In her compelling essay-book, Notes on Grief, author and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the subject with the empathy it deserves through a personal experience.
rom iconic author Joan Didion’s writings to Pulitzer-prize winning rapper Kendrick Lamar’s music, Pixar’s lovely Coco and HBO’s Mare of Easttown, each has a common thread. In all these well-consumed pop culture references is how each is a meditation on grief and how it is grappled with in unique ways.
In his first album in five years - Mr. Morale & the Big Steppers (2022) - Kendrick Lamar raps on a song called ‘United in Grief’ and says more than once: “I grieve different.” This line could and does very well help in defining a simple truth: each of us grieve in our own individual ways. And some of us choose not to, which can often have detrimental effects on life in the present and may very well in the future.
But, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, author of terrific books like Half of a Yellow Sun as well as short stories, other novels, and works of non-fiction, takes this difficult, potent subject of grief and dissects it by sharing a personal experience while articulating a universal reality. It is the deepest form of reiteration of a simple fact: the pain that comes with grief is different.
Another literary giant, the French-Algerian author, Albert Camus pondered over the question of life in his book-essay The Myth of Sisyphus. Wrote Albert Camus, “Judging whether life is or is not worth living amounts to answering the fundamental question of philosophy.”
But if condemned to a life of struggle as Camus wrote, it could - for some people - lead to a cataclysmic outcome. So, if Camus reminded us what is the most important question in philosophy, Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie tackles another equally important question in philosophy - grief - via Notes on Grief, her book-essay on the subject.
Grief comes in all forms: loss of a life that is predictable, a sudden death, loss of relationships, grief created by financial trouble in the aftermath of a life lost, mental health issues that can be individualistic to each person.
Grief also comes - in this part of the world - with terrorism, religious zealotry, vengeance instead of justice, missing persons or by suicide. A national newspaper will confirm these facts. Reasons do vary. The correlation between suicide and death creates an unparalleled level of grief or even copycats as was the case with Nirvana front-man Kurt Cobain’s death in the nineties. Grief can, therefore, also create or add to a pre-existing health condition, including mental health issue. This is where Notes on Grief is such an important read. An essay on grief may feel morbid enough to discount, au contraire, it is an essay worth remembering.
“On the surface, I’m a name on a list/I try to be discreet, but then blow it again/I’ve lost and found, it’s my final mistake.” - ‘I Just Died In Your Arms Tonight’ by Cutting Crew
In this age of technology, being in different countries, can still provide many of us a way to connect with loved ones in multiple territories and cities. This is where Chimamanda’s essay begins.
She recounts what was their lockdown ritual every week where siblings would join a Zoom call from Lagos, United States and south-eastern Nigeria.
Within the first few pages, we learn that during these digital Zoom conversations, her father got tired and though there was nothing alarming regarding his health, he died. It sounded like nothing more than fatigue. But within two days of this fatigue where he looked off, he passed away. The aftermath left a sense of grief and loss that was unforeseeable.
“I came undone,” Chimamanda writes. “I am yanked away from the world I have known since childhood.” But her emotional reaction - legitimate as it was - made her 4-year-old afraid of her.
For one thing, the writing is so humane, articulate, and backed by beautifully-written prose by the author that it reels you in. For another, it is both a description of what followed the loss of her father including the weeping of siblings over the phone, as well as what grief can mean in philosophical terms.
“Grief is a cruel kind of education,” she writes. “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, the failure of language and the grasping for the language.”
In this meditation on grief, and how it affects a family and an individual, it is also an essay that gives expression to a pain that makes sense to any person or persons who has felt a kind of grief. It is applicable to not only a parental death but also anything else where a sense of grief is felt including mental health issues, loss of a friendship, lover and the loss of a homeland. Trying to find home in a place that isn’t always welcoming and refugees are forced to leave their cities and countries, also needs expression. What this essay does is articulate what millions feel in a way that isn’t only intimate but universal.
Noted Chimamanda: “The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is: my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to brush my teeth; on my chest, a heavy, awful weight; and inside my body, a sense of eternal dissolving. My heart - my actual physical heart, nothing figurative here - is running away from me, has become its own separate thing.”
In a nutshell, for our collective sanity, this compelling essay is healthy for all of us, who may or may not have felt a sense of loss. Why? Because through Notes on Grief, author and writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie explores the topic with such empathy that it will give any reader an understanding of grief.
Note: Please reach out
to a local psychologist or psychiatrist if you’re suffering from a grief-
related mental health issue as this isn’t a cure but tools that can provide some help.