Editors’ note: To protect the privacy and dignity of the author’s friends in Syria, details are vague. This also recognizes the sensitive political situation in Syria.

His name in Arabic means grateful and hers meant hope. He was the leading religious figure in a moderately sized town in Syria. When I first met them, they had four grown children and a granddaughter.

I have been involved in Catholic- and Christian-Muslim dialogue for five decades. More than 30 years ago I was in Syria to visit Sheik Ahmad Kuftaro, the grand mufti of Syria, the leading member of the Sunni community. I also wanted to experience the faith of the average Syrian, however, and through various contacts I was introduced to “Grateful,” his family and his colleagues.

Muslim and Arabic hospitality is legendary and the family I met were experts. I was invited into their home, which was a great honor, since people in some parts of the Middle East are reticent to invite people into their homes. In my experience, Syrians — especially in urban areas — tend to be serious and reserved. My host was incredibly hospitable and kind, but he was by nature and calling a deep, reserved and scholarly man. His wife, on the other hand, was a person whose very presence lit up the room. She was a person for whom language differences simply did not matter. She was a born communicator. Active, quick to laugh and with startling blue eyes that she laughingly “blamed” on “Crusaders.”

Despite the times, age, revolution and war, we have remained in contact with one another —mostly through letters, but occasionally through Skype. “Grateful” and I referred to each other as “aḥî,” my brother.

The civil war in Syria began in 2011. My friends were not far from the action, but far enough to avoid violence initially. That was not to last and their lives were to change radically. One of their sons was an officer in the Syrian military and was kidnapped by the rebels. For a long time they did not know where he was or if he was even alive. Eventually, we learned where he was and that he was indeed alive. Ultimately and tragically, he was killed by the rebels in what was supposed to be a prisoner exchange.

Life got harder in their town and basic medicines and provisions became prohibitively expensive, if they were available at all. “Hope” had a stroke or heart attack and was unable to get the medical care and medications she needed. She died within weeks.

There were three married children living near their family home. Two young males were able to flee Syria a year apart and make their way to northern Europe with the hope of bringing their wives later. When the father of one of the wives tried to get his daughter out of Syria to be reunited with her husband, they were arrested at the border and he was jailed by the government. Finally, she was able to get to her husband in northern Europe by way of Sudan. The family was getting smaller and smaller through death, imprisonments and emigration. Ultimately, “Grateful” was all alone with one married daughter to look after him. He insisted on remaining in the family home.

When the earthquake hit on Monday, most of the U.S. media coverage focused on Turkey, but there was mention of destruction in Syria. I was able to contact relatives of my friends to inquire how they were and how much the earthquake impacted them. I suspected there might be some damage, but thought their town was far enough away from the epicenter.

I was mistaken. The house next to the family home collapsed and killed the inhabitants. My friend was forced to go to the “countryside.” Initially, I was told the building where his daughter, son-in-law and grandchildren had lived had been severely damaged and that they were “unaccounted for.” Yesterday, I learned the entire family had perished in the building.

By the time we reach our seventh decade, we are all more or less acquainted with loss and suffering. They are part of life. Yet sometimes that loss and suffering are overwhelming. It is no longer tragedy; it is staring evil in the face. It is no longer admiring someone for their fortitude in adversity, but being totally at a loss to grasp the magnitude of their suffering.

At times when faced with grieving friends, we do not “know what to say.” Then there are times when we are simply dumbstruck.

Emily Dickinson wrote, “After a great pain a formal feeling comes.” A formal feeling is a poetic way of describing overwhelming, debilitating shock. The man I met more than 30 years ago became a friend. He was respected in his town; his children, their spouses and grandchildren surrounded him as he moved into retirement. And now he is alone.

I keep thinking of the verse in Matthew: “A voice was heard in Ramah, wailing and lamenting. It was Rachel weeping for her children. She would not be consoled because they were no more” (2:18).

I desperately want to do something and will do what I can. But I know it will never be enough. And so I write. I write so that a dear family in Syria will not be forgotten. I write to remind first myself and then hopefully others that statistics do not have faces or names. If what I write can change that in any way, if I can put faces on the numbers, I am to some extent consoled. Please pray for “Grateful,” “Hope” and their family.

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