July 15, 2024

Coping with Grief – A Personal Reflection

At age 91, my father died from prostate cancer on September 29, 2016 and we grieved for his death, but we were also relieved that his body would no longer feel the excruciating pain brought on by the cancer. It had ravaged his body for the last few years of his life and had spread to every organ. He was given a well-deserved send-off and laid to rest at Warren Hills Cemetery. At his funeral, I remember an older relative saying to me, “You have to watch the old lady carefully, these people were very close to each other, and these people have a way of following each other.” I didn’t think much of that statement and pushed it to the back of my mind, after all Amai was 86 and in my experience, women often outlive men! 

Fast forward to Baba’s memorial on December 31, 2016. I was filming the affair, as I always do as the family documenter, and through the corner of my eye I noticed that Amai did not look too well. I dismissed it thinking she was sad because of the sombre nature of the day. Exactly seven days later, on January 7, 2017, my mother passed away! Now, this was a shock. Not a single one of us in her family saw this one coming. It hit us like a Mack truck: head on! She had complained of stomach pains and was hospitalized three days after the memorial. First the doctors said she had twisted intestines, but the cause of death was sepsis caused by a raptured appendix. Well, I was present when my mother had a cat scan of the abdomen and I remember the radiologist saying to the doctor, “Hmm I do not see the appendix!” I will not go into the implications of this statement. Our mother was dead. We buried her next to her husband and at the graveside I said, “Our father died from prostate cancer and our mother died of heartbreak!” I saw quite a few heads nodding in agreement.

I had a lecture at the Seattle Public Library as part of their 2016 Design Lecture series in two week’s time after burying my mother. The organisers asked if we should postpone the date, but I decided I wanted to go. I saw this trip as a way of healing; the change of environment would help to ease the pain, so I thought. The flight to Seattle was long and tiring but it was a chance to reflect. I had been our parents’ primary care giver for the past few years, so I had carried quite a heavy load. When I checked in at the hotel, dead tired, I fell asleep and woke up with a start. I realized there was a ten hour time difference with home. I have never felt so far from home! I almost reached for the phone to call my mother as per our custom. She had insisted that I call her just to say that I had arrived safely wherever my travels had taken me. It was there and then that I realized there was no longer a mother to call and the floodgates opened. I cried uncontrollably.

I realized that there was no need to rush back home and decided to stay in Seattle for a while. Some very good friends offered me a place to stay and I hit the streets looking for work. I would be strolling down the street but a certain song would cross my mind which reminded me of my parents and without warning, the tears would flow and sometimes it was so bad I would sob uncontrollably that I had to duck into a side street and let the tears flow until I had recovered. I couldn’t even think of Eric Clapton’s “Tears in Heaven” without crying. That song reminded me of my mother in particular. I ended up spending two years teaching design in Seattle but decided I missed the beautiful Zimbabwean weather and returned home in 2019.

In conclusion, losing a parent is hard enough but losing both almost simultaneously is incredibly painful. I dealt with it by going away, far, far away from daily reminders of my parents. Being among loving friends also helped. When I returned to Zimbabwe for my mother’s memorial in April of 2017, the sun and warmth of Africa was the balm I needed to soothe away the Pacific North West chill and gloom. I thoroughly enjoyed the sun and soaked enough to last me for a while when I returned to Seattle. It was warm there anyway on my return that May because our winter here is their summer! 

My experience with grief is that it gets better with time but it never really goes away. I had recorded them singing their favourite hymns – they were both amazing singers, their voices complementing each other very beautifully. For two years after their passing, I could not listen to them sing without shedding tears, but now I can listen to them and marvel at how beautifully they sang. It is true when people say, “Gone but never forgotten.”

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