On January 30, 2017, my life changed forever. I lost my mother, the most influential person in my thirty-four years of life. Truthfully, each part of the grieving process, from the moment I discovered that she had died, to the day of her burial and all of the days between and afterwards, have been incredibly painful. The hardest part for me however, was the sudden nature of her death. I keep wishing that I knew how little time I had left with her so that I could've arranged to spend every possible moment by her side.
Even as I write this, I'm not absolutely certain that expressing my feelings on this topic is the best thing to do as I tend to be very private with my feelings. While I know that I can't speak for anyone else but myself, as all situations are unique, I do hope that someone reading this can identify with my thoughts and feelings, and by doing so may feel less alone in their grieving process.
The journey to this point began about 24 years ago, during my fifth grade year when my mom was diagnosed with lupus. I was about ten years old and I don't have a complete memory of all of the details, but I was perceptive enough to know that our lives had changed in a major way. My mother went from being a workaholic who did two shifts at the hospital everyday and grossed me out with descriptions of what brain surgery looked like, to a woman who was too weak to get out of bed or to eat the breakfast that I made for her on the way to school each morning. Summer time came and there was no money for me to go to summer camp. We went to numerous doctor's visits at the same hospital where she used to work but the doctors didn't have any answers. Eventually, we were referred to Duke Hospital for testing and the doctors told my mom that she should look into alternative care for me, as her prognosis wasn't good and she didn't have long to live.
I don't think I even understood the finality of death at the time, but I rememberrealizing how serious this was and thinking that I had to do something to make surethat my mom didn't die. My mom was a woman of extraordinary faith. Even when I would cry and panic about her diagnosis, she would say "Munje, these doctors are just doing guesswork, they aren't even sure about what's wrong much less about how long I'm going to live. These doctors aren't God," she would say. With that in mind, I was determined to pray us out of this situation. I grew up as a baptist because my babysitter, Mrs. Dorothy Smith (or Granny as everyone called her), was another woman of great faith who always took me to church and children's bible study while my mom worked weekend mornings. Granny was serious about prayer. She would fast, read the Bible daily and she always had a way of reminding you that God was good. Granny's life wasn't easy, by any stretch, I remember her surviving four heart attacks and being present sometimes when the ambulance took her away. But she always credited God with her ability to recover and remain strong.
So I tried my best to follow my mother and Granny's examples, and I prayed for my mom to get better and promised God everything in my ten-year old power if he would grant this request for me. I would keep my room clean, be obedient, do my homework, anything that God needed, if my mom could be made well.
With age, my prayers matured, and the bouts with lupus ebbed and flowed but never went away. My mom's spirit was a blessing though. She was never discouraged, and although she couldn't return to the job she loved, she was extremely productive in her secondary passion of helping people from her native country of Sierra Leone. She brought about thirteen family members to the United States, most of them after she fell ill and was earning restricted income. She always credited her father with her love of family and people, saying that he encouraged her to never grow weary of doing good for people, even when they aren't grateful because the reward for goodness comes from God. My mother never forgot a good deed, and I remember her telling me often that she was going to help someone's child or send someone money because that person's grandfather helped her pay her school fees or treated her with kindness as a child. She was extremely generous, very sharp and witty and her personality endeared her to people wherever she went. When I would visit her, we'd go shopping for her favorite fish to cook and I'd try to fill up her freezer in hopes that she'd have enough between my visits. Before my stay was over though, my mother would have cooked half of what I had bought for her in different dishes that she would freeze for me to take back on the plane. My mom could never take without giving, it was just a part of her nature.
As the years passed, my faith in the power of my prayers grew stronger with each battle against lupus that we had overcome. I suppose that I adopted a bit of my mom's spirit. I meditated on the verse in Matthew 21: 21-22, that tells us that faith can cause a mountain to be moved and cast into the sea and that if we believe, we will recieve whatever we ask for in prayer. "What is lupus to God if he can move mountains," I told myself. Yes, I had some periods of resentment when I remembered that I'd been praying for healing for decades without a complete answer to this request, but I told myself that a delay is not denial and I continued to believe.
