If you've lost a loved one to coronavirus, or any other premature death, what I learned from a group of Ugandan children playing soccer might help you heal.
When I arrived in Africa the summer of 2014 to volunteer at Children of Peace Uganda (CPU), a rehab center for former child soldiers who escaped from the Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), I saw dozens of children and teenagers playing soccer and laughing together in a lush green pasture. “These must all be the former child soldiers,” I thought.
But I soon discovered that only half of them were former child soldiers. The other half were children whose loved ones were killed by the LRA, some by the very children they were playing soccer with. I was stunned.
I approached the founder of CPU, Jane Ekayu, a tall Ugandan woman with a commanding presence, and asked how she got opposing sides of a war to play together?
Forgive in order to heal
All these years later, I remember she smiled and said, “First we teach the children how to forgive, because the sooner they forgive, the sooner they will heal. For children who were forced to kill others — sometimes their own parents — we teach them to forgive themselves. We remind them that it wasn’t their will. They were forced into that situation.”
She continued: “For children whose loved ones were killed before their eyes, we teach them to forgive not because the perpetrators deserve forgiveness or even asked for it — but because they, the victims, the survivors, deserve to be released from pain.”
Sensing that I struggled to grasp these lofty concepts, she convened the students for an exercise. Handing each child a colorful balloon, she instructed them to walk around the pasture with the balloon straddled between their legs. Naturally, they waddled around like penguins, laughing uncontrollably. After several minutes, Jane gathered the students into a nearby classroom to unpack the exercise.
Leaning forward in their desks, the children listened intently as Jane addressed the room.
The balloon represents the anger, bitterness and resentment you feel for what happened to you, she explained. But just as it is hard to walk with a balloon between your legs, if you carry that bitterness in your heart forever, it will be difficult to move forward in life. Our bodies were not designed to hold onto anger — it makes them break down. We don’t sleep right, we don’t eat well, and our mental and emotional states deteriorate, Jane explained.
Jane paused, and her eyes slowly swept the room. “In time," she whispered firmly, “you must let go of your anger and forgive, because you deserve to be free.”
She escorted the children outside, and together, they released their balloons.
Everyone can find peace
That moment changed me. When my mother died at age 58 in 2010, it wasn’t from COVID-19 but from unexpected complications during a minor medical procedure. Amid a herculean eight-year battle with cancer, she was suddenly gone. The doctor responsible never apologized for his negligence — and I was bitter. Like many surviving family members of COVID-19 victims, I was also consumed with guilt for being utterly powerless to change the outcome.
But in witnessing these children who’ve suffered and lost so much find healing in forgiveness, I realized I can too. So I consciously forgave the doctor, the medical staff, the hospital — everyone I had blamed for my mother’s death. Whether they apologized or not was irrelevant. I also learned to forgive myself, to release the guilt of squandered opportunities and unfulfilled promises. And in doing so, for the first time, I began to heal.
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It has been 10 years since my mother passed. When I think of her now, I feel only overwhelming gratitude for how lucky I was to have her as my mom.
COVID-19 has been hard for everyone, but particularly cruel to families who had to helplessly watch their loved one pass away alone through a hospital window. Unable to pull a chair close to their bed, squeeze their hand and whisper “I love you” in their ear before they slipped away.
It’s hard not to brood over all the things we could have done differently when we lose someone we love. Especially when we’re unable to escort them from this world with the dignity they so deserve. But if you couldn’t be in the hospital room when your loved one passed, forgive yourself. It was never your will for this to happen. Grant yourself permission to heal — because your loved one would certainly want that for you.
There will come a time when the rubber band of emotions quiet, and you remember peering through that window between you and your loved one, that temporal divide between this world and the next. Remember in those moments that every window is also a mirror, reflecting you and the fact that your well-being matters.
Only hours after my mother died, my sister gave birth to a baby girl. She named her after our mother. We didn’t even have time to process death before life reminded us that even in profound loss, rebirth and healing are possible.
Aviva Feuerstein spent the past decade as a counterterrorism and security specialist with the New York Police Department, the FBI’s Joint Terrorism Task Forces, the Boston Police Department, the U.S. Navy SEALs and the National Basketball Association. She graduated from the Harvard Kennedy School of Government and co-chairs the Innocence Project’s Advocates for Justice Committee.
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This article originally appeared on USA TODAY: Coronavirus: How to heal when your loved one dies alone from COVID-19