What does death mean?
On Mama’s death
African Culture and Death
Lessons About Grieving
“Out, out, brief candle!
Life’s but a walking shadow, a poor player
That struts and frets his hour upon the stage
And then is heard no more: it is a tale
Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury,
(Shakespeare, Macbeth: Act V, Scene V, Line 23)
Every day, a gun is pointed at us and it is death’s finger on the trigger. Yet, we are not prepared. I agree with Macbeth when he says life “signifies nothing” but a breath.
My Mama died.
That news caught me unawares. I had spoken to her on Thursday. And, by Easter Monday, her soul left her body. The news broke something in me. Blood came to my mouth and it flowed into my head. Some questions flowed through my veins: Why? How? Where? When? Couldn’t you wait a little longer? How did she leave at the tender age of fifty-five?
I wish I was prepared. Then again, does one prepare for death? Does one ever want to hear this kind of news? Is there the right time to die? Preparing would mean contemplating the fact that one day we would all die or lose loved ones. Delusion made me think otherwise: death is a facade; as if, I am in control of destiny and as if living is not dying and dying is not living. This is an attempt to answer some questions through my own experience of hearing about my Mama’s death and some lessons learned about grieving.
WHAT DOES DEATH MEAN?
“None of us seems psychologically able to cope with the thought of our own state of death, with the thought of our own state of death, with the idea of a permanent unconsciousness in which there is neither void nor vacuum—in which there is simply nothing.” –How We Die, Sherwin B. Nuland
Sherwin Nuland’s book presents the grim picture of what we run away from and why we shy away from death. I, too, was not psychologically able to cope with the thought of my own state of death. I am not going to die. No. It won’t happen to me. I bask in that useless delusion that my life is guaranteed. And, after my Mama’s death, I was reminded that every moment could be the last.
Prepare for death. How can one do that? It’s simple. First accept that we are mortals and the end is nigh daily. Second, cherish the present and worry less about the past and future.
For death is the natural process of living and it is not an enemy. Only if we understand this would we be able to actually understand its significance. James Hollis reminds us in his fantastic book that death is “a mystery so profound that none of us really seems to grasp it until it has indisputably grabbed us.” Perhaps, our understanding of death has been influenced by religion. We pray that it doesn’t happen to us and we pray that it happens to us when we are old and that’s denying the natural human trajectory.
What does it mean “to die” and what is “death”? I believe “to die” is an ongoing existential phenomenon. We carry the ticking time on our head and when it stops ticking, that’s that. The more we live the more we are close to death. Our daily actions all lead to that inevitable end. I am going “to die” and I am in the act of dying as I live daily. I don’t know the time but it is an inevitable destination.
Death is actually not an ugly word. It is an end to an action called living. The cessation of the organs in the human body. Once the functional capabilities of the body stops, something leaves the body. It’s not only the demise of the body it is actually the cessation of something deeper.
I saw my Mama in the morgue. She couldn’t move. Laying there with eyes closed. Stiff. Something was out of her. That thing that binds us together was missing. Touching her would mean nothing as “death” itself has come on her; death shot its bullet and it caught my Mama. It took away her breath.
ON MAMA’S DEATH
I can’t describe my Mama’s death clearly with words. So, bear with me. Martin Heidegger once observed that the terrible has already happened. In this case, however, the terrible is hard to comprehend. What led to the terrible? That’s the question.
To describe her death in simple terms, she slept and did not wake up.
To describe it in long terms, she concluded her night prayers went to sleep. In the wee hours of Easter Monday, she wouldn’t wake up. Dad screamed for help, called the doctors but they couldn’t bring her back to life. And, just like that, she was gone.
I spoke to my Mama on Thursday before Good Friday. I didn’t know that that would be the last time I would hear her voice.
And, what’s worse, I had tried to reach her via WhatsApp on Easter Sunday but my efforts were to no avail. I was told by my siblings that the best way to reach her was to call her directly. I was on my way out and I promised to buy the calling card later. When I returned, I was tired and decided to push the call to tomorrow.
Next day, I decided to buy the call-card after my morning workout. After purchasing the calling card, I received the news.
I think I would live with the regret of that procrastination forever. There is no way to forget about how I allowed procrastination block me from saying goodbye or maybe if she heard my voice that Sunday something different could have happened. Now, I wished. I am bouncing on the balls of “should have” “could have” and “would have” and trust me those balls are really doing a number in my mind.
