Will there come a time when I no longer ask why the world is like a mean street, because I shall take the squalor as normal? Does grief finally subside into boredom tinged by faint nausea?C. S. Lewis 2004, 36
Does grief ever pass? Can we say of it, “now I have gotten over it,” or “now I have gotten over the worst of it”? I thought so at some point. I think I was wrong. And I think one should never place such an expectation on oneself or on others.
About a couple of weeks after my loss, I had to write a short bio of myself for a website. Then came the moment I needed to state how many children I have. That seemingly simple decision rocked me silly. I couldn’t proceed for a day. I did all my crying and came back to it. Still, I was stuck.
I knew I had to decide how to move on. I toughened it out and typed three children. Panic seized me. Everything in me revolted. No! I have four children! I erased the number three and replaced it with four. It felt better.
But do I have four children? I ended up writing something to the effect that my marriage to Isuwa has been blessed with four children, but Anya had gone to be with the Lord. There! That sounded a lot better, I had my peace.
I had to remind myself many times after, for sanity’s sake, that Anya is still a member of the family who has only changed places; I am still unable to accept or explain her absence any other way.
How well this new way of viewing things—of defining my family and myself as a mother—has worked out for me and for how long it will continue to do so, I am yet to decipher beyond the fact that it gives me comfort and mental stability. But, does it mean I’m stubbornly holding to my old life and refusing to move on?
If by moving on it is meant continuing with the daily routine of existence, then, of course, life moves on after loss; it never stops. For example, that very morning we had to decide what to do with Anya’s body: whether to bury it that same day or keep it in the mortuary until our state’s COVID-19 lockdown—which was starting at midnight—was relaxed. That would be after a week. We also had to break the news to her siblings, one of the most difficult things Isuwa and I have ever done.
Later on, we had to make burial arrangements by first informing family, friends, and the church: digging a grave (deciding the place for the burial, to begin with), getting a coffin, bathe and dress her up, receive guests who were trooping in to condole with us. Indeed, life moved on. It had to.
But, if by moving on we mean setting aside the interruption that a loss brings and continuing with life where we left off, then it is impossible. It is even rude to tell anyone to move on in that sense. My life the way that it was ended the very moment Anya was pronounced dead.
Everything in me cries for the life I knew before that moment, yet I cannot return to it let alone move on with it. My life has been altered forever. This is a different life, a new reality that will, no doubt, soon become my new normal, but it is new alright.
Come to think of it, my life was altered when I first became a mother, and more specifically when I became Anya’s mother. It was a rocky beginning; I didn’t like that I was pregnant at that point in my life. I was terrified. Yet, needless to say what joy she brought to me later on. She became my light, my therapy from a difficult life of living and studying in a foreign land.
Grieving is a process, but it is neither a predictable process nor one that ends. I have stopped trying to make sense of it. It is intellectually impossible. I won’t even give myself time, however much, within which to heal (since I don’t know what healing will look like). I’d rather endure the unbearable suspense; one day I am hearty, the next I am back in a ditch.
The week before last I lived in a state of mental and emotional torture, a cyclonic storm that turned my world into chocking darkness. Nothing could divert me; no novel was good enough, not even Tolstoy with his literary charm could suck me into his universe of unending drama. Reading my Bible helped some.
I wrote a poem to describe sadness, hoping to gain a mental grasp of the world I had tumbled into. Writing the poem did work some magic. Perhaps grief belongs more in the world of poetry where words operate by a different logic.
The book of Job in the Bible makes that apparent. I watched my husband go through his own suffering wordlessly. I hope and pray that my children are too young to dwell too long in the valley of grief.
When I read C. S. Lewis’ description of his recurring grief in the early days of mine, it didn’t make the kind of sense it now does:
Tonight all the hells of young grief have opened again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps on emerging from a phase, but it always recurs. Round and round. Everything repeats. Am I going in circles, or dare I hope I am on a spiral? But if a spiral, am I going up or down it? How often—will it be for always?—how often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realized my loss till this moment’? The same leg is cut off time after time. The first plunge of the knife into the flesh is felt again and again.Lewis, 56-67
Both C. S. Lewis and Jerry Sittser describe their losses as amputation, a helpful description. The wound may heal, but the missing limb never grows back. We only learn to live with the inconvenience, the damage never fully amends.
The stump remains both as an aesthetic predicament and a painful reminder of an irreplaceable loss. I should know that. Twelve years ago, I lost the tips of two fingers on my left hand to an accident.
