'Notes On Grief' Makes Visceral The Experience Of Death And Grieving
The lament, a lyrical outpouring of sorrow, is one of the oldest and most universal art forms, with The Lament for Sumer and Ur dating back 4,000 years to ancient Sumer.
Across time and cultures, the lament has been seen in The Iliad and the Hindu Vedas, Beowulf and the Christian Bible. It has been seen in the operas of Monteverdi and Purcell, the music of Mozart and Rossini. The lament permeates the piobaireachd music of Scotland. And for millennia, the lament has characterized African mourning traditions, from the Bantu in the East to the Igbo in the West.
In Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie's Notes on Grief, the lament composed to honor and process the death of her father during the early days of the global COVID-19 pandemic, one of our century's most gifted artists of language makes visceral the experience of death and grieving. In poetic bursts of imagistic prose that mirror the fracturing of self after the death of a beloved parent, Adichie constructs a narrative of mourning — of haunting and of love.
Adichie begins with her understanding of how grief is a raw physical thing, as uncontrollable as the urge to expel bile when sick, as the need to push during childbirth. Perhaps this is because grief is not a choice — nor is the depth of grief one feels. It is all consuming; it overtakes one like the pounding of the monsoon during the rainy season and all one can do is hold on and hope not to be swept underneath by the intensity of its force. Writes Adichie:
"My four year old daughter says I scared her. She got down on her knees to demonstrate, her small clenched fist rising and falling, and her mimicry makes me see myself as I was: utterly unraveling, screaming and pounding the floor. The news is like a vicious uprooting."
Even here, even in the retrospective lament, to look directly at the grief is too much to bear. Adichie must construct the frame of her daughter's seeing in order to look at the manifestation of her own pain. Grief, Adichie tells us, is grounded in the body memory. "The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is," she writes early on, her sides achy from crying, her arms heavy with sorrow; understanding that mourning is an act of the whole body.
Moving across past and present, Adichie details the familiar — the pandemic-driven Zoom calls with family across three different countries — and then the horrific — her father's sudden death when he seemed fine — followed by the family's shock and numbness as they process what has happened, as they wonder what could have been done differently in order for their father not to die. The if onlys become a familiar refrain, turning over and over in the mind. "Did my spirit know — the way anxiety sat sharp in my stomach once I heard he was unwell; my sleeplessness for two days; and the hovering, darkening pall I could neither name nor shake off?" she writes.
And always, the lament that death came too soon, the wishing for more time.
Reflecting upon moments of her father's life in vivid, richly saturated details allows some comfort. Adichie details her last trip to Nigeria to see her father, the stories of his courtship of her mother and other memories. Carefully, lovingly, she touches upon the objects that are all that are left, now, to mark her father's life that both comfort and haunt — the piles of stones in the driveway to mark his daily exercise, home videos from trips to Lagos, old sudoku books, old photographs and letters. But even she, the writer, knows these words are not enough to stem the rising waters of grief: "You learn how much grief is about language, the failure of language and the grasping for language," Adichie writes.
A daughter's love and respect for a father who was pivotal in her formation of self saturates these pages. Equally present is the need to create something out of that grief to honor the father so he will be remembered. But the question is how. As the pandemic rages on, the funeral is delayed; instead, mourners from their community come to sit and tell stories over and over. Adichie reckons with her discomfort with these aspects of Igbo mourning traditions:
"There is value in that Igbo way, that African way, of grappling with grief: that performative, expressive mourning, where you take every call and you tell and retell the story of what happened, where isolation is anathema and 'stop crying' a refrain. But I am not ready."
For Adichie, this communal mourning is too much. While her mother must shave her head and sit and bear the grief of the community come to honor her dead husband with their words, both spoken and signed into the death notebook, Adichie thinks: ""Who are you coming into our house to write in that alien notebook? How dare you make this thing true?" She is troubled over the platitudes uttered that echo meaningless and empty, and humbly regrets times in the past when she too had uttered those same platitudes to friends who had lost a loved one, unaware of the painful banality of such language in the midst of the sharp haunting of grieving.
For Adichie, grief is private, held close. She does not want to speak to others. She wants to wrap herself in grief like a baby in a swaddled blanket and imagine it is her father's hands, still present, soothing her to sleep. It is only in the stillness of her own lament that she can understand grief. To Adichie, the only word that makes sense is the simple, authentic Ndo, the Igbo word for sorry.
In the closing pages, the body still looms large over the understanding of grief. Adichie, thinking of how to adorn the body for grief, is making T-shirts for her father's funeral. "I don't particularly like T-shirts, but I spend hours on a customization website, designing T-shirts to memorialize my father, trying out fonts and colors and images," she writes.
It is primal and universal, the need to create something to honor the dead; to say "I am my father's daughter." First the marking of grief on the body, then the marking of grief on the page.
In this way, Notes on Grief becomes a work larger than its slim size, universal in the experience of the loss of a parent, and the struggle to mourn that loss, during a pandemic when airport closures and social distancing push funerals months and months past their scheduled dates. Of not knowing when the funeral will be, the delaying again, and then again. "'After the burial we can begin to heal,'" Adichie's mother says. Perhaps, in the reading of this book, in this personal lament made universal, so too will the rest of us who have lost so much over this past year of loss and grieving.
Hope Wabuke is a poet, writer and assistant professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln.
Correction May 11, 2021
An earlier version of this book review misspelled The Iliad as The Illiad.