I keep wondering: why couldn’t she wait for me to make that call. There are so many things running through my mind. A deluge of crippling thoughts plagues my soul. A whirlwind exists in my mind. I don’t know if I would forgive myself but I think she would want me to. So, I would try.
Because my Mama’s mama is still alive, in a traditional sense, my Mama has to be buried immediately.
I traveled to Nigeria pronto. It was the longest six hours to Nigeria I have ever endured. I was numb throughout the flight. There was a man by left-hand side, who by all indications, was happy to be traveling to Nigeria. He sparked up a conversation:
Man: Where are you going to my brother?
First, I didn’t want to sound rude. But obviously, the flight was going to Lagos. So, there was no response from me.
Man: I mean are you going from Lagos to somewhere else.
I didn’t respond.
Man: Well, my name is S…..
Man: When was the last time you visited Nigeria?
Man: Since 2015, I’ve not been home.
Me: Where is home?
Man: I’m going to see my mum.
Me: And, how old is your mum?
Man: She is eighty three.
The cool breeze from the airplane’s air conditioning system literally went into my brains and crept down to my legs. I didn’t know what to say. To be honest, deep down, I wished I was the one going to see my mum at that age, I wished I could steal his space and energy, and I wished other things. After some seconds, I was able to allow the reality step into my consciousness: “I’m going to bury my mum.”
I closed my eyes and cried inside. No tears. I wept.
I think the man noticed that something wasn’t right with me and he never spoke with me again.
After six hours, I was At Murtala International Airport, the queue at the immigration was long and I could hear ticking clocks. I was exhausted not only by the long journey but also from too much alcohol I had drunk before and throughout the flight.
The next day, my siblings, a friend, and I traveled to Edo state for the burial of our Mama. It was a long seven-hour drive. That journey was physically and mentally bumpy.
ETSAKO CULTURE AND DEATH
The history of funerary rites in Edo state, Nigeria and in particular Etsako East, reveals the creativity of cultural and western agents in a local setting. Villagers, griots, and Christians all play their roles in the burial rites of any individual from this part of Edo State. My mother was an indigene, therefore, these influences played a significant role in her burial.
As a de-colonization scholar, I have to be careful not to dispose of the traditions of the Etsako people. These traditions are the people, moulds the mentality of the people and direct their daily well-being. However, I begin to ask myself what really is the benefit of these cultural innuendoes? Do they really matter? My cousins, aunts and uncles, all say it does. One of my aunts, in defence of the traditional rites, says “give to Caesar what is Caesar’s.” In this case, there were two Caesars.
Before the traditional burial rites, we moved my Mama from the morgue to St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Emokweme, where the priest from said a mass for her and prayed for her soul to enter the gates of heaven. After the mass, we took her again to my father’s compound in Emokweme where her casket was sprinkled with some holy water, some prayers followed and the casket was laid carefully into the ground. My siblings and I cast some soil on the casket and the priest said another set of prayers. I sat on the floor and watched as more soil was poured, now with frantic pace, by men employed to do the physical burial rituals at the grave site. There were some tears flowing in the background, there were so many people around the grave whispering and some people talking about the deeds of my mum while she was alive.
Everything gets lumped together in the scheme of things. How is the merging of two various beliefs—traditional beliefs and Catholicism— not going to be confusion? Surprisingly, it didn’t. As Africans, we have learned to mix them effortlessly.
So, as the priest departed, the vultures of traditions swooped in with coldness. The most important traditional rite is called Utugiemi. This ritual is carried out for an Amoya (the first daughter of a family) like my Mama. For an Amoya to find peace with their Maker, Utugiemi is performed and what’s more, it is a general belief that when this particular tradition is not done the person’s spirit will wander without finding peace with God. Dr. Vilma Ruddock’s asserts, in a similar vein, that the deceased must be buried “correctly” in order not to cause harm to the living. This correct burial is what we aimed to do but there are holes in this belief of correctness.
Now, to perform this particular ritual or to bury my Mama correctly in the traditional sense, a list of items was provided. The elders of the community collected items. Furthermore, the children of the dead must share some items to the community to complete this particular traditional rite.
These things were done swiftly. I’m reminded of that statement of giving unto Ceasar what belongs to Ceaser. But, then again, I am deeply pained at the capitalist approach of the so-called traditional burial rite performance. There I was watching as they called out the amount required for this particular event. I tasted the bitterness of culture and it was like pouring too much salt in one’s mouth.
