Last week I received an unexpected call from my mother. Gakii, one of my dearest friends from childhood in Kenya had died. With suspicions that it’s a COVID case and only limited information from doctors about “cause of death”, no one is really sure what happened.
And so, we grieve in the unknown. We grieve without information. This is the second death news I’ve received in a space of two months. The first was my Juju (great grandma). I stubbornly refused to mourn her and just disappeared into denial, only mentioning it to my partner several days after my father wrote to inform me. I did not want condolences. I just longed for home. For anything familiar, certain or comforting.
The fondest memory I have of my juju was when she came to my graduation ceremony almost 10 years ago. She removed an old and tattered 100 Kenya shilling note ($1 and 50 cents equivalent) from her brassiere. She spat on it three times as a symbol of sanctifying the money, cupped it tightly on her fist and gave it to me. She told me I was the light of my family and offered me a generational blessing.
Gakii’s recent death has bolstered my unresolved grief, forcing me to come to terms with the loss. Yet still, I don’t feel like I have the right to mourn family and friends to whom I cannot gift a final goodbye. I feel confused that a seemingly healthy woman in her mid-30s would be OK one week and dead the next.
The memories I have of Gakii are fond. We grew up together, played house together and spent almost every day of our childhood together. Her mother was one of my many mothers. I was lucky enough to be raised by a village with access to multiple parents and caregivers. Gakii was older than me by a few years, and so she took on the big sister role and cared for my brother and I in the absence of my caregivers. When I moved from the village to join my parents in the city, Gakii came too, and she lived with us for a long time. She leaves behind three young children, who will now be without a mother, a mother who will now be without a daughter, and a brother who will now be without a sister — planning a burial in such times as these, where every space and place is marked by a global virus.
Currently, it feels like I am in a state of suspended reality, going up and down, and falling in and out of grief.
Currently, it feels like I am in a state of suspended reality, going up and down, and falling in and out of grief. I go from “I can sit through this” to “I can’t breathe through this”. How do you come to terms with the finality of death? So today, my friend will be sent home - back to our ancestors. I am not sure that I can name the emotion in my body. It feels like a deep devastation simultaneously layered with guilt.
Maybe guilt isn’t the right word - maybe there is no word for it - but after all our childhood years together, I can’t help but feel life afforded me opportunities that it also denied her. Opportunities that if maybe were accessible to her - she would still be alive today. But as a psychotherapist, I know this is part of the grieving process - so indurated and superimposed with endless “what-ifs”. Like Chimamanda Adichie wrote, “Grief is a cruel kind of education, you learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger, you learn that your side muscles will ache from crying, and you learn how glib condolences can feel.”
Like Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie wrote, “Grief is a cruel kind of education, you learn how ungentle mourning can be, how full of anger, you learn that your side muscles will ache from crying, and you learn how glib condolences can feel”.
After the death of my friend, the apprehension about the safety and wellbeing of my own family has increased in intensity and frequency. Every well-meaning question inquiring about “my family back home” symbolically returns me to a state of worry. Every night I hope for the best. Hoping my phone won’t ring, yet still wishing it did. This is the reality of this pandemic. Separation. Loss. Grief. Guilt. Shame. Loneliness.
Part of what's complicating this grief process is the enormity of it all. As I write, coronavirus has killed more than 750,000 people, with close to 21 million infections. Emerging studies already show that the pandemic is disproportionately affecting Black people and people of colour. This is because they are more likely to be living in regions where there is inadequate health and hospital infrastructure, and are also overrepresented in high risk work with widespread human and viral exposure.
I know coping with loss is an acutely personal and subjective experience, yet at this time of crisis, the paradox of grieving alone is informed by the recognition that the entire world is in collective grief, simultaneously. The current state of social overwhelm and despair is profound. There is loss and grief everywhere I look: economic loss, financial loss, human life loss and loss of relationships and friendships. So, while I may be surrounded by a loving close-knit circle of friends who love and support me, today, I grieve alone.
Kathomi Gatwiri, PhD is a psychotherapist, a senior lecturer and trauma researcher at Southern Cross University. She is the founder of Healing Together - a culturally safe therapy practice for Black people and people of colour in Australia.