Grief, sorrow and shock


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Fred Natkevi

On Tuesday, June 25, Associated Press ran a photo of a father and his 2-year-old daughter washed ashore by the Rio Grande. They were discovered on Monday on the Mexican side of the Rio Grande. Journalist Julia Le Due photographed them with their faces down in the water, drowned and clinging to each other. Their attempt to cross the river the day before became a horrific tragedy.

The drowning victims were identified by Salvadoran officials as Alberto Martinez Ramirez and his 23-month-old daughter Angie Valeria. Published by Mexican newspaper La Jornada, the image went viral and touched the hearts of millions worldwide. Grief, sorrow, and shock triggered outrage. Questions were raised regarding who could be blamed or held responsible for the victims' drowning. The tragedy reopened a wound in my psyche and diverted my attention from the pointless blame-laying.

In addition to the two victims in the picture, there is a third family member. She is the surviving grieving wife and mother. She stood on the bank of the Rio Grande and watched the tragedy evolve. But now she's not getting much press coverage. Almost forgotten, she's alone in a foreign country left to cope with her devastation. Her grief tears at my heart and recalls haunting memories in my past.

My first memory is of events in July of 1944. I was 11. 

My father disappeared in the turmoil of World War II. My mother and I were grief-stricken. We consoled each other as we traveled through Eastern Europe to escape the Russian front. A young couple with a baby traveled with us, and we ended up in Darmstadt, a town in Germany's heartland. In February of 1945, the child became sick and died. My mother and I attended the funeral.

During the child's graveside service, the grieving mother was inconsolable. She leaned heavily on her husband for support. After the service, as we started to walk away, the young woman broke loose from her husband, screamed, and dove headfirst into the open grave to embrace the tiny casket. Her shoulders wedged into the grave. It took four men to lift her out. Startled I clutched my mother's side and trembled. That vision haunted me all my life.

I weep as I remember my friend Dr. Harry Elam's grief. In the mid-1990s, his daughter committed suicide as a result of postpartum depression. I went to Evanston to attend the Requiem Mass. In a large space adjoining the sanctuary, Harry and I saw each other and ran into each other's arms. Before our embrace Harry glanced at me and said, "There is nothing that could have prepared me for this!" We wept holding each other. Other attendees of the service looked at Harry and me from a distance as if expecting us to slump to the floor. 

With Mass about to start, Harry pulled away from our embrace and said, "No parent should ever have to bury their child."

The tragedy on the Rio Grande refreshes the memories of the grief I felt for my father and the pain of grief I witnessed as my friends grieved for their children.

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