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Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s “Notes on Grief” Shows Me that Grief is a Stranger

It’s been roughly two years since the virus shook the world, and for a generation that is gung-ho about being viral, it completely took us by surprise. Like the scenes in an apocalyptic movie, the pandemic validates several rules of life for me, number one being that death is a part of life’s cycle (this was not the “circle of life” I had in mind each time I watched The Lion King). Each update on COVID-19 reminds me of the frailty of life. 

Fate loves playing cruel jokes, and because of that, loss becomes more personal than numbers or statistics. It hit my country during the #EndSARS protest and hit home even harder when I lost my grandma.

When award-winning novelist Chimamanda Adichie released her memoir “Notes on Grief,” an emotive body of work written in the weeks and months following her father’s death, the literary masterpiece opened up a world. It made visceral and tangible the intense suffering that comes with grieving the death of a loved one. 

The memoir reflected Adichie’s struggle over her loss and the cruel education grief served her. Exquisitely written, it is an ode to the remarkable life her father, James Nwoye Adichie, the first professor of statistics in Nigeria, lived and the void he left after death. Chimamanda wrote, “The void he leaves after death is a literal expression of the things I could never say or understand as I experienced loss, both death and an abrupt ending.”

Coincidentally, the memoir’s release came when I was still reeling from my grandma’s death. I call her Mama. As one of the most reliable people in my life, Mama’s death was my first experience with the cruel blows of death and grief. I was so doubled over with pain that I had no words to describe it.

With death comes the reality of facing life without the person you lost. It’s like being dumped in a strange universe without manuals. Worse still, only you exist in this vacuum of grief, not because you were the only one affected but because, just as people are as different as snowflakes, grief is felt differently by each of us. The reality was alien to me. How would I move on knowing Mama wouldn’t be there to hold me or tell me she loves me and is proud of her doctor?

My dictionary describes grief as an intense sorrow, especially after a loss. This definition is a straightforward yet grossly understated description of grief. Sorrow lacks depth and is one-dimensional compared to grief. I knew I was sorrowful, yet there was a deep unsettling inside of me that didn’t fit under sadness. There was anger, shame, hurt, and other emotions I can’t describe. How could I explain that Mama’s body in my hands had become a lifeless, soulless mass? There was rage. Absolute rage.

In addition to the emotional response of grief, there are the physical, cognitive, behavioural, social, cultural, spiritual, and philosophical dimensions. Grief is an uprooting, a stripping away of the familiar. Because some roots are not meant to be ripped away from the anchor, everything suffers—the earth, the plant, and the origins (read as body, soul, and spirit). I use the term “uprooting” as an allusion to what Chimamanda so eloquently expressed when she wrote, “The news is like a vicious uprooting. I am yanked away from the world I have known since childhood.”

Grief is a physical manifestation. Like a demon-possessed zombie, it assaults the body. Like the biblical two-edged sword, grief thoroughly divides the soul, body, and spirit. Adichie writes:

“… 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: my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth; on my chest, a heavy, awful weight; and inside my body, a sensation of eternal dissolving. My heart – my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here – is running away from me, has become its own separate thing, beating too fast, its rhythms at odds with mine. This is an affliction not merely of the spirit but of the body, of aches and lagging strength. Flesh, muscles, and organs are all compromised. No physical position is comfortable. For weeks, my stomach is in turmoil, tense and tight with foreboding…”

One thing the lyricality of Chimamanda’s words did for me was put all my motions in perspective. My loss was physical too. It wasn’t just a feeling on the inside. I experienced muscle spasms from constantly trying not to shed fresh tears, but my eyes were never dry, even from lack of sleep. It was physical hurt to stay in positions I wouldn’t normally be in. My heart hurt from the burning ache that became very familiar. I often wished I had gone with her so I wouldn’t feel, but there was no one I could voice such wishes to.

There will always be a physicality to grief. How else does it announce itself to all around you that it has come to stay? Or how will it so loudly proclaim the power it has over death? Since death has its sting, grief has been bestowed with lethal poison, reaching far into the depths of one’s being, beginning with the body. Often, we ask death for its sting and forget that grief is more brutal.

There is an abrupt transcendence that grief has. One that not even death in all its glory can wield. One could argue that this is what gives grief its power over death. Death’s boast lies in its finality and ending. But grief, the strength of grief, rests in its capacity to transcend space, time, emotions, and even languages. Psychologists say with time, you get used to the feeling of grief, but even now, it still hurts that I have learned to be numb.

“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. You learn how much grief is about language and words, the failure of language and the mindless search for words to say.” Chimamanda says of the power of grief to leave you speechless and wanting for words. “A failure of languages” to properly accept yet reject the glaring fact before you. A thief, grief.

