Notes On Grief

Withering Leaves

Photograph by Vanessa Ochotorena on Unsplash

I recently read Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. I didn't plan to. I saw the book in the Amazon's home page suggestions and I started reading.

The author's father died during Covid from a kidney malfunction. In the book, she tries to do two things –

  1. Remember her father. As you'd read this tiny but profound book you'll live memories of difficult, shocking, sudden, chortling, sarcastic and innocent humour times. It's so heartening, and at the same time not so surprising, to see so much humour filled in a grieving book.

  2. Grieve, feel and write out of urgency.

Following are some humorous details from the book to give you a sneak peak —

⚠️ Spoilers ahead

Author's mother refering to author's father:

He won't eat because he's busy playing sudoku

Author's father:

You don't play sudoku. It's not Ludo.

Author would quip:

James and Grace, bickering since 1963.

'I have eight cars', my sister's wealthy suitor once boasted, and my father replied, 'Why?'

Once, in the middle of watching an American newscast, he turned to me and asked, 'What does this word "nuke" mean?' And when I told him, he said, 'Nuclear weapons are too serious to be given nicknames.'

When my brothers and I surprised him on his eightieth birthday, arriving at our parents' flat in Nsukka from the US and the UK, he kept looking at my mother in bafflement that she could have 'lied' to him. 'But you said some friends were coming. You didn't say the children were coming.'

And the author had to clarify why:

'No, Daddy: she wasn't allowed to say. That's what a surprise is.'

Note how innocent and cool this is, given that the author's father was the first professor of statistics in Nigeria.

A Scene from my daughter's first months: my father is hurrying upstairs, my daughter is a howling baby downstairs in my mother's care. He has been sent up for the pacifier, whose name he does not remember, and so he urgently gestures to his mouth and tells me, "Mouth plug!" Months later, my daughter's potty training has passed the milestone of pee, and now she has been cajoled to sit on the potty and do more than pee, a rapt audience of family watching her, and my father wanders in and mildly asks, 'Would any of you go if you had so many people watching you?'

About a funny incident, involving a billionaire trying to take ancestral land in Abba and only person — Ikemba Njikoka — willing to publicly oppose,

Nobody in Abba was close to having the wealth and political connections of the billionaire, but there was a straight-talking businessman, Ikemba Njikoka, who was funding my hometown's legal expenses and speaking publicly about the billionaire's conduct. He himself had been threatened. The WhatsApp message on my father's phone had been forwarded by Ikemba Njikoka, saying that 'you' would be arrested at a town hall meeting this weekend. My father, not WhatsApp savvy, did not realise that it was a forwarded message and thought that he was about to be illegally arrested. He had spent the day silently burdened by this.

Author's father was kidnapped for ransom from her famous daughter. This is what he said after he returned:

They didn't pronounce your name properly, so I told them the correct pronunciation.

The author shares the pain she goes or went through, having to accept the death a little too quickly because their origin culture demands it —

But the most important thing [about a person dying in Igbo culture] is 'Clearance'. Clearance attests to how deeply, how forcefully communitarian Igbo culture remains. Clearance means that any outstanding dues to the age grade, the town union, the village, the clan, the umunna, must be paid; otherwise, the funeral will be boycotted.

There is much I find beautiful in Igbo culture, and much I quarrel with, and it is not celebratory nature of Igbo funerals that I dislike, but how soon they have to be. I need time. For now, I want soberness. A friend sends me a line from my novel: 'Grief was the celebration of love, those who could feel real grief were lucky to have loved.' How odd to find it so exquisitely painful to read my own words.

I finally understand why people get tattoos of those they have lost. The need to proclaim not merely the loss but the love, the continuity. I am my father's daughter. It is an act of resistance and refusal: grief telling you it is over and your heart saying it is not; grief trying to shrink your love to the past and your heart saying it is present.

Towards the end of the book the author talks to the reader and herself about the urgency of doing valueable things and to not defer them.

My father's past is familiar to me because of stories told and retold, and yet I always intended to document them better, to record him speaking. I kept planning to, thinking we had time. 'We will do it next time, Daddy,' and he would say, 'Okay. Next time.' There is a sensation that is frightening, of a receding, of an ancestry slipping away, but at least I am left with enough for myth, if not memory.

It does not matter whether I want to be changed, because I am changed. A new voice is pushing itself out of my writing, full of the closeness I feel to death, the awareness of my own morality, so finely threaded, so acute. A new urgency. An impermanence in the air. I must write everything now, because who knows how long I have?

The author has had a difficult time dealing with death of a loved one, especially in pandemic times, like so many of us. May she find peace amidst changes, may her ways be auspicious.

Now, I reflect how I dealt with a loved one not being around anymore in the next post.

Subscribe to my artsy newsletter