I don’t know if it’s good or evil, these traditional rites. I think even Ceasar would be mad at the concept. Culture has been twisted on its head and now serves as a conduit to mask selfishness and self-gratification.
Elders were consulted, money prescribed. That’s the only way the rites would be complete. The gods are not to blame. When my face squints, there are strange looks thrown my way, whispering hurled at me and mocking fingers pointed at me for my lack of understanding traditions. How can one grieve as these events unfold?
In the meantime, there was food, loud music and lots of drink. I watched how we celebrated death. I was learning. I have a great, endless appetite for culture, but this particular one smacked it out of my mouth.
But as soon as I agreed to study the actual traditional burial rites in this part of Edo state, with regards to its significance, the fact presented an ugly face. When I dug deeper into the traditional construct, I concluded that it was simply extortionist propaganda. As with death, birth, weddings, and any other African tradition, this was visited with the intention to get money. African culture, in my mind, now wears a different attire.
LESSONS ABOUT GRIEVING
Quite often, after one loses someone close, there is an unusual amount of love poured towards the deceased and the family members of the deceased. I received my own fair share of love from family and friends. The amount of love and support poured on me by REAL family and friends was remarkable. I appreciate it and hold those individuals dear to heart.
However, there is that gnawing question that is always hard to answer after one has lost someone close. The question goes like this: “how are you?” I think this particular question doesn’t require truths. An answer like “I am fine” can’t work for me. No, I’m not fine. Sometimes, I wish the conversation starts with another question.
Fact: “we must all grieve sooner or later”. People keep telling me I will be fine. They say time heals. I hope so. Having asked some friends who have lost dear ones, how they handle grief, they all say the same thing: “it happens to the best of us and we all have to keep moving on”. What’s the best way to grieve? How does one move on?
“Moving on” is what I find hard to comprehend. How does one move on knowing that one would never see that same individual who gave you life? How does one take into consideration that the vacuum can never be filled again? And, how does one explain the disconnection? If we must all grieve, why am I hurt? Why did blood flow into my head and came out through both nostrils? If I know that death is our heritage in life, why do I feel shattered inside? My own sense of “moving on” has been plagued with so many questions.
Imagine making a call and there’s no one on the other side. You try and try again but your efforts are to no avail. That lack of connection, thereof, is the heaviness one carries around. That’ how grieving is to me. There’s a disconnection. It would never go away; it can only be managed.
I carry the memory of my Mama daily. I keep thinking what is the best way to honour her and I keep wishing she stayed a little longer. I know she won’t return but my mind keeps playing these little tricks that she is going to, one day, turn up at my door front.
No, I don’t know how to grief. I am learning. As time flows, I keep wondering how best to cope with this great loss.
Some others have said, “you have to remain strong.” I don’t know where that strength will come from. Again, it is something that I would have to learn.
I know that the gap will never be filled. I have learned, over the past couple of days too, that people grief a person’s demise for so many reasons—financial disconnection, emotional disconnection, and physical disconnection. My own grief stems from an emotional and physical perspective. I have learned, also, that there is no sure way to mourn a person. I know that sometimes one would have to be vulnerable to the emotional disconnection but at some point, one has to pick oneself and continue to live.
One important thing about grieving is that you miss the ordinariness of little things. For example, the simple “good morning” texts. I wish I could get one more of those texts. But, the reality remains, those texts would never come again. In addition to that, I wouldn’t see that full smile again. These little things become big and their simpleness makes them hard to forget.
On grieving, one must not draw solace from substances that subdue emotion or numbs the emotion. This could lead to dependence and consequently, lead to adverse effects. This is a vulnerable phase in life. It’s cool to be vulnerable but it’s not cool to lose reason and more importantly, one must watch out for individuals who try to thrive on these periods of vulnerability. I think one must face the issue at hand, understand the issue and move on from there.
For me, the lesson is, one should swim in the positive memories of the lost individual and tools to create a positive future. As such, I have decided to make a collage of memories in my head, use them when necessary to find strength and keep thriving to make my promises to my Mama come true.
Every step I take, every move I make
Every single day, every time I pray
I’ll be missing you
Thinking of the day, when you went away
What a life to take, what a bond to break
I’ll be missing you—Puff Daddy
I know grieving is hard. It’s something we would do one day or another. It carries lessons and I am learning to manage it. Our final destination as we know it remains death and, as such, cherishing the present should be our main goal in life. Regardless of what it is, this is life and one must learn to take it all in—one step at a time.