On Grief


I. Death

Your father died before sunrise. On a Monday, the first in January. A morning clutched in harmattan’s tenuous grip. Haze like spectral fingers. Cold as a dog’s nose. But not wet. The grasses outside were an arid brown; it hadn’t rained for months. You’ll never forget these, the disconsolate incidentals of that morning. You’ll remember, too, the black shoes that trailed from the doorway like giant soldier ants in advance. You’ll remember the shuffling feet. And the hovering faces that peered down at your mother. Draped in black. Legs splayed in front of her. You’ll remember tottering in, bleary-eyed and only half-awake, and wondering, bewildered, at the many shoes, the blur of unfamiliar faces, the whispers that rustled across the room. You’ll remember wondering what it meant to have a heart attack. 

Eight years later, when you’re thirteen and you no longer wonder, your older brother tells you how he’d known, during that panic-stricken drive to the hospital, the exact moment your father had breathed his last. Your brother tells you how he’d lingered, resigned, at the hospital doors. And watched. As your mother struggled frantically to summon, somehow, a man who could not now respond.

But no one told you anything on that Monday in January. So you simply stared at the milling throng. You watched them hover and shuffle and murmur. Words of consolation, of grief. You wept, but not for long. Mostly because you saw your mother weep. And perhaps, too, due to intuition, because even a child might know, before he is told, that something is gone, something priceless, which may never be replaced. You were not sad; you had no cause to be. Your father was at best a pleasant stranger who returned from Lagos on Fridays, laden with loaves of sweet bread and cakes and groundnuts and oranges and bananas and plantain chips, and slept the weekend away before vanishing on Monday.

What puzzled you most on that Monday morning in January was why no one had roused you in time for school.


II. Harbingers

Your neighbor visits your mother on the Saturday morning before the Monday morning when your father dies, her five-year-old daughter in tow. Everyone jokes that you’ll marry her someday, this daughter, though she rarely speaks to you. Today she is captivated by a portrait of your father in the parlor. She sits, Buddha’s lotus, before the photo. Stares up at it long and hard. Frowns. Then she begins a wordless conversation. Her gestures are expansive, eerily adult. A wagging finger, arms akimbo, palms pressed together. Warning. Disagreeing. Pleading. It amuses the women. After a while she rises, shrugs. “Well then, goodbye,” she says to the photo. Later, when your father steps out to say hello, she runs and hides behind her mother.

When they leave at noon, the sky darkens, sunless and dismal. But there are no clouds, and it does not rain.

That evening, your dog begins to bark at your father. It trails him around, its barking insistent, grating, incessant. Exasperated, your father kicks the dog. It surprises you; they’d always got along.

He apologizes. He promises to buy you suya. He opens a bottle of red wine. His eyes are bloodshot, as if they are tinted by the wine. He lets you have a sip. And later, he lets you eat too much cookie dough despite your mother’s frown.

You’ll wake up at midnight with your stomach rumbling, in pain, and he’ll hold your chest and wash your face as you vomit into the sink. Afterwards he’ll wrap his arms around you and hold you for long, as though afraid of what might happen when he eventually lets go.

It is the first time he has held you so, and your arms dangle at your sides, unsure of what to do.


III. Awakening

You spent Sunday night in your parents’ room. They would not ordinarily let you, but that night your father had consented. The curtains were drawn when you woke up the next morning. Three windows. Three large beams of wan sunlight. The dust particles suspended in each, dancing a restless dance. It was too late in the morning; why had no one roused you for school?

When you look up, your eyes fall on your neighbor and her children—not her five-year-old daughter who would not speak to you, but the older ones—rifling through the cupboard. Frantic. Dumping bulky brown envelopes and jewelry, valuables, into ghana-must-go bags. They do not notice you get up and leave.

Later, your neighbor would whisper to your mother that she’d taken all the valuables from the house, the deeds to your parents’ property, your mother’s clothes and jewelry, the car keys. She’d driven the cars to her own house, parked them in her garage.

Your neighbor was a woman who knew things.

But your mother did not know, then. So she would only nod, listless and uncomprehending. She is still listless when your father’s older siblings arrive. Monday afternoon.

Your father’s siblings weep, but not for long; they offer words of consolation, but not too many. Then they produce their own ghana-must-go bags and head for the bedrooms. They rifle through cupboards and shelves; they dart from room to room in furious fractals. Then they emerge, seething, their bags empty. They offer more words of consolation, but not too many. Then they begin to inquire:

Where are the deeds to their brother’s houses?

Where are the keys to their brother’s cars?

And where is your mother’s jewelry

that their brother’s money had bought?

And your mother would stare at them, listless, but suddenly comprehending. On Monday afternoon.

IV. Supplications

Your father was buried on Tuesday morning. Your mother wore a black dress, your brother a black suit, but they’d dressed you in the bright yellow T-shirt and cargo shorts you’d worn to your school’s end-of-year party in December. You must have looked like an egg yolk on tarmac.

The funeral was unceremonious and banal, grey as the day itself. Your father’s siblings had insisted on the date; your mother might have waited longer. But he was raised Muslim, they said, and the doctrine was firm: the dead should be buried immediately after death.

They bought a plain wooden coffin, wrapped him in plain white shrouds, and drove him to the cemetery at Sango in a rattling station wagon. Their brother deserved better, they told your mother, but since she’d failed to hand over all that he owned, how could they afford a proper funeral?

