I attended a funeral service for a young man today. He was 32 – not much older than me. The service was intense; palpable sorrow and grief filled the air.
As the choir did dreamy renditions of hymns, and people came up to read Bible verses, all carefully arranged to lighten the blow of the moment, the pain of his loss only heightened in the room. There was a lady in the choir, not more than 8 yards in front of me, whose tears overwhelmed the napkin she constantly held to her eyes, as she willed herself to stand with the rest of the group. She stuttered through the hymns with quivering lips. It hurt to look at her, but I couldn’t look away.
Sometime – around halfway through the service – a man came up to read from 1 Thessalonians 4. When he got to the part where we are admonished to not despair in the face of death like people who have no hope, his choking increased, but he braved it to the end. The portion he read from reads thus:
Grief is impervious to knowledge. The death of a loved one, especially one so young, asks many questions of us and puts the very core of our faith to the test. And we rarely have answers that work. Having hope doesn’t prevent the pain of loss. It will sting hard. But we’re expected to respond with measured grief. Sitting there and reading along with the man on the podium, the voice in my head read a bit faster – as I am accustomed to, but when he choked, my fluency escaped me. I, too, choked. An eager tear threatened, unsuccessfully, to escape my now misty eyes. I blinked rapidly and managed to restrain the floodgates.
When I was little, while in primary school, my mother’s brother, uncle Sam died. It is my earliest memory of death coming so close to home. I was, perhaps, too young then to grasp the scale of grief his loss inflicted on everyone, but I remember, as clear as day, how my mother mourned for him. She was inconsolable for an unending spell of time until the passing of time made things easier. Sometimes, I can recall uncle Sam’s face, with his full beards and sideburns that brushed against my tender neck each time he carried me up in a hug. It is like a distant memory from another lifetime. I don’t recall much else about him, but I will never forget my mother’s grief at his passing.
My most recent brush with grief was in the summer of 2017, when my friend and former colleague, Mubarak, died. The world was colourless for many days after, as everyone (in Nigerian Tech who knew him) reeled in shock. He was 24. Death isn’t something you should have to grapple with at 24, but Mubarak didn’t get the memo. None of us did.
I think a lot about death lately. It is a consequence of growing up, I imagine. You start to notice that death isn’t just an idea or a theoretical concept that means the end for some person you read or heard about. Every once in a while, it strikes closer to home and claims a friend, a relative or someone not far removed from you, and it jars your sensibilities. Each time, I relapse into an existential mode and question the meaning of everything that light touches. A consequence of growing up is the stark realization that everyone you know is hurtling towards an inevitable end, and you can only hope that their voyage takes as long as humanly possible.
While I sat in that church today, my mind traveled to the end of my life. I thought of all the people who would grieve when I’m gone, and I couldn’t think of a way to prevent them from grieving. For a moment, I wished that I’d been born alone, and with no one to be broken by grief at my passing when it finally happens. Then I realized that people only grieve because they have loved, and to exit without inflicting grief is to have lived without receiving affection. Existential thoughts are rarely rational, the mind is merely grasping at straws while failing at layering meaning onto events.
I shall carry the feeling of this moment and churn it over in my head for many days yet. He was my friend’s brother. I’d heard about him while he was alive but I never met him. I felt a tiny bit guilty for showing up late in his story – after it ended. Not more than 10 yards from my seat, his wife and daughter, and the rest of his family sat engulfed in grief. When I consider how the aching in their hearts is a hundred billion times more intense than what anyone else in the room is feeling, the tightness in my chest constricts a bit more and I have to sigh deeply to maintain airflow to my lungs.
Oh death, where is your sting?