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How to talk about grief and remember those who died

Maverick Life

REFLECTION

How to talk about your grief and remember those who died

A cracked heart with light shining from within lies on blue fabric. Image: 愚木混株 cdd20 / Unsplash

While we have to move on with our lives, we need not bow to the cultural obsession with rendering the dead invisible. Grief is not linear, but cyclical – like the aftershock of an earthquake, its ripple can be felt across temporal dimensions.

“A Map of Loss” was a conversation hosted by the Open Book Festival in March this year. It featured three authors who have written about grief – Bongani Kona, who edited a collection of stories entitled Our Ghosts Were Once People, Bridget McNulty, who penned a practical guide to dealing with death, The Grief Handbook, and Relebone Rirhandzu eAfrika, whose book Broken Porcelain deals with the grief entailed in living with chronic depression and anxiety. 

Conversations about death and dying can be a slippery slide into a hole of feeling yuk. Yet, the pandemic has shown us that we are biological, that life is finite and that we have to be able to talk about the geography of death within the boundaries of self and community. 

All three books featured in A Map of Loss are resources for thinking about loss and grief. Kona’s book is an iridescent collection of diverse stories from a range of writers. 

McNulty’s book was born on the backbone of her mother’s death, when she could not find a practical guide that told her how to step into the day-to-day reality of her loss. 

“When my mom died suddenly in 2019, I was in shock, my life was turned upside down. I turned to books, but I couldn’t find what I needed. I remember going into a bookstore and looking for a book and it felt like there were just too many words on the pages. My options were a book filled with words or a blank journal. 

“What I really wanted was for someone to say: ‘I see you. This is so hard, much harder than what anyone told you it would be. It totally sucks.’ ” 

In the absence of such a book, she decided to write it herself. McNulty’s book contains narratives on how to live with grief as well as space for journalling. 

Rirhandzu eAfrika’s book is somewhat different. It’s a bold soliloquy about living with the grief of depression and anxiety. The opening chapter of the book is about how Rirhandzu eAfrika survives a car accident and her immediate response is disappointment that she survives. She sums up her experience of being one of “the living dead” by describing it as being “alienated from existence and having an endearment for death”. Her book engages with the enormity of fighting off self-harm and suicidal ideation. 

“When I was first diagnosed with depression and generalised anxiety, I exhaled, because I felt that I had been heard. I had that ‘there’s a name for this’ feeling. My book is a memoir, but it also reflects on how people in society treat people with mental health illness and the stigma around it.”   

The physicality of grief

The Map of Loss discussion addressed the physicality of grief. McNulty describes this as a physical sensation of enormous fatigue and brokenness. How we carry grief in our bodies varies from person to person. It can manifest as physical ailments such as headaches and stomach pains, but it can also act out in other ways. 

McNulty explains, “You might start to do strange things such as sitting on the bathroom floor with no sense of purpose. I remember taking a glass out of a cupboard and it just fell out of my hand and smashed on the floor. Mentally, it feels like your brain doesn’t work. I couldn’t understand it at the time, I was worried that it was going to be permanent. The emotions are so overwhelming. Every single one of us is going to go through this, yet we don’t talk about how encompassing it is. It’s reassuring to know that it all is normal.” 

Rirhandzu eAfrika describes the physicality of living with depression. One night, wrought with the battle to survive, she stepped into the night and kept walking, with no idea of where she was going. She just knew that if she did not walk away, there was a risk that she would harm herself.

“Depression feels like you are close to death all the time – it is always there, lurking. You cannot escape it, even when you’re not in a depressive fog. At any moment, something can happen so that it flares up. It feels like you’re carrying death in you. Sometimes you do things like walking out into the night because you feel compelled to do something with that energy.”    

Remembering those who died

The Map of Loss conversation also focused on the importance of remembering the dead, particularly when there is both a personal and societal loss that accompanies a death. In Our Ghosts Were Once People, Kona’s essay deals with the loss of his grandfather who was abducted and killed in the war in Zimbabwe in 1979 as a result of a feud between the Zimbabwe African People’s Union (Zapu) and the Zimbabwe African National Union (Zanu). When death has a political and a societal cost, we are particularly obliged to remember the dead. 

Kona explains, “I never met my grandfather, yet his death is an intergenerational memory, an experience which defines me.” 

Kona asks the quintessential question, “What happens when the past demands something from descendants?” He explains that in traumatic instances such as war and genocide, intergenerational trauma can cause a rupture in time. As a result, part of what our ancestors could not take care of is in our hands. In this way, the past and the future come together, combining in the current moment. 

It is in remembering the trials, tribulations, victories and triumphs of the dead that we are able to think into the future – about what we want to envision and create for those who are to come. 

Rirhandzu eAfrika reminds us that there is a rite of passage in telling the stories of our ancestors.  

“We’re unable to be our full selves when there are chunks of us missing. We’re walking around with the DNA of our ancestors in our blood. So much of them is in us. We feel the things they felt, we’re connected to them somehow.” 

We do indeed have an obligation to carry forward the stories of our ancestors. Yet, Kona notes that we also need to think about under what terms we might be able to forget certain aspects of our past. 

Madeleine Fullard’s essay in Our Ghosts Were Once People is a testimony to when forgetting is impossible. Her essay describes her work at the Missing Persons Task Team of the National Prosecuting Authority and its attempts to trace the fate of those who disappeared in political circumstances and the efforts to recover their remains. It is exceptionally hard to forget the dead when the story surrounding their death is untold, when there are no remains to lay to rest. Kona describes this as “trying to get past the past when it’s impossible”. 

The rituals of burying the dead, of gathering, of time stopping for a moment, are an important part of letting go of the dead. When we are able to engage in such rituals, it’s important to find the sweet spot between letting them go and keeping them present. While we have to move on with our lives, we need not bow to the cultural obsession with rendering the dead invisible. Grief is not linear, but cyclical – like the aftershock of an earthquake, its ripple can be felt across temporal dimensions. DM/ML

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