When they lowered his body into the grave, the laborers began to shovel in the sand. It rose in dusty swirls and made you cough. Your father’s older brother insisted you pick up a handful of sand and throw it in. You did not understand why, did not want to. But you did.

Afterwards, the imam your father’s siblings had hired stepped forward and said a long-winded prayer in monotonous Arabic. His words seemed to flake in the wind. As did your legs, suddenly ashen in the harmattan. You stared at the adults: most of them solemn-faced, prayerful.

After the imam prays, the pastor from your mother’s church steps forward. This was the funeral of a believer’s husband, after all, and he must have thought, appalled, that he couldn’t let the Muslims, indecipherably worded prayers and all, send the poor man straight to hell. So he speaks briefly of how we all loved him, but the Heavenly Father loved him more. And then he says the Lord’s Prayer.

But the imam, irked, steps forward again, says another round of prayers in Arabic. So the pastor steps forward too and recites the Twenty-Third Psalm. And the imam steps forward. And the pastor steps forward. And the imam steps forward. And the pastor steps forward. 

There were lots of prayers in the wake of your father’s death.

On your first day back in Anglican school after he died, during assembly prayers when everyone had their eyes pressed firmly shut as you’d all been taught to do, the headmistress raised a prayer for “one among us” who’d recently lost a loved one. You did not know that she meant you—until you felt strong arms grab you off your feet and place you in front of the auditorium. (So that the prayers would not miss their mark?) You did not open your eyes.

On the Monday morning that your father died, when you’d tottered in bleary-eyed and only half-awake, the pastor from your mother’s church (as well as a band of intercessors) had prayed for your mother and her children. One of the intercessors (consumed by the Spirit?) prophesied that unless your mother prayed thoroughly against it, one of her children would become very troublesome and bring her lots of worry in the wake of her husband’s death. 

You wondered if that child was you. 


V. Re-Past

As soon as you grew old enough that you no longer wondered what a heart attack meant, your mother claimed that she saw your father every time she looked at you. He was there, she said, in the way you brushed your fingers over your eyebrow when something puzzled you. And when you smiled, it was as though he were in the room. Your toes. Long. Curled slightly inwards. They might as well have been his. And the curve of your hairline. The little tufts that grew at the base of your fingers: your father had those too.

One day, she looked at your handwriting, tiny tentative scratches on your social studies notebook, and gasped. It looked exactly like your father’s, she exclaimed. And your brother, without peeling his eyes from the TV, chuckled and shook his head and said shortly, “No.” You’d found a letter once that your father had written. You remembered his writing still, all loops and curls, scrawled across the pages in extravagant curlicues; it looked nothing like yours.

It was a kind of comfort, certainly, all of it. But for whom?

There are certain things you remember, besides having tottered in half-awake, wondering at the blur of unfamiliar faces: you remember, for instance, that you were not sad at your father’s passing. You did not know him well.

But sometimes you like to pretend that you did. 

When your girlfriend pointed out that the amount of salt you dumped on your omelet was bad for your heart, you shrugged and said your father had died of a heart attack, though he’d not liked salty foods. But you do not know that for sure.

VI. Pilgrimage

You are standing at the center of the cemetery, surrounded by riotous brambles and wild green grass. Overgrown. You do not recognize the place. But you should not; it has been twenty years since you were last here. Twenty years since the Tuesday morning your father was lowered into the ground. 

For a long time you have felt an inexplicable rootlessness, an odd vagrancy of spirit. So you have come searching. Not for your father’s grave, but for something you might find there. You have come in search of guilt, in search of grief, because after years of your mother’s incessant reminiscences, of remembering meagerly but not quite feeling like you belong in those memories, of pretending that you knew your father well, this rootlessness has become hard to bear. You think that perhaps in finding grief and guilt, you might find, too, an absolution from them. And perhaps with grief you can purchase kinship, a kind of belonging.

But the cemetery is not as you’d imagined it: sprawling green pastures punctuated by marble headstones with glowing eulogies, these testaments to love or at least a pretense at it. The cemetery in Sango is overgrown with grasses, rife with tumbling headstones. Perhaps you should have come in harmattan, when the grasses are shorter, an arid brown. When it hasn’t rained for months. But now you comb the burial ground for close to an hour. And you do not find your father’s grave.

After this hour, the old man who guards the cemetery approaches, asks, matter-of-fact, if you are a spirit.

This old man assures you, calmly, that you will never find your father’s grave. Years of erosion had ruined the burial grounds, felled several tombstones. The local government had made cutbacks, fired the groundskeepers. Sometimes, now, they unearthed old graves as they dug new ones. He smiles at this. His breath is heavy with the stench of tobacco and alligator peppers.

When the old man leaves you, you feel something well within you. Something unfetters and breaks loose. You weep. You weep for long. But what you feel is not grief. It is despondence for the absence of it. It is anguish at what you have not physically found, what you have not been able to free with your own hand. It is, as well as anguish, an esoteric discontent, because though you weep and weep for long, you’ve still not found the grief you’ve sought for a while.

The sky darkens just before you leave the cemetery. There are a few clouds across the heavens, silent amorphous specters gliding unhurried to a ghostly conference. It drizzles for a short while.


Gbolahan Adeola was born and raised in Ibadan, Nigeria. His work has appeared in Transition Magazine and elsewhere. He is a senior at Oberlin College.

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On Grief

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