What is mourning, and what is grief?
The loss of a loved one is perhaps something no one will ever be fully able to perfectly transcribe into words. If the one who is left behind feels bereft, how can some other such person’s words provide solace? Or can it?
Grief is multifaceted, just as much as mourning is. We all mourn differently. I for one have a really bad habit of repressing my memories. I know of a friend who became cruel to well-wishers who had gone to offer condolences. There’s a distant relative who laughed and laughed when they got the news. There’s an ancestor who went mute.
Who feels their grief the most? Who wears it proudly as a shroud, as armour to establish a barrier between acceptance and denial? Who is graceful in the face of loss? And can there be grace in someone’s denial of the loss of a loved one?
Disclaimer: I received a review copy of this book from HarperCollins India in exchange for my honest views.
I recently read Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, an essay written in the aftermath of her father’s death. Aftermath. That is a heavy word indeed. As though all the ravage that is left behind after something, or in this case someone, passes away, is grave and vicious. And indeed, isn’t that’s what’s left behind? The ravages of their love? Their memory? It all eats away at the soul and makes the pain a physical entity. How do you suddenly start talking about someone in the past tense? How do you write ‘was’ from what was once ‘is’?
But what’s more striking is that Adichie’s essay picks apart this aftermath from experience. It is more touching precisely because of this experiential aspect that the author writes with. As is her effect in other works too, Adichie’s voice cannot be suppressed. And this time around, her words will provide solace to the sons and daughters and spouses and friends and relatives who have been left bereft by the innumerable deaths.
It is impossible to not be teary-eyed at reading this essay, written by a daughter to her lovely father, who is unfortunately no more. Here, Adichie is more a daughter and less an author. And you know what? With the quivering emotions that jump right out at the reader, it is more than enough.
Rather than succor, my memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, “This is what you will never again have.
Written in bite-sized chapters, Adichie’s work includes a range — from memories of funny incidents of her father to the way she teased the coming together of her parents, the essay packs a punch. So much of it also gives us a glimpse of what the author herself went through, miles away from her hometown in Nigeria, surviving in grief and the hope that the flight restrictions would lessen and she could go home.
We text “my condolences”, “RIP”, “may their soul be at peace” when we hear of people dying. It has become more common in today’s scenario when death is so near us, living amongst us. It has become so common that my phone’s keyboard prompts these words while I type as if this lifeless thing too, knows of the inevitable loss of a life of someone I perhaps know. But do we really mean any of those words?
Maybe we feel the prick of shock or a tinge of sadness to know of how so and so lost a family member. But then, what? We go on, boats against the tide, pushing forward relentlessly because even though we are in the work-from-home mode, we still have to hustle, right?
I regret my past certainties… The smug certainties of a person yet unacquainted with grief. I have mourned in the past, but only now have I touched grief’s core.
In today’s Covid wrecked world, this loss has become so common. We have been desensitized to death. In India, the iron grills on the cremation grounds have melted down due to overuse. In a video shot by a drone camera, hundreds and maybe thousands of dead bodies are dots on the grey sands on the Ganga riverbanks.
So many families do not get to see the bodies of their loved ones. I try to shrug my shoulders and move away from the TV screen in my parents’ bedroom, which shows men and women crying and sobbing, their voices rending the air and shaking me, thousands of miles away, safe in my home.
Until now, grief belonged to other people… Does love bring, even if unconsciously, the delusional arrogance of expecting never to be touched by grief?
Perhaps we only really feel it in our bones when we lose our own person. Perhaps it is only then that it becomes real for us — how flimsy life is. When I read Notes on Grief, it led to a visceral reaction in me maybe because I was, I am, a daddy’s girl. For girls like us, the loss of a father is unimaginable. I read Adichie’s words and for a second my mind tried to imagine what it would have been like, had it been me writing those words and feeling first-hand all those emotions. Had it been me who had lost a father.
I will never see my father again. Never again.
It was my greatest fear as a melodramatic child — what if something happened to my parents while I was in school and I got to know of my loss from the nuns at my convent. It was and still is my greatest fear. And so, this book devastated me. I cried reading it because the pain that the author felt was so reflective of my deep-rooted fears as a daughter, as a child to my parents.
And I thought, how can these words by a foreign author touch me so deeply? How can a woman I don’t know, write so poignantly, in such a bittersweet manner? How can a woman whose ideologies I do not agree with, make me relate so much with her in this loss?
But then, I see it. Adichie writes of something inherent in human beings. And yet, when affronted with it, we become irrevocably afraid, angry, sad. Human mortality, loss of a loved one, and death are some things that we are still unable to grasp. We love and therefore and unable to accept death.
Attempting to write a ‘review’ feels like an insult to this loss. I couldn’t really dare. So I tried to write down what it made me feel and think — in as much as I was able to face my own fears. Loss is never really definable. So how could I go ahead and try to pick apart the words and critique this beautiful but raw and powerful homage to a loving father by a bereft daughter?
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