While what happens after death is a topic of interest for many, and our religions offer us condolences in the form of narratives around rebirth, heaven, etc. a lot of us on this planet have to live through the death of others before we run past the finish line of our own mortality. For a lot of us, we will not be the first person to die in our most immediate family or in our household. So we will have to go through the tyranny of what death can do to the loved ones of the one who has passed. Grief pays a visit and will stay for long, longer than the most impolite of all guests.
“How do people walk around functioning in the world after losing a beloved father?” asks Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in her book Notes on Grief, a book dedicated to her father James Nwoye Adichie (1932-2020). This personal and powerful essay vocalises grief and the aches one feels or will feel on the worst day of their life. The essay begins with Adichie capturing a Zoom call between her, her parents and siblings a day before her father passed away. You can tell right away that they are a close family. For many of us, it comes as a surprise: What does it feel like to have a family that has something to talk about over Zoom calls? What does it feel like to have a family that talks?
About her father’s passing, Adichie writes:
The news is like a vicious uprooting. I am yanked away from the world I have known since childhood. My breathing is difficult. Is this what shock means, that the air turns to glue? Grief is a cruel kind of education. You learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger. You learn how glib condolences can feel. Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is. This is an affliction not merely of spirit, but of the body, of aches and lagging strength. Flesh, muscles, organs are all compromised.
Out of death arises the turmoil of those who have been left behind – the turmoil of disbelief, the unconscious grabbing of air with bare hands to pull it all back, the constant reenacting and reshaping of moments just before death to make it un-happen, the brief moment of forgetfulness the next morning and then the sudden cruel recollection of loss, the scarring and scattering of one’s soul, and lastly, the anger at the world for going on as if nothing really happened.
“Is it possible to be possessive of one’s pain?” she asks. It’s not just possible, it’s the only way. I had failed to take up the opportunity to visit my grandmother before she passed away. The fact that I wasn’t very close to her still didn’t take away the guilt that came with missing her death. So while my sister and I found ourselves in our own personal, private mourning over two thousand kilometres away from her, a little cat showed up outside our door the next afternoon. I had my back facing the sliding door when I heard my grandmother’s voice calling me by my pet name. I was so startled that I called out to my sister immediately. Goosebumps on my arms. We went out to the balcony to see a little cat trying to get our attention, swaying herself between our legs and bravely meow-ing her way into our living room. Quite ballsy for a kitty. Even if the experience sounds woo-woo or even a bit eerie to others, my sister and I know in our hearts that we were visited by our grandmother one last time.
Not all deaths affect us the same. Not all deaths will feel like we’re dying too. So there will be that one worst day of our lives for all of us. If we’re lucky to have loved abundantly, there will be more than one.
“I regret my past certainties: Surely you should mourn, talk through it, face it, go through it. The smug certainties of a person yet unacquainted with grief. I have mourned in the past, but only now I have touched grief’s core,” Adichie writes. Nevertheless, the anticipation of death is cruel too in a lot of ways. Whether it’s a new mother’s thoughts about her child falling off the stairs or a daughter’s plight of watching her father being careless about his diabetes, we are overwhelmed by pre-death. The anticipation of an illness, the sudden anxiety over a parent not waking up at their usual time, an untimely phone call, a really bad dream. But no matter how much we presuppose all the ways death can touch our loved ones, we will never truly be prepared for it. “We don’t know how we grieve until we grieve,” Adichie adds.
And we will all grieve differently. It will not have anything to do with who we think we are or how the world sees us. On our worst day, our world, as we have known it, would change. And, as a saving grace, there will arise a tough, almost-warlike spirit within us. Adichie captures this newly-risen mad fearlessness beautifully when she writes:
“Enemies beware: the worst has happened. My father is gone. My madness will now bare itself.”
Our grief is the closest thing to understanding death before we’re dead ourselves. “I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss, but the love, the continuity. I am my father’s daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present,” Adichie writes.
Grief is our stubborn instinct to continue loving that which has gone. By grieving in whatever way that speaks to us, we offer death some company.