend and colleague. Maamoon is a Muslim, Iraqi who was a teenager living in Baghdad during the wartime conflicts from 2003-2007 when he fled to the United Arab Emirates. He is someone I am fortunate to have met through hospice work, and befriended over shared meals at my table. I am continually learning so much from Maamoon and I treasure our many conversations about life and faith and intentional living.
Maamoon’s native language is Arabic. He has lived in the United States for seven years and he speaks English fluently. However sharing his thoughts in written words other than Arabic can be challenging. And so Maamoon asked me to help him express this story in English because he wanted to share it with our hospice community as an expression of honor for their work.
To write this piece, Maamoon and I sat together in my office and he spoke while I typed. Periodically we’d review it so that he could make corrections or restate the meaning of what he wanted to share. I did my best to make grammatical change to his words only when necessary, and I kept the phrasing as similar to his Arabic translation as possible. In the end we were both proud of what we created and it was deeply meaningful to share it with our hospice team. He asked me to share this narrative with my online community as well….
I don’t remember the exact date. But sometime in late 2005 to mid 2006, my cousin was diagnosed with end stage liver cancer. Nour (a name that means “Light” in Arabic) was only 29 years old. He had been married a little over a year, and he and his wife had just welcomed the birth of their first child. The news of his aggressive cancer devastated my family, and within a few short months my cousin died.
At that time I was 13 or 14 years old and still living in Baghdad. It is an Iraqi custom – regardless of religion – that when someone dies, their family will display a personalized banner announcing the details of the loved one’s death. These banners are often hung on the fence outside of the family home. When people passing by see the banner they will go inside and offer condolences if they know the family. If you are a stranger, you show respect by passing by quietly and praying. You pray for the deceased as they start their new journey, and also for the family – that they may have ease of time in their hardship.
Typically these banners are four feet long and three feet wide. They are always made from black cloth. And a professional calligrapher is paid to add the details by painted script. The handwriting includes the deceased’s name, family name, the cause of death, family relationships, religion (Muslim, Christian, or other minority religions), and funeral information.
My cousin died during the peak of the civil war in Iraq. At that time thousands of civilians had been killed as a result of the violence. These customary banners and the lives they represented were peppered throughout the city and surrounding communities. Some were displayed near the family home, and others were hung where the person was killed. Death was interwoven with daily life, and you couldn’t stand anywhere in Baghdad and not see a black banner bearing witness to a story of loss.
Traditionally it is the extended family who visit the sign maker to order a banner, which is painted and dried while the mourners wait. When the calligrapher asked my uncle the cause of death and he replied cancer – the sign maker paused. Then he sighed and said thoughtfully, “He was lucky.”
My family was heartbroken over the death of my cousin, and for a long time I wondered why the calligrapher would say that. Why would you consider the death of a twenty-something man with a young wife and a baby daughter lucky? Nour was my aunt’s only son.
Years later I came to understand that the calligrapher had many reasons to consider my cousin lucky as he carefully painted the details of his death on the chosen banner. Perhaps because so many people in our community were dying from the war – explosions, kidnappings, violence – the sign maker considered Nour “lucky” because my cousin and our family knew that he was going to die. Many deaths at that time took people by surprise, and few people died of natural causes.
I also choose to believe the calligrapher said that Nour is lucky because he died surrounded by his family, those who cared about him the most. He had the chance to say goodbye to the people who miss him. And he was able to be told how much he was loved. So many people I knew during those years died without being in the company of loved ones because of the war. My cousin was lucky because he didn’t die alone.
I have thought about that calligrapher many times over the years. It must have been so hard to continually make banners for mourning families and have to handwrite all the violent reasons for people’s death. Stating that my cousin was lucky was a way for the calligrapher to express honor over Nour death.
I’m sharing this story because for the past 5 years I have wondered why God gave me a job in hospice. I never understood until I thought about my cousin’s death. I look at our patients surrounded by family and their hospice team and I think to myself that they are lucky. Even though they are experiencing the sadness of end of life – they are not going through that alone. There is someone around them they can talk to, even if it’s just their hospice team. There are people around them who they can tell their stories too. People who will show them honor and value their life. I consider that a good death.
Hospice care is so much more than a job. When I see hospice nurses I think of my mom and my aunt offering my cousin physical care. The Certified Home Health Aids remind me of Nour’s sister tending to his basic needs. The social workers reflect the commitment of my uncles to ease the burden on Nour’s family by coordinating his final arrangements. And the chaplains mirror the uncle who continually offered prayers of comfort over Nour and his family.
For anyone caring for the dying, just know that you are caring for the lucky few. I have witnessed many people die alone under circumstances that did not allow them to be cared for while they were dying or after death – no one to cover or wash them. We are blessed to have the privilege to die with people around us. People who offer dignity and care.
Caring for the dying is hard, challenging work. But it is also an honor and privilege. One thing I know about life is that death is a promise that will come true for all of us. Perhaps our commitment to take care of those who are dying now will deepen our connections to the people who will take care of us when we are dying. And then we too will join the few people who are lucky to die surrounded by those who honor them.