I had probably one of the oddest experiences thus far in Paraguay the other day. It happened the other day and I haven’t posted anything about it yet, because I needed to process everything. More importantly, I want to be sure that I post this in the most respectful way possible. It deals with some very intimate parts of people’s lives and I want to make sure that the information comes across well. I hope it does.
It had been a nice day. I had the day off from school to spend house hunting which I have been needing to do. Anyways, after lunch I ended up going to my friend’s house to help her cook (we made molasses cake and sopa paraguaya). N, who is a 19 year old girl in my community, lives with her mom, brother and her 3 year old daughter in a couple blocks away from me. We were cooking and chatting away and I was holding a neighbor’s baby and all of a sudden the topic of children comes up. Here is a rough translation of how our conversation went.
N (while smiling) – So I used to have two children but I lost one.
Me – (let me just say that this is going to be a PRIME example of me putting my foot in my mouth) No way N. Do not mess me with you did not lose a child. (I thought she was joking about misplacing one)
N – No, really I did! (she is still smiling)
Me – N., you always joke with me, stop it!
N – No, I promise I did. Hey mom, why don’t you go get it?
At this point I’m like what the HELL is going on. Her mom comes back with a jar filled with some kind of clear liquid and a 4 month old baby fetus. It was a crazy moment. First of all I was horrified that I thought she was joking about misplacing a child when she meant she MISCARRIED and second I could not believe that there was a fetus in a jar in front of me.
I honestly spent the first 10 seconds doing two things:
- Trying not to drop the neighbor’s baby I was carrying
- Trying to convince myself that there was not, in fact, a fetus in a jar in front of me and that it was fake
It all felt very surreal. That’s the only way I can describe it. The fetus itself had a face, eyes, fists and a couple inches of umbilical cord were still attached. I felt like I was living in a pro-life add.
The rest of the day was kind of a blur and I couldn’t really focus on much and could NOT get the image of the fetus out of my mind. I finally ended up talking to my Guarani language teacher from training to ask her about what happened. According to her, believe it or not, this is pretty normal in Paraguay and in other Latin American countries. Babies that are born prematurely and lost before 5 or 6 months are not buried. Instead, they are considered “angels” and people believe that it is important to keep them close. So, many build shrines outside their houses to house them. Actually we have one outside my host family’s house and I know my host mom lost two of her children… so I’ll put two and two together…
Now why am I sharing this with you all? As much as I was and still am completely uncomfortable and creeped out (it wouldn’t be honnest to say I’m over it yet), it is important to see that other people view death in a different way and process grief in a different way. I know that in our culture, most mothers would not be able to feel any kind of closure without a burial or cremation, especially with the body outside of your own house.
Here, it is the norm. And that is different from our experiences. And that is odd for us. But the important thing to acknowledge is that that is ok.
There is no one way of dealing with death and loss. And for my friend as a teenager to lose what would have been her second child before she turned twenty as a single mom must have been life-altering, painful and heart-wrenching for her. I’m surprised she didn’t kick me out of her house for acting like an idiot. I’m fortunate, as my language teacher said, to have friends like this in the community that feel close enough to me to share such intimate parts of their lives with me and that accept and understand that as an outsider that I may not completely understand what is going on. While I am making an ass of myself.