So on the evening of January 30, 2017, as I drove to the hospital to visit my mom, the possibility of death was the furthest thing of my mind. We had spoken about three hours earlier when I called to tell her that I boarded the plane and that I planned to spend the night with her in the hospital, to hang out and of course to talk to the doctors during early morning rounds and figure out what was going on with this infection that she had. I arrived at the hospital about an hour after I landed but it was an hour too late. Walking in to her room to discover that I had just missed her last few moments alive was heartbreaking. I was confused as to how this could have happened, angry that God allowed it to happen and in shock that I no longer had a mother. There was a chaplain in the hospital room waiting for me when I arrived and he sat with me for a few minutes while I cried, before saying, "when you're ready, we can go pray." In that moment, I didn't think about how much I resented God's decision not to answer my prayers for my mom, I got right up, dried my tears and said "yes, I have to pray for her, she deserves that."
There is an African proverb that Fela Kuti made into a song, which basically means, "water has no enemies." Fela used the saying to make a political statement, but the proverb can be used to describe anything or anyone that is too useful for you to live without. For those non-Africans, Andre 3000 once said, "you can't be mad at God." The truth is, my human frailty makes it natural for my faith to falter in this moment where God's decision has deeply disappointed me. But God is too useful for me to abandon. The same God with whom I was angry when I discovered my mother's demise, is the same God that I would plead with a few moments later to have mercy on her soul, forgive her sins and accept her into heaven. I can no longer care for her or be in her presence to give her company or comfort. All I have left, is hope that God will love her more than I ever could and give her rest in heaven.
If you are dealing with grief, my heart is with you. I can't say what will help you, but here are a few things that ease my pain as I cope with losing the person with whom I shared my strongest bond:
- When you've gathered yourself, talk to the people who know you and your departed loved one best.
On the night that my mom died, I managed to call my husband, brother and one of my close cousins, but after that I didn't have the strength to speak. As I explained to my husband a few days later, I have never felt more defeated than I felt as I walked out of that hospital holding my mother's belongings and leaving her behind. In my mind, everything that I had ever prayed for; her complete healing, triumph over illness and the strength and peace of mind to accomplish her goals, had been denied. Death and sickness had won, and I lost the closest person in the world to me. "But I had prayed and believed," I thought, "my mother served God dutifully and was so kind and giving to others, why God? What had we done to deserve this?"
When I explained these thoughts to my husband, he said the best thing he has ever said to me. "Munje, death didn't defeat Ms. Khellah, even as she died she was founding a church, does that sound like a person who was defeated to you?" I thought about what he said and I realized that he was right.
It was God, and my mother's unwavering faith in him that kept her strong and able throughout her fight with lupus. The first thing my mother lost to lupus was her career as an OR Tech, which she absolutely loved, and her ability to earn income. Some people would've allowed this to completely discourage them, but not my mother. Yes we had to make some adjustments, but my mother remained determined to continue helping family in Sierra Leone, to keep pushing me towards higher education and to maintain a positive outlook about her diagnosis. As long as she wasn't in the hospital, she remained engaged in the community, supporting Sierra Leonean organizations and events and always endearing herself to others.
I am trying my best to adopt the part of her that I loved the most, her unwavering faith and optimism. What my husband said was so profound because it is absolutely true that her belief that she would be healed, would live to see tomorrow and that God would give her the strength she needed to accomplish her goals in the meantime, is what kept my mom moving forward in her purpose from day to day. She could have spent the years after her diagnosis in a state of depression or anger, but she used every moment that she was physically able to keep moving forward. She made it a point not to speak negatively about her condition unless things were really unbearable, and she maintained her sense of humor.
I also put off talking to my close cousins that I grew up with for a while, because I was afraid that they would see through my false strength and that I wouldn't be able to remain composed. Nearly two months after my mom passed I had a long conversation with my cousin Satta, and she said "God is still looking out for you Munje, he knows what he's doing. He made sure that you had love in your life and lots to live for before he took the first love of your life." As disappointed as I may be in God's decision, I have to admit that she is right. I have started a family of my own, and while this loss has left a void that can't be filled, knowing that I am responsible for loving my own family and that I can be a tribute to my mother in that aspect does give me a sense of continued purpose.
