As told to Nelson
A few weeks ago, I made a call for stories on grief and how Nigerians have experienced it, and the way they handle it. The call not only got a healthy level of interest, the first story we published on the subject also reconfirmed my belief in the unifying body of grief. But it is not enough to just say that people feel grief, I am also hoping that these stories — for as long as Zikoko allows me to keep writing them — will bring us closer to understanding how other people are navigating grief and perhaps teach us how to navigate ours.
Today, I spoke to 21-year-old Eliakim whose family rarely talks about the people they have lost and how that family tradition affects the way he feels grief and how he is navigating it moving forward.
For as long as I’ve been alive, my family has lost a family member every other year. My mum had 8 siblings but now, there are just two of them left. They all died of various types of cancer. My mum has also had a cancer scare twice. Being alive is tiring, but I don’t want to die at the hands of cancer; I’ve seen what it has done to my family, and it’s not pretty. You’d think that my family members would be very good at handling grief at this point but no, they never talk about all these people we’ve lost. They just shake it off and move on.
We never bring up their names and it sucks to see. How is it so easy to forget people who meant something to us when they were alive? When I was much younger, I often asked my dad why our family members kept dying and he told me that sometimes, God always calls his favourite people home and we shouldn’t question it. As young as I was then, it sounded weird to me, and since then my relationship with God died a miserable death. In 2015, however, the weight of grief really hit me when I lost my big mummy, God I loved that woman.
She was my mum’s older sister and she suffered a lot while she was sick. I was too afraid to go see her before she died, I regret that. She had ovarian cancer, and two years before that, her younger sister died of breast cancer and that took a toll on everyone’s finances.
So when she got ill, they didn’t want to get it checked and just kept going to church and praying until it got worse. Although her husband was really well to do, he was also a serial cheat who often spent money on his side chicks but never seemed to have enough for his wife’s treatments. He eventually paid for surgery here in Nigeria and it got removed.
But just as she was getting better, they found it again and at this point, it was already too late for them to operate. If only my uncle, her husband, had sent her outside the county. He had the money for that, and if he had used it, maybe she would still be alive now.
It’s been 6 years and I’m still not over it, I talk about her to my baby cousins that never met her. I only got around to seeing her resting place in 2019 and it shocked me, I still can’t believe that she really is gone, she’s not just out of town for a while, she is actually gone.
It was like everyone had moved on and I was there just accepting the reality. That was why I actually started going for therapy. My therapist told me that if I didn’t let myself feel the grief no matter how hard I tried to avoid it, I’d never move on. And so to connect with her in some way, I write her letters and talk to her about things I’d usually have told her before. She is the one person I know would have accepted me for who I am and if she did, no one would argue with her.
I am Non-binary and queer, and when I was younger I declared that I wanted to cut my hair and wear only pants and stuff she forced my mum to let me. Maybe she was just being dotting but I know that I would have been able to come out to her. It’s weird but sometimes I hope I never get over her death. It would feel like I’ve lost her forever, it already sucks that I sometimes forget what she looks like as it is.
To deal with my grief, I also talk to my siblings, share stories about her. When I have money I will definitely open a charity in her name, she was such a giver, I’m not but I try to be.
Before therapy I used to break down about it a lot, I’d smell her perfume randomly or see someone that looked like her and I’d almost lose it. In 2019 they finally opened her room door to clear out her things, when I entered I felt something leave me. It was near empty, her room was never empty, she always had people around, it was dusty and all her clothes and shoes and things were dying. Nobody could bear to keep anything, we gave it all out and just kept the things that we couldn’t part within the room. It’s still closed and I still can’t go near it
Grieving will never really end, it will change you in ways you’ll never understand, but it helps when you allow yourself to feel all of it at your own pace.