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Monday, June 7, 2010

Love really is greater than death

It’s pretty difficult watching someone that you care for dealing with something incredibly difficult; Pmonster heard today that two of his friends were killed in the Pamir plane crash just oustside of Kabul in Afghanistan. I’d received an email in the morning via the hash house harriers network and had mentioned it in passing to PM – one of those things, one never knows quite what to believe as there is so much scare mongering and exaggeration. Later in the day we were sat in an internet café sorting out our visa application forms when he took a phone call, immediately it was obvious that there was something deeply wrong, everything about his tone of voice, his body language; this was not going to be good news that he was receiving. And indeed it wasn’t, the caller a good friend of PM’s based out in Kabul was calling to say that several Brits were on the plane and two were very good friends. At the time PM said “Well, that’s life”, but I could see him gritting his teeth. It was too soon to see the true reaction, he was here with me in London, he felt it but he didn’t feel it. We carried on with what we had to do, he, with a brave face, saying nothing very much, feeling for the wife, the parents of the friends who had died. How can it not affect you?

We headed for home, he to call the wife of one of the guys to offer his sympathy, to ask if there was anything that he could do. Once home, I think it started to percolate. We went for a run, to try and see something beautiful to off set the unfairness of it all. He wasn’t saying very much about it.

Back home and I worried for him, didn’t want to leave him alone whilst I went out but I knew he needed time to speak to other friends, to tell those that didn’t know, to experience his feelings and to be there for others. To do something, anything in the face of loss, to be making some kind of contribution instead of sitting there helpless to change the circumstance. CC was an old, old friend and colleague, DT a younger man but still a close friend. PM had shown me a picture of DT with the cat from one of the bars, said how much he loved them, a big, macho security guy who loved cats. And CC, I’d heard so much about him, one of the three musketeers, a pal, a colleague, a most dear friend, with so many shared experiences and the hope that there would be many more to come. It was hurting PM a lot and there was nothing that I could say or do to make it different.

PM had said. “It’s all part of the game”, wincing inside at the same time. He’d seen people killed, had lost friends before, gotten used to the idea that this was something that you signed up for somewhere along the line. Here, out of the blue, a confluence of unexpected shit, a few weeks ago CC was best man at JB’s wedding, now CC was dead. The plane crash was nothing to do with terrorist activity; the Taliban didn’t blow the plane out of the sky. The weather, the terrain and a split moment’s decision to go despite being told that the weather was bad led to a momentous shift. Nothing in life is for sure, nothing that you see today will always be here tomorrow. All of these people come to Afghanistan of their own volition, they come knowing that they may pay with their lives, the black humour is rife, a good way to keep the apprehension low, to keep calm and carry on. Perhaps no one ever expects it to be them, perhaps not their immediate friends either, it always some poor unknown person, a local national, a third country national. We count those that matter to us. We say that we are prepared for the loss whatever that may be but is it ever possible to be so? To be so prepared is that at polar opposites to the decision to be there in the first place, that somehow, it will never be me or anyone close to me. What is it that gives us that sense, and how is it that it feels so bloody raw to have to face the reality of loss. We are all there in the plane in those last few moments, terrified and alone, angry and helpless. We are there with those people, experiencing their last time on earth, sharing their fear, there with our friend or our loved one. Who wouldn’t want to take it all away and make the outcome different?

The weather was so bad that it was impossible for anyone to get out there and find the plane and passengers. Later in afternoon the American air force were able to fly close and to confirm using thermal imaging equipment that there was no one alive in the vicinity. This additional information obliterated any last vestige of hope of having escaped fate no matter how ridiculous or slim the chance; miracles do happen. But as the hours passed the absence grows steeper and it’s just a case of dealing with that drowning sensation, the disbelief countered by the knowledge; the two fighting it out – harsh reality winning in the end.

These people are hardened to war, to injury, death and loss but humanity reigns supreme and the love between brothers in arms has a strength all of its own.

The practicalities; the repatriation, who will accompany the body, the funerals, dominate the conversation. Several times I hear PM say, “No I’m not joking mate, I’m serious”, no one can quite believe. He takes it upon himself to let people know, he knows how precious information is; however much people don’t want to know this news they will need to know. He does that work though it must hurt enormously to say those words, to write them, with each iteration, scoring the reality deeper into him. I think he is brave and generous, the energy of his soul is working for his friends who are gone now.

Coming home from dinner I met PM back home, hugged him after he’d downed eight pints of guiness in various pubs , before starting in on the vodka back home, I didn’t blame him, how else do you work your way through losing two of your very good friends. Numb is probably a pretty good way to be.

I heard him talking long in to the night, talking to people in the United States as they woke up and heard the news. “DT, he’d only come for a week, just to fill in for someone else, he’d given up all the security work, wasn’t in Afghanistan full time anymore”. “CC wasn’t even supposed to be on that flight, he’d decided to go up to Kunduz just to get something finished. Later, in the quiet, I heard PM crying in the other room, mournful sobs that asked why is it this way?

