Maribel Ramírez Hinojosa is a clinical psychologist in College Station, Texas. She was born in Nuevo León, México, and immigrated to central California in the 1980s where she and her family joined a Mennonite church. Her Anabaptist upbringing and her training as a marriage and family therapist and clinical psychologist were instrumental in developing her passion for peace and justice. Maribel works with children, couples and families with varying mental health issues. Her goal is to help patients achieve a better state of being in order to arrive at an improved state of functioning. Maribel enjoys volunteering with Mennonite organizations and with organizations that promote music and the arts. She and her husband Felipe have two children, Samuel and Ariana, who keep them very busy. They enjoy traveling, dancing and laughing together. Maribel is a member of the steering committee for Women in Leadership of Mennonite Church USA.
This past spring, my 43-year-old cousin died at the hospital after having a severe asthma attack. For the past several years she had suffered from what is known as chronic obstructive pulmonary disease, or COPD. Hospital visits had become a common occurrence in her young life. In fact, she had a severe asthma attack and hospital visit the day prior to going to the hospital for the last time. Elvia was the mother of two young children, someone who was full of life, and someone whose contagious laugh made everyone around her happy. Her family was one of the only blood relatives that we had in California (her father was my grandfather’s cousin) and my siblings and I were closest to her because she was close to our age. When I was a child, I looked up to her; she was definitely the “cool” cousin. I remember one occasion where I was feeling nervous because I was going to attend my first junior high dance and Elvia was gracious enough to teach me some simple dance moves, so that I wouldn’t make a fool of myself on the dance floor. She saved me that day. Elvia was a very special person and she accompanied me during memorable moments in my life, including being a bridesmaid at my wedding.
As if that devastating loss was not enough, we also lost my pastor from my home church in California. Pastor José Elizondo passed away from a massive heart attack just minutes after speaking at Elvia’s funeral. He ended his talk by reminding everyone there that, as believers, we have to remember two things: “believe and obey.” Minutes later, after sitting down to rest, he had a heart attack and died. His family (which I consider part of my family) said that he died doing what he loved, preaching. And he died in the place that he loved, El Buen Pastor Hermanos Menonitas, the church that he helped start and the church where I decided to follow Jesus. In fact, el hermano José baptized me and my cousin Elvia on the same day.
Only days apart, the deaths of my cousin Elvia and el hermano José left me reeling. I kept thinking about Elvia’s 13 and 10-year-old children — their mother taken so soon — and how this would affect them.
As a psychologist, I know that these kids will grieve their mother forever, that they will miss her profoundly. But I also know that their grieving will open them up for possibilities, it will allow them the emotional space needed for them to be resilient and thrive.
Even so, it is never right — it’s downright heartbreaking — for children that young to bury their parent.
While the pain we experience from the loss of a loved one never fully leaves us, having people we love around us — having a strong support system — is so important. We are communal and interdependent beings. We need each other. There are things/events that don’t always make sense, but scripture tells us in Romans 12:15 that we should “rejoice with those who rejoice; mourn with those who mourn.” In that moment, after the death of my cousin and pastor, my job was to grieve and mourn the loss of my loved ones, and to also pray for, support and walk alongside family members as they grieved.
Part of supporting each other is being honest about the many feelings we have associated with the loss and about the stress that places on both our emotional and physical wellbeing. It’s important that we validate other’s feelings, even though they might be different from ours. We must be patient with each other and be willing to not only share, but to listen to what those around us are experiencing.
Not only once, or in the days immediately after the loss, but we must also be present when feelings are triggered around the holidays, birthdays, anniversaries, etc. We must also be honest with each other when it might seem as if we need professional help, whether medical, psychological or spiritual. There is wisdom in reaching out and obtaining the appropriate and specific support that we need. The more connected we are to each other, the stronger we are. But it is also important that we respect people’s privacy and space when they need it, when they express to us that they need to be alone.
A season has passed since the loss of Elvia and el hermano José. I am not at the same place emotionally that I was then. Part of what has moved me forward has been accepting and processing my feelings, reaching out to my community of loved ones, and trusting. Trusting in the process, trusting human resilience, but most importantly trusting God and being encouraged in knowing that God‘s mercies are new every morning.