Can there be joy with grief?
Between 1995 and 2017, I worked primarily for the United Nations (UN) system as an HIV educator and program manager. During those years–decades–with UNAIDS, then UNICEF, and later the UN Department of Peace Operations, I had the good fortune to meet people all over the world, from all over the world and all walks of life. This has been one of my greatest joys, the gift of knowing so many extraordinary human beings.
However, it also brings a sense of sadness from time to time because, invariably, some of these people die. In a career with the UN, it is a sort of occupational hazard, yet each time it catches me off guard, and my heart aches.
Yesterday, I was on Facebook for a quick scroll to wish people Happy Birthday, as I try to do each day, and I was shocked to find a post linked to the page of a Birthday girl that announced the passing of one of our former colleagues, our friend.
Ingrid Molina De Schrils.
I assumed I’d misread it because I just had cataract surgery and my eyes are wonky. And, because I simply could not believe it was true. I squinted and dug a bit deeper only to find my one good eye had, indeed, read those very words. And my heart sank.
Ingrid was a five-foot-something human-sized mountain. She was glorious and awe-inspiring. A military doctor from the Dominican Republic, Ingrid headed the HIV Unit for the Peacekeeping Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH) for many (many) years. I honestly am not sure when or where I first met Ingrid, but our first mission together was in 2007 to Abkhazia, the breakaway state in Georgia. She was on loan from MINUSTAH and I was on loan from UNICEF. An excellent example of inter-agency UN cooperation.
As a health professional, she was intimidating. She knew her facts, inside and out. And she understood the way military ranking and priorities work. In one meeting, she shut down — like slam, nope, you’re done — a medical training officer in the mission because he was trying to justify why they weren’t taking the HIV prevention work seriously.
Shut. Him. Down. Boom!
Dark-haired, smiling, and gregarious, this switch in Ingrid to utter seriousness took me by surprise and also shut me up. I didn’t even know how to join in the conversation at that point. Of course, I didn’t need to. Ingrid was working her magic. She stood taller and explained the error of the man’s thinking as he shrank and took her words to heart. In the end, she prevailed and he sheepishly agreed that he’d been mistaken. Which, dear reader, he absolutely had been. Her resolute voice and no-nonsense demeanor set everyone straight so our work could proceed.
We spent about a week together in Sokhumi, the sleepy capital of Abkhazia, offering training for the peacekeepers based there and in-depth facilitation sessions for all of the mission’s medical personnel on how and why they needed to do ongoing HIV awareness and education sessions in-mission. We worked hard but we also laughed. A lot.
One day, the medical director who supervised the misguided training officer invited us to lunch on the Black Sea. We ate fish and chatted about life and work and the realities faced by those serving in peacekeeping missions. The setting was stunning, gentle waves lapping the shore meters from our feet with the majestic Caucasus Mountains at our backs, reminding us that Russia was always in earshot.
We went to the local market and tried our nearly non-existent Russian as we bought fruits and candies for our jet-lagged midnight snacks. And we talked and got to know one another and learned why each of us was doing the work we did. From those conversations, the thing that struck me the most was Ingrid’s devotion to her family. It seemed that every single thing she did was in the service of her family and ensuring a better life for her kids and eventual grandkids. She saw her day-to-day life as a part of who she was, but only a part, because who she was was a wife and mother, first and foremost. Had I not had those days with Ingrid, I might not have known that about her because she was as serious as they come and many United Nations staffers end up consumed by their work. But Ingrid had her priorities clear at every moment and her family always came first.
On our last night in Sokhumi, after dinner, the mission staff plugged in the speakers and blasted music in the rec hall and we danced and danced and danced until our legs gave out. The next day we returned to Georgia for our departure from Tbilisi that night, vowing to keep in touch, which we did for years to come.
The photos I’ve included here are from a meeting in Entebbe, Uganda, which serves as a major hub for peacekeeping training and services in Africa. In June of 2017, when I was briefly the HIV Advisor for Peacekeeping at the United Nations Headquarters in New York, I again was reunited with Ingrid–as I had been many times in the intervening years–at a meeting for all of our peacekeeping HIV Advisors. Again, we worked hard and also hugged, danced, and laughed. A lot.
I’ve kept in touch with Ingrid through Facebook, as I do with much of my international community, but I left that job and she left hers soon thereafter so our professional ties ceased as we each continued on to new paths in our lives. Mine included teaching and hers included becoming a grandmother and enjoying some well-deserved time off.
To learn now that this vibrant, beautiful, powerhouse has left us too soon crushes my heart.
Ingrid, it seems, was cheated of those golden years. Years to be spent relaxing with her husband, Carlos, and their family. It doesn’t seem fair when so many a**holes live to be so old that a soul so kind, generous, and beautiful, is taken.
I’ve spent my life mourning friends, particularly as I’ve navigated my own path with HIV wondering when my own expiration date would finally hit. So when someone dies for some other reason who is my age or younger, it really pisses me off. And for Ingrid, I’m angry and sad and confused and hurting. And yet, I have to also be joyful for all of the good she did in the world and for all of the lives she saved and changed, including my own.
Hug the people you love and tell them, regularly, how much they mean to you.
I’m so sorry our last goodbye in Entebbe was, indeed, our last goodbye sweet Ingrid. I pray for peace for your beautiful family and know that you’re looking out for us all. Rest in Power.
Martina Clark is the author of My Unexpected Life: An International Memoir of Two Pandemics, HIV and COVID-19. Ingrid’s energy and soul live on through our stories. This piece was originally posted to the authors blog on martina-clark.com.