Sittser, who lost his mother, wife, and daughter in the same accident, writes:
Our sense of personal identity depends largely on the roles we play and the relationships we have. … My awareness of this amputation of the self comes to me like a reflex. Even after three years of widowhood, my psyche is still programmed to look for people who are no longer there. I crawl into bed at night and wait for Linda to cuddle with me.… .What defines me as a person—my sexuality, my intellect, my feelings, my convictions, my plans—still searches for her like a homing pigeon for its roost. But the self I once was cannot find its old place to land. It is homeless now.Sittser 2004, 81-82.
I fear what losing a spouse must be like. I remember how thankful I was that I had Isuwa to grief with; to comfort me. I couldn’t imagine that he was the one who had died. Not that Anya is less important to me than her father, just that she was more dependent on me than I was on her.
My love for Anya is maternal, what C. S. Lewis in his book The Four Loves (1960) calls Need-love; the love of a child to its mother, and Gift-love; the love of a mother for her child. It is no less strong—in fact, it can be stronger—than romantic love. The loss of a child has ended many marriages. My maternal desire to protect her at all costs has been the source of my misery at her death.
I remember people who have been through loss such as mine telling me that it never goes away in the sense that you get over it and move on. I cannot say how many times I have wished they are wrong. An elderly woman, whom I admire and respect very much, came to greet us and we got talking. She referred to losing a nephew over 15 years ago, then became emotional and couldn’t speak much until she left. I panicked that my pain was never going to go away. I can already see how they are right.
Losing a loved one comes with variations of injuries, depending on the attachment formed with the deceased and perhaps also the condition under which they depart. Some losses are fatal; the one left behind is not able to survive it. But most are simply life-altering, and because most times losses are unexpected, the alteration is sharp and quick.
Anya’s demise was so unexpected. I have never been least prepared for anything my entire life. We all know that death is inevitable, but we expect to bury our parents, not our children, just as we expect that our own children would bury us. It was less than 22 hours from the time Anya complained of having a headache to the time she died. Nothing warned me.
I have always envisioned Anya by my side, even standing beside my deathbed when I finally die. I expected that she would be home with me when her older siblings grow up and leave (there is six years gap between her and my second youngest). Despite life’s uncertainties, I did not see her leaving me this early.
I have experienced a shrinking in my heart since Anya died, a certain incapacity to extend myself beyond my immediate family. I feel emotionally tired. This I know will pass someday. But her death has opened up a new world, a new reality that was closed to me before: a community of loss.
My heart now gravitates in that direction. Losing Anya took me back into the pain of people I know who lost loved ones but whose pain I was unable to understand or experience. I have a cousin who lost her husband barely a year after marriage. She was pregnant with their first child. This was more than twenty years ago, but I found myself mourning afresh for what she suffered.
I remembered those whose family members were wiped out by Fulani herdsmen in Nigeria, leaving them as sole survivors. Goerge Floyd’s murder, reminding me of the misfortunes of black people. The surge in bizarre rape cases in Nigeria and around the world, bringing to mind the sufferings of the female gender, young and old alike.
Several such incidents came to mind and I wept and prayed for the people. I have found extraordinary grace to pray for those who are suffering all manner of losses more than I have ever done before. I felt quite what C. S. Lewis is saying when he says,
If I had really cared, as I thought I did, about the sorrows of the world, I should not have been so overwhelmed when my own sorrow came. It has been an imaginary faith playing with innocuous counters labelled ‘Illness,’ ‘Pain,’ ‘Death,’ and ‘Loneliness.’Lewis, 37
But maybe that is how it is. I don’t know that we can quite understand the sorrows of others without experiencing severe sorrow ourselves. It is like birthing; no woman can truly understand the pain of labor without undergoing it herself. Jesus became our great high priest who is able to feel sympathy for our weaknesses by suffering what we suffer (Heb. 4:15).
Tragic loss isolates the sufferer from others, but it also creates in the sufferer an inexplicable connection with those who suffer like they do. Will I someday forget all these and move on? Not possible. Loss changes the sufferer for good; they never simply move on.
The irony is, I don’t even want to go back to the way I was before my loss, except if that would bring my baby back. I have received comfort from others more than I deserve. I may get over some specific painful memories of Anya, but I hope to continue to be bettered by her loss. Hopefully, I may become a better comforter myself.
I do not ask my cross to understand,
My way to see —
Better in darkness just to feel Your hand,
And follow Thee.J. R. Macduff