The vocabulary of loss

November 6, 2022

A daughter’s attempt to remember her father and a woman’s struggle to quell the phantom of pain

The vocabulary of loss


himamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Notes on Grief is a deceptively slender text that contains haunting insights about the intricacies of loss and personal trauma. Through this short account, Adichie explores the conflicting mesh of emotions she had to grapple with after the unexpected demise of her father, the scholar James Nwoye Adichie.

Notes on Grief is an expanded edition of the essay Adichie wrote about her father for The New Yorker. From the outset, readers might be tempted to view the text as anything but a personal essay as it carries the spirit of a memoir. The term ‘essay’ seems like a crude categorisation that diminishes the book’s underlying purpose. The slim, thirty-chapter volume should instead be construed as a grief memoir wherein a daughter paints an intimate portrait of a man she passionately admires. This portrait, though unfinished and scant, reveals how the process of remembering those we have lost through the written word often defies the need for narrative cohesion.

The memoir laments the ineffectiveness of the accepted standards of grieving. Conventional wisdom dictates that grief isn’t a prisoner to linearity. The Kübler-Ross model, which outlines the five stages of grief, falsely depicts bereavement as a predefined process with a specific roadmap. However, grief doesn’t operate like a structured crescendo. Adichie reveals in her short memoir that grief is “a cruel kind of education”, a brutal and merciless struggle that exposes the futility of condolences or heartfelt reassurances from loved ones. After losing her father, the author discovered “how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping of language”. Notes on Grief can be viewed as an attempt to overcome the inadequacy of language and develop an alternative vocabulary of loss. Each chapter benefits from startling brevity, which gives readers the impression that the author is responding to an urgent need to chronicle thoughts, emotions and memories. Even so, the language employed in the text doesn’t suggest that the memoir has been produced in restless spurts. Instead, the sentences boast a refreshing precision and beauty. The style has been honed with the purpose of liberating the author from the shackles of pain – albeit gradually.

“Grief is forcing new skins on me, scraping scales from my eyes.” Adichie writes in the sixth chapter of the memoir. “I regret my past certainties.” With this declaration, she spools back to the past and reflects on the smugness of her former self – a woman whose heart and mind weren’t burdened or tainted by grief. In another section of the book, she recalls her unspoken, firm belief that she had more time with her father. Later, she finds herself locked in a struggle to adapt as her “life [has suddenly] become another life”.

Adichie’s loss didn’t come without any warning. When the author lost her father in the summer of 2020, she was negotiating the vagaries and enigmas of a new world that was paralysed by the pandemic. Like an uninvited guest, death shattered the smug poise of a new reality characterised by Zoom reunions and “boisterous lockdown ritual[s]”. At the same time, the pressures of a virus-addled world resulted inadditional complications in the days after her father’s death. Adichie wasn’t able to instantly travel to her hometown and visit her family because of the closure of Nigerian airports owing to Covid-19.

Faced with these obstacles, the grieving process will likely become all the more gruelling. Be that as it may, Adichie bravely confronts her grief and uses these ‘notes’ as a means of giving it a shape, size and meaning – a difficult yet commendable feat. Grief doesn’t always follow an upward trajectory. Realising this cold fact, the author exposes her vulnerabilities without any inhibitions and doesn’t always succumb to the pressure to present a brave front in the face of adversity. Instead, she admits to a burgeoning need to both shield and shrug aside her pain.

Notes on Grief isn’t just an elegant exploration of loss but also offers a vivid portrait of Adichie’s father. Sceptics may be quick to discredit the author’s vision as being blinkered by a daughter’s love for her father. Many of her detractors may find that the text lacks the cold detachment of a faithful biography. These assumptions are fundamentally flawed, as memoirs cannot be treated as rigid accounts of people’s life. In fact, Adichie’s depiction of her deceased father can be considered an elegy that reveals her own recollections of the father she adored. What emerges in the text is a glimpse of a man Adichie saw and chooses to remember. Readers are, therefore, provided the portrait of a Sudoku-loving retired man who also had the stamina to fight a land dispute with a dubious philanthropist. In addition, she relies on recollections from her friends, mother and siblings to tie any loose ends where her own memory and knowledge fall short.

Fuelled by level-headedness as well as exigencies of the heart, Notes on Grief is in equal parts a daughter’s attempt to remember her father and a woman’s struggle to quell the phantom of pain. The memoir stands out for its ability to draw attention to grief as not just a fragile process, but also an opportunity for self-reflection.

Notes on Grief

Author: Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

Publisher: 4th Estate, 2021

Pages: 90

The reviewer is a freelance journalist and the author of Typically Tanya

The vocabulary of loss