2. Death can bring out the best and worst in others. Focus on the one person you can control, yourself, and make sure that your actions honor your loved one.
This was my first experience with making any sort of funeral arrangements, and if you would've asked me before, I would've told you that if I made it through the drama of wedding planning then I could surely handle what may come with a funeral. But funeral drama is like no other drama I have ever experienced, especially where Sierra Leoneans (maybe any West Africans) are involved.
My circumstance with losing a parent was likely unique because my mom was not married when she passed and I was her primary care taker. Therefore, I didn't have another parent to assist with making decisions, yet in typical African fashion, all the people who were previously uninvolved while my mom was living now felt a sense of authority over her burial arrangements. When my mom was alive, most people had no problem with me taking primary responsibility for her care, but as soon as she passed I became too young, by African standards, to make any reasonable decisions regarding her burial. Because my mom was a people person and her funeral was very well attended, there were those who were determined to draw attention to themselves even if that meant taking away from the primary purpose of the ceremony, which was to honor her memory. To further complicate matters, there are also the aunties who will vow to make you a lifelong enemy because you don't put them in charge of plasas passing at the repast.
My point is, if you have to plan a funeral for your loved one, there are more than enough detractors to encourage you to lose focus on honoring the memory of the person you care about and direct your focus on putting these people in their respective places. It's not worth it. Unless you know that giving these people a thorough tongue lashing or addressing everyone who stepped out of line by making the pettiest farewell speech in funeral history would be something that your lost loved one would've wanted, it's best to ignore the detractors and maintain laser-like focus on honoring the dearly departed. Maintaining peace, both for yourself and for the dignity of the service is paramount. You have your entire life after the arrangements are completed to tell anyone who needs telling how you felt about their behavior. I can't say that this approach will work for everyone, and it was a struggle for me as I generally don't put up with nonsense. In honor of my mother, however, who fully embraced and loved people, flaws and all, I believe it was the right decision at the end of the day.
It also helps to try to give more energy to the many or even the few (depending on the size of your friend/family circle) people in your life who are extremely supportive, understanding and helpful to you in your time of mourning. Why give your energy to people who are determined to add to your misery when you could be focusing on those who are making efforts to lighten it? Negative rants are often louder than soft words of solace, but if you listen for the latter you will find that there are a chorus of them and if you listen to them and use their words to drown out the negativity, it will help you cope.
3. Accept and express the emotions that you are experiencing, but keep moving forward with your daily life.
In the days and weeks immediately following my mom's death I was a hot mess. People kept calling me strong, I suppose because I continued with arrangements despite my emotional state but I cried everywhere. I cried in the car, on the train, in bed in the middle of the night, in the dentist chair while telling the hygienist what had happened. I cried at work in the mornings when I realized that for another morning I wouldn't be able to talk to my mom. I remember driving away from the funeral home with my husband and him pointing out that I had something on my nose. I looked in the mirror to try to see what it was and I realized that my skin wasjust peeling from my constant crying and nose blowing. It was in that moment that I looked at myself and said, "I'm a hot mess, but I accept that right now." My husband tried to make me feel better, "you're not a hot mess." I side-eyed him. "Well you're still pretty though," he said. I laughed.
It's ok to feel and express immense pain because of your loss. The pain you feel is due to the love you had for person who passed. Just as you were right to love them, you are right to mourn their passing. Just keep moving through the tears. Resist the urge not to get out of bed in the morning and resist the feelings that all hope is lost. Remember that your loved one would very much like to be alive today to have another chance at accomplishing their heart's desires, so don't let sorrow rob you of the opportunity to take advantage of the fact that you still have a chance. Yes, you have to give yourself time to grieve, but just keep moving forward towards your goals in life, even if it's at a snail's pace. Sadness will slow you down but don't let it completely cripple you.
Do you have any habits that helped you while you were mourning a loved one? Please share in the comments if so, I'd love to hear from you.
-Thanks for reading, Munje.