What I learned from a dying woman in Haiti.

Her frail body lay motionless, but I could not mistake the pleading in her eyes.  Her arms were no larger than the width of two of my fingers side by side.  I could have fit both of her ankles in the singular grasp of just one of my hands.  I could feel every single one of her ribs. I could barely make out her voice, but when she motioned for me to rub her neck, I knew exactly what she meant.  More.  And no matter my comfort level—with her frailty, her malnutrition, her near nakedness, her near-death body—I had to comply.

God brought me to that place. On that day.  To that bedside.  For that woman.

Benita.

I rubbed lotion first on her legs, one at a time, starting with a part of her body that was “easy” in an effort to acclimate to the pain I saw in her eyes and body, and that of the plethora of patients around her.  I needed to keep it together.  To perform the one function I was brought here today to accomplish.  To deliver life giving touch to the patients at the Home for Sick and Dying Adults in Carrefour, Haiti.

To say I’ve never done anything like this in my whole life would be an understatement.  I’m really good with words, but not really my hands. I’m able to step into hard situations, but mostly when I know what I can do to help.  But when you walk into a room of women who are sicker than most people will ever witness—even those in health care professions—you have a decision to make.

Will you cave to your emotions and be paralyzed by the depth of hardship you see?  Will you run in retreat?  Or will you grab a bottle of lotion and begin—one arm, hand, leg or back at a time—to bring refreshment and hope to someone who desperately craves the attention of loving hands and the replenishing balm you bring to their parched limbs and spirits?

When I saw the look on both my own daughters’ faces in the first room we entered as the women shamelessly lowered their gowns so that we could massage their backs, arms and chests, I thought maybe I had pushed them too far.  What was I thinking bringing my team here?  No one can do this, much less 15 and 17 year olds! For goodness sake, I’m 46 and I struggled.  But their desperation for human touch could not be denied.

Once I began talking in my limited Creole (thank you God for those 6 years of French class in High School and College) a few women comprehended that I was “mama” to these “petites” and we were suddenly, universally on common ground.  We were mamas together. We were sisters together.  We were one.  In sickness and in health.  And we had a job to do.

To say that I was proud of my girls that day would never give them enough credit.  What they did in those two hours, in those  four rooms of roughly 30 patients each, was incomprehensible. They stepped up in a way I will never forget.  I hope they carry that day with them for the rest of their life. Eight of us women painted over 30 kids nails, clipped dozens of women’s finger and toenails, and touched over 100 women through loving massage of their whole bodies—connecting with their eyes and hearts along the way.

It was in our last room of the day that I was summoned to Benita’s bedside by her daughter, Joanna, to tend to her mama.  Joanna spoke fairly good English, a bit of Spanish (she wanted to practice on me, to no avail, Je parle francais) and Creole of course.  And she wasn’t letting me get by with just massaging her sweet mama’s legs.  As I finished her second leg, Joanna grabbed my arm and moved me upward to Benita’s arm.  With each drop of lotion and each caress of her parched skin, my anxiety and discomfort lessened and I looked into Benita’s sallow, recessed eyes.  After finishing both legs and arms, I was ready to move on to another patient, and it was then Benita slowly withdrew her gown and pointed to her neck and back.

When we go through life, we often go through the motions, or give a halfhearted effort.  I think that’s what I tried to do at first with Benita.  After all, I was there wasn’t I?  I had already massaged well over a dozen patients and painted half a dozen girls’ nails. It was time to move on…there were still 20 other people in the room who needed attention.

But God wanted me to stay.  To finish what I started.  To give Benita my very best. To stay by her side, just as if I were Him.

Then I felt the Holy Spirit prompting me to speak her name to her.  And so as I rubbed her body, I looked into her eyes and repeated her name, “Benita.”  She didn’t respond, but she stared deep into my soul.

There are some questions we will never know the answer to this side of Heaven.  Questions like why do these women have to die  of malnutrition and lack of medical care while their daughters sit helplessly by their bedside?  And conversely why do I have abundance, opportunity, medical care, education and more food and water than I could ever need?

I can’t answer those questions.  And maybe when I get to Heaven it will all be revealed, or maybe I won’t need those answers anymore.

But one question I do know the answer to is: Why me, on that day, at that place, so far out of my comfort zone and skill set?

The answer?

Benita.

I looked it up when I got home.  Her name means blessed.

So from now on, as envision her small, ashen face, and her fragile child sized limbs—the memory of which will remain with me forever—I will consider myself blessed.  Blessed by the chance to learn from her.  Blessed by the chance to play a miniscule part expressing God’s love to her. Blessed by that one singular day in time.  Blessed by God’s provision in my weakness and despite my tentative heart.

Blessed to speak not just her name, but these words over her just before I left,

Jezi Renmen Ou, Benita.

Jesus Loves You, Benita.  And He is for you.  And he wants you to know, no matter your circumstance, he is there for you.  And sometimes that comes in the form of a scared, middle-aged, Caucasian American woman with no clue what she was getting into that day, but hopes she never forgets.

Benita.

Blessed.

Yes.

Sarah Beckman inspires people from the stage and on the page. She is the bestselling author of Alongside: A Practical Guide for Loving your Neighbor in their Time of Trial, which is filled with practical tools to love people well in the rough patches of life. Sarah speaks to audiences across the country on topics such as loving your neighbor, sharing your faith, safeguarding your marriage and digging up your talents.

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12 thoughts on “What I learned from a dying woman in Haiti.

    • Oh Karen, I feel so un-amazing when I begrudge the things God puts in front of me. I wished my heart was more willing that day, and even though I stayed the course, I know I have SO FAR TO GO! I wish my first thought wasn’t for my comfort, but for his people. and sadly, there’s no where this is more evident to me than in Haiti. I will keep trying…and remember I am just a jar of clay – broken and worn, but God still trusts me. (2 corinthians 4:7-8) Can’t wait to take you to Haiti with me.

  1. Thank you, Sarah, for sharing this precious and painful experience. My burden for today seems less daunting. Can I view my burden as a blessing? Perhaps.

    • Lyn, that is our challenge each day I think. To keep not only an eternal perspective (I found myself praying that Benita was no longer suffering and in the arms of Jesus today) but a perspective on our trials and blessings each day in our very privileged lives. This is HARD to do, amidst closets full of clothes, driveways full of cars, pantries full of food. This is what’s hurting my heart the most right now…all that I have. When millions have so little. Not sure how to reconcile this, but to be grateful and purposeful with my time and days is one way I’ll start. Thanks for sharing your heart.

  2. Absolutely beautiful and amazingly heartfelt and present.
    This story brought me to tears. Thank you for your service and love to and for another human being. This will touch your “Petites” in a loving way for the rest of their lives. 🙂

    • Anna, Yes, life and death are so hard, but beautiful. My girls gave me courage that day…they were doing it – so I had no choice! : ) They were the ones leading by example. Praise God.

  3. Sister…Typing with tear filled eyes… Such a powerful and moving reminder of the many ways God can use a surrendered heart… Blessed to be a blessing. Genesis 12
    So proud and thankful for you all. Much love… T

  4. Stunning…heartfelt. Thank you for your service and thank you for sharing with us. A beautiful read and testiment.