Did I say everything I could have said? Were there missed opportunities? Standing in front of my peers breathing into a handheld microphone that felt like a ten-pound brick, I had to share news that shattered my heart. When I left the island of Palau in May of 2013, I had mixed emotions. I felt at peace with the fact that over the course of ten months as a student missionary I had given my all to my students. During my time there I would lie awake at night and wonder how I would make it through the next day. What am I going to do about his attendance in class? How am I going to keep her awake during my lectures? When is he going to turn in his missing work? Does she know she is failing my class?
A challenging year
I wrestled with these questions and more at night. Some days it felt I survived moment by moment, class by class, staff meeting by staff meeting. And there he sat, on the steps of the cafeteria, guitar in his lap, and a nervous toothy grin. Gile skipped class often, and as a result he had failing grades in almost every subject.
At the same time however, I couldn’t help but love him.
He found his way into my heart and could not be removed. He was smart and gifted, but just didn’t have the drive or desire to try in school. His efforts were spent trying to hide the betelnut[*] in his mouth from his teachers, and spend as much time as possible picking blues on the guitar. Gile was one of the few Palauan students that had to stay in the dorm for disciplinary reasons, and as a result I spent a lot of time with him. He walked from room to room looking for food, conversation, or entertainment—always doing something. Why him? Why in all of creation did it have to be him? Reading over again, the Facebook message I had received moments before standing up front during this mission’s emphasis vespers that was about to begin, I couldn’t believe it.
“Mr. Berg, just wanted to let you know that Gile and his family died last night.”
On November 8, 2013, at age 17 my student Gile perished. Just like that. Gone. It was agonizing, and felt purposeless. What made it worse was being halfway around the world with no way to comfort the hurting students that continued to send me messages all saying the same thing: “Gile died last night in a house fire.” How do you deal with that? I never prepared myself for the possibility of losing a student. I don’t think any teacher goes into class with that mindset.
What I needed wasn’t there
As I stood up front there at vespers that night, the only thing on my mind as I stared out into the church pews was Gile. I had been asked to speak before the announcements about my time in Palau so that it might encourage others to be missionaries. I managed to share a few details about life overseas before I divulged the agony that had been pent up for the last 30 minutes. My words seemed to fall on uninterested ears. The cliché condolences and offers to pray for me rippled my way as I moved from the stage to the front pew. At that moment nothing moved me to feel loved or cared for. I didn’t know what I needed then, but I knew it wasn’t what was being offered. Did I do enough? Did I share the love of Jesus with Gile? How many opportunities did I let pass by thinking there was more time? After announcements I traveled back on stage guitar in hand. Strumming praise song after praise song I felt numb. Lyrics passed from my lips with agony. Closing my eyes I fought back tears as I played the songs on stage that I had played with Gile in Palau. The coincidental song selection was unprecedented and unwanted, yet I continued to play. My mind spun halfway around the world. The congregation’s voices lifted praises to God while my soul struggled to understand why this happened. I fought with what this could all mean. I struggled to find purpose. I began to pray daily for the rest of my students in Palau, who I could not be there to hug, hold, and comfort through this terrible ordeal. I yearned to be there physically—but it just wasn’t possible.
After a few weeks had passed my mother texted me asking if I could call her friend Lois. “My friend Lois, asked me to reach out to you. Her son’s best friend died suddenly in his sleep from a brain aneurysm yesterday. He is devastated and she wants to know if you would help her. If you can call her, here is her number.” I didn’t know what to say at first, I didn’t think I could offer any help, as I had felt no comfort in what others had told me. “How can I help?” I responded trying to find a way out. “Lois wants to talk to you, perhaps pray with her over the phone.” I decided to call, but not before finding several Bible verses that I felt would give her comfort and fix her situation. That night I picked up the phone to call Lois. It rang a few times and she answered. I felt uncertain about what to say. All I could muster was, “Hello, Lois, I’m so sorry for your son’s loss. How is he doing?” I listened urgently, hoping to discern the real reason for why I was calling her. I still felt unfit to help. I went straight to my Bible verses. “You know Lois, something that really helped me . . . ” I shared my verses but it didn’t have the desired effect. She didn’t seem to grasp what I was trying to say. She didn’t take the comfort I was offering. She continued to talk and again I interjected, “You know this other verse really gave me peace . . . ” and still it seemed like I was talking to a wall. She then asked a question I wasn’t expecting, “Kyle, do you ever feel like the dead are still with us? Like they are looking down at us and watching over us?” This was something I wasn’t ready for in the slightest and I started to backpedal hoping to find solid ground. I asked the clarifying question, “What do you mean by that?” scrambling I looked for an open target at which to fire a safe and solid answer. She then shared that several years after her mother had passed away she moved into a new home. In this home there was an attic with flowers painted on a window. These flowers were her mother’s favorite flowers to pick and she always had them in a vase in her house.
The response I delivered was followed by the silent revelation of what this conversation was really about. “Lois, I think sometimes there are moments when God gives us comfort in the things around us. I know when Gile died every time I looked at my guitar I thought of him. He loved playing guitar and I loved hearing him play. It was a happy reminder of the beautiful skill he had. I think the flowers painted in the attic are a reminder of how much you loved your mom.” Lois didn’t want my theological opinion. Here was a woman who was struggling to comfort her son and grasping for validation. She didn’t need my views on the state of the dead or my thoughts on the afterlife. She wanted to be heard.
All Lois needed was someone to listen to her thoughts and feelings and then receive acknowledgement that what she thought made sense.
Death is not something we were hardwired to handle. God’s plan for mankind never involved us not existing. God created us with the intent to live in perfect harmony and love with Him. As a result of sin, we have to deal with death. The question is how? I discovered through my conversation with Lois and struggling through the unexpected loss of Gile that to help someone doesn’t mean to fix their problem. Lois didn’t need her problem fixed, she just wanted someone to listen. And yet we jump to offer a solution to the situation. My experiences have led me to believe that the greatest witness a believer can be to another believer or a non-believer, is to give them an ear that is quick to listen and a mouth that is slow to speak (James 1:19). In the Bible the book of James spills over with clarity about the dangers our mouths can get us into, “. . . a restless evil, full of deadly poison” (3:8). By waiting and listening, we can do so much to help in the healing process.
Author Kyle Berg is a student at Union College in Lincoln, Nebraska.
[*] Betelnut is a cultural custom in Palau that is similar to chewing tobacco. It’s addictive, stains and rots the teeth of those that chew it, is cheap and easy to come by, and is prohibited at most schools in Palau.