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Death in its Proper Place

My first experience of bereavement occurred when I was six years old. An uncle adored by my family died and although I can’t recall actually being told that he had passed away, I remember my brother and I were kept away from the lekso. We were taken to see my aunt sometime after the bitter first days of grief had died down but I still have vivid memories of the loud keening of older women who had come to sit lekso with my aunt. The displaced furniture, more black than I had ever seen in my young life and the bitter adult tears firmly convinced my impressionable mind that death of a loved one is absolutely the most fearsome fate that I could expect to encounter. There is a reason why children, in most Ethiopian cultures, do not participate in funerary rituals. In all our cultures I am aware of, funerals are intense and painful. They are frightening. Although I lost a young aunt, a cousin and more distant family members in my early teens, I remained sheltered from the most harrowing expressions of grief, and from the pinnacle of it, the Kebir, until my father died when I was 18 – twenty years ago this month, and my life was irretrievably damaged.

With a loss like that, it is difficult to disassociate the experience and the production of collective grief in the beginning with the loss itself which is of course eternal. The wailing continued in my ears for weeks after the lekso had quietened down and my mother cut her silky hair short and slept on a mattress on the floor for months. She wore black for two years; first for her husband, and then for the father-figure he was to her. I could not eat in the first months after my father died and used to go to the neighbors every afternoon after school to be fed by Gursha. The support we had from all our friends and family was amazing but my memory of bereavement is still bitter. It is endless tears, a sea of black and a horrible sense of doom.

Although I didn’t know to mind it then, there was a major absence in the necessary bereavement that followed my father’s death. Although friends and family all attested to my wonderful father’s exceptional kindness and decency, there was only bitter sadness, there was no celebration of his life. No happy memories were shared, there was no laughter in that first year of mourning, only tears. Raised in the Ethiopian way that places so much seriousness on the business of death, I didn’t know there could be any other way to process and come to accept the passing of a loved one.

I left Ethiopia a year after my father died. My world widened to new ways of communication, new ways of learning and inevitably, alternative ways of dealing with the universal experience of death. In Greece, I was surprised to see striking similarities, perhaps unsurprisingly, with the Ethiopian rituals I am familiar with, complete with, of course, pervasive black, and loud keening. I started thinking that widows the world over look the same. I went to the US for graduate school in 2002, and a few months after I arrived, the country declared its illegal war against Iraq. Along with a significant segment of the population, at least in the progressive northeast that I was studying in, I was enraged at the unjust war and the unnecessary loss of life but it still seemed far away, not something that could possibly affect those in my immediate community. That was until a PhD student in my school lost her son, a Private in the US Army a few months after he was deployed to Baghdad. That was my first experience of an expression of bereavement in an American context, and others followed. My Haitian housemate lost his father and although, being Ethiopian, there was no question that I would not go to the funeral, that simple act of friendship is something my former housemate still remembers with gratitude. The United States has a multitude of cultures which deal differently with death but in all the funerals that I took part in that period of my life, there was of course sadness but it was measured. There were tears but not the wailing that only Ethiopian mothers seem capable of. People came to pay their respect but not every day for seven days. Most striking for me, there was a celebration of the life that had reached full circle, and every intention of solace for bereaved family and friends. I started thinking us Ethiopians have been doing bereavement wrong.

After graduate school, a one-year stint in Thailand, a highly reserved society, taught me the connection between expressing emotions and expressing bereavement at a death. I learnt that in the Buddhist, as in the Islamic context, death may be dealt with more in the spiritual than the material world. Back in Addis, I was inspired by a couple of Muslim friends’ utter acceptance of the death of their loved ones, as well as by the reliance on the words of the Holy Quran to accept God’s will. Convinced that the way we process death is largely constructed by our cultural mind frame, I started distancing myself from the traditional lekso of my community and vowed to myself that the next time I experience bereavement, I would do it differently. I would take it ‘easy.’ I would cry less, and I would celebrate the life departed.

There was only one catch. The way we deal with death may not be ours to change. I started realizing this when my former boyfriend, an American, lost his grandmother. After he forwarded the email that his mother had sent him to tell him the news, I left work for the day because it didn’t seem right to be at my desk when this momentous change had occurred in my partner’s life – except it had not. He went to his home state for the funeral, and went to the movies with his family after his grandmother was cremated. I stayed home and wondered how to deal with a loss that wasn’t mine to deal with. In those days, my then-partner often chided me, half jokingly: ‘She is MY grandmother. Finally, I overheard him discuss my bewildering level of grief at the passing of his grandmother, a woman I had not met, with his father over the phone – he said: “they are like that. They take death very seriously. They even wail and beat their chests.”

I didn’t care for the description of ‘they’ but the core message in that overheard message was spot on. I do come from a culture that takes death, and bereavement, very seriously. And perhaps the way in which we process death is so hard-wired into our psyches that we can’t change it. Just as alcohol-infused wakes and tasteful speeches work in some cultures, bitter crying and sitting, just sitting, sometimes for hours and days work in ours. We take death seriously because it IS serious business. It is forever, and it takes collective courage to accept the finality of it.

So now, I am back. I wear full black at Kebirs and will cry in empathy with the woman who has just been widowed or with the teenager who is burying her dad, because my family has been there. And because I know the depth of the loss that will color the rest of their lives. Yes, that is how ‘they’ – we do it. We give death its proper due because it will not be ignored or diminished.  Death is the shadow of life, it is always around, and when it strikes, we stop and acknowledge the magnitude of it. And perhaps the gravity we accord death may be just how we affirm life.

Sehin Teferra
July 2015

Photo Courtesy of IOL News.