Grief steals from you. A ruthless robber who will strip you of everything until you are exposed to the vulnerability of connecting each memory to the experience of grief itself. Of laughter, he laughs in your face, and it will trigger a fresh well of memories of how a particular incident used to make you laugh, or how the distinct smell of Aboniki balm and Ori will make you turn your head, thinking it was your Mama. But you know that it won’t ever happen again. As Adichie writes, “… now we laugh, remembering my father, but somewhere in the background, there is a haze of disbelief. The laughter trails off. The laughter becomes tears, which becomes sadness, which becomes rage. I am unprepared for my wretched, roaring rage.”

Then she wrote, “… rather than succour, my memories bring eloquent stabs of pain that say, ‘This is what you will never again have.’ Sometimes they bring laughter, but laughter like glowing coals that soon burst aflame in pain… a laugh that I will never laugh again. Never has come to stay. Never feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there.”

Of memories, grief simply tells you that it has the power to taint even the purest reminders of things you once treasured. It became painful to remember even the slightest things that once made me smile. I could not enjoy the birthday wishes my cousins would sing for me because it was missing the soothing voice of Mama. You see, there’s the ability to abuse even the inanimate. Things ethereal, things cherished, things immaterial, things invisible, things not protected from the overwhelming power of grief. “… part of grief’s tyranny is that it robs you of remembering the things that matter,” Adichie wrote. “His pride in me mattered more than anyone else’s.”

Irrespective, Chimamanda touches carefully on the objects that remind her of her father’s life. These objects that both comfort and haunt — the stones in the driveway to mark his daily exercise, videos she made from trips to Lagos, old sudoku books, the radio that he would always turn off, old photographs and letters that he wrote.

Grief is angry. He is outraged and will lade you with an anchor so heavy that you’re drowned in an unfamiliar sea of anger. Grief will always be angry. 

She described the rising resentment she felt seeing well-wishers that were older than her father had been. That was a blanket of comfort for me, knowing I wasn’t the bitter one for feeling such anger. Why were there people here older than Mama?

“… Needle pricks of resentment flood through me at the thought of people who are more than eighty-eight years old, older than my father and alive and well. My anger scares me, my fear scares me, and somewhere in there is shame, too – why am I so enraged and so scared?”

All of her friends’ attempts to comfort her with expressions of sympathy and well-intended wishes fall short, are ineffective, or are just irritating. Such a word as “demise” is hated ferociously. In her words, “‘Demise’. A favourite of Nigerians, it conjures for me dark distortions. ‘On the demise of your father.’ I detest ‘demise’.”

People saying “he is resting” were particularly annoying to Adichie. “He could very well be resting in his room in our house in Abba,” she says. And when people emphasise that her father lived a long life, she takes little consolation. “Age is irrelevant in grief; at issue is not how old he was but how loved.”

When I look back on this, I wish to show those who questioned my feelings and thought that they were childish. I was aware of Mama’s advanced age and deteriorating health, but I still wanted her to be with me because I cherished her so much. Like a young girl who loves her own mother, I adored Mama.

In describing her journey of grasping at illusions that grief conjures, Adichie creates a story of mourning that is both haunting and emotional, reflecting the fragmentation of the self after the death of a beloved one, in this case, her dear father. She ties it all with the intertwining of the two sides of suffering—grief, and love (after all, love is suffering)—with a line from her previous novel, “Grief was the celebration of love. Those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.” Words that now seem “exquisitely painful” to hear.

Grief is hurt and pain and unwavering colours of disbelief that daze you. You learn the things no one tells you about coping. No one told me grief was anguish on days I’d feel the phantom pain of you being cut away from me. No one told me it would cripple me, kicking me off my feet, cutting off the legs you gave me, and letting me fall deep into chasms when I realise you’re not coming back. You’re not coming back, are you?

That is why Adichie ended her memoir with words that displayed the depths of her agony and echoed, “I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.” I can’t believe I’m writing about “Mama Aboi” in the past tense.

For me, writing this was as eye-opening as it was hard. I know that loss comes with certainty in life. I have experienced the deaths of loved ones and friendships ending, mourned as a part of a dying country, been a third party to a divorce, and tried to offer condolences to those who experience loss. Still, words appear flimsy in the face of grief.

Very few people talk about how, although grief hits like a torpedo after death, death has no monopoly over grief. Loss equalises things. Whether it be the end of a precious relationship, a nasty divorce, the loss of a dream, or a miscarriage, there is a jaded comfort in that we will all feel a baseline emotion one day. 

One day, maybe another loss will visit me, and when grief, its obstinate cousin, comes knocking on my door, how will I welcome it and send it packing? But amid that comfort is the dreadful knowledge that someday loss will come calling in a different form, and I will not know how to send the grief it brings away.

So, as I grieve, I will remember that I feel this way because I’ve loved. And when subsequent grief arrives, whether invited or not—when it arrives because endings are an unavoidable part of life, when it arrives in all of its ugly and vile shades, when it arrives wanting to settle in a home not built to withstand it—remember to make it uncomfortable because, no matter how long it stays, grief is a stranger.

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