I couldn’t sleep, found it difficult to just switch off and leave him out there alone. But I didn’t know these people and in truth I didn’t know what it felt like. I knew that he needed space to mourn alone, to think, contemplate and come to terms. At 2.45am he looked in on me and I got up to comfort him, to be with him. But he didn’t need that, he needed alone time. I got back into bed and recorded here my thoughts on the day. Let him grieve undistracted, without having to worry about how he looked in mine or anyone else’s eyes. Death is a strange and complete entity. In plain sight of death we contemplate our own mortality and that sensation of loss that is so fucking unfair.


  1. this grief is now ours Dear Karen,
    as we sit and grieve for your demise
    Be well wherever you maybe

  2. RIP Dr. Karen Woo

  3. Beautiful Dr. Karen Woo,
    Rest in Peace.

  4. It's a shame I've only gotten to know you today, here, posthumously.

    You had the kind of mind and heart I love.

    Rest in peace.

  5. My thoughts are with your family and friends.

    Here, movingly and profoundly, you have said all that can be said.

  6. what more is there to say? Regret and sorrow, please be at peace

  7. The unfairness of it all is beyond comprehension. Thank you for all the good you have done..may you now rest in peace. Our most sincerest condolences to your family, friends and colleagues.

    Tecumseh, Ontario, Canada

  8. Pretty words. They have the intended effect. Strange, though, how a doctor, one who loves medicine so much she gave up good money to go to Afghanistan as a volunteer, can make so many lengthy posts and never once speak about her work. I love what I do, and it's what is usually on my mind. Dr. Woo never speaks of her work, or the children she supposedly loves so much. None of the technical jargon doctors can't help but use. American sentence structures and slang, though she goes out of her way in many posts to remind us she is British. Never speaks about the work she loved so much that she died for. Never speaks about the work she loved so much she died for.

  9. This was truly a beautiful person. this post will I know challenge me to be a better person during my time on this planet. Thank you Karen.

  10. Thank you for sharing your thoughts with us as we mortals let your words sink in. Our time here is certainly valuable and you've shown us this with your own compassionate heart. My love & prayers goes out to your friends and family.

    Rest in peace...

  11. @ Joshua

    As someone who had the honour to briefly meet her when she was working at St Mary's hospital in London, I came here to leave my condolences. I wasn't expecting to need to leave this message.

    I am saddened to see that for some reason, you see fit to leave snide comments. You must lead a unfortunate and sad life for there to be reason for you to give no thought about the consequences of your comments on those family members and friends that Karen left behind.

    People are allowed lives outside their work. Just because she is a doctor doesn't mean she wasn't allowed a life outside medicine.

    The Bridge Afghanistan blog, which I know you have seen (and also made snide comments on) - is the one she used to talk about her work in Afghanistan; alongside the other volunteers.

    This site was her personal blog - and therefore was where she talked about her PERSONAL life, thoughts and feelings....

    Can I ask what is your point? (on second thoughts - don't bother answering - I'm not interested... )

    For your information... the questions you were (rudely) asking about her background on the other site- are freely available on the british newspaper internet sites such as the guardian article on the 7th Aug. I am not going to repeat the information here as I don't think it is appropriate. You simply need to do a little work for yourself, if you actually are that interested!

    Please stop making inappropriate and disrespectful comments on this and all other blogs to do with Karen, and let her family and friends grieve without your interference!

    Dear Karen, My thoughts go out to your family and friends...I think that they may take comfort in that you were doing work that was so important to you, but also in your words on this blog. Rest in Peace.

  12. Obviously a courageous woman, I hope her family and friends are as proud as they should be.

  13. And KSD, don't worry about what Joshua wrote. Some people are just fundamentally insensitive, oblivious about who might be reading these posts, and just don't know what is and isn't appropriate.

  14. I have not read such powerful words for a long time. Rest in peace, Karen and within the love of friends and people like us that you touched in this life.

  15. Such inspirational words, that leave me, an incoming medical student, in awe and admiration. Thank you for your exemplary courage, joie de vivre and quest for social justice, Dr. Karen.

    My thoughts and prayers are with your family and loved ones,

  16. I had the luck of meeting Karen in Kabul last fall, and she was so impressive. Very passionate about her work but also just so funny and graceful. What a shame to lose this beautiful soul. My thoughts and prayers to Paddy and all of Karen's family.

    Graham Smith
    Washington, DC

  17. Touched and saddened by Karen's life and death, and moved by her words. I cannot contemplate the pain of her family, friends and PM, and I hope that there is some comfort in knowing that strangers also mourn ... and wish that we had known her.
    Ruth, Leicestershire, UK

  18. "Death is a strange and complete entity. In plain sight of death we contemplate our own mortality and that sensation of loss that is so fucking unfair."

    I can't believe that two months before she died, Kory (like I know her) wrote these words. I'm devastated by her death. We were friends since uni and have had lots of talks, giggles, serious conversations, sharing our thoughts on love, life, men, cats...

    I will miss her lots.
    I wish her loved ones love and all the strenght in the world to deal with her loss.
    Liesbeth, Utrecht, Netherlands

  19. What an extraordinary, inspirational human being you were Karen. I am so sad we did not cross paths being in the same profession and living in the same city while you were alive.

    The effects of your life and work will be felt long after your death, I am sure of that. Rest in glorious peace.

  20. I will never forget you. I don't think that anybody could forget you, amazing Doctor Karen! You are a star, now shining. I just wish you were back here and still able to play your ukulele. :( x x x