Even though you know it is coming, there’s just no way to prepare for it and no matter how many times you see it happening to others, you are never quite ready for death. We are all bound to encounter grief in the course of our lives, yet most people find that they don’t know how to comfort the bereaved. Two youth who recently encountered grief and a counselling psychologist share their experience and knowledge on how to grieve healthily.
Zillah Wangeci, 23
I remember my father as a cool guy with a great sense of humour. He had travelled to all the six continents so he always had a story to share about other people’s cultures and life perspectives. I never got a chance to tell him, but he was the reason I fell in love with writing.
For three years, my father suffered from throat cancer and had to go for specialised treatment in India and China. We prayed together a lot during that difficult period, and he was confident of making a successful recovery.
A week before he died, he was in excruciating pain and admitted in hospital. He was starving because he couldn’t eat and was having so much trouble breathing. On March 10 at around 5.25am, my cousin called me. She was struggling to speak amid sobs and the moment she mentioned my father’s name, I knew it had happened. I didn’t even know how to feel at that time, so I simply asked her if my brother had been informed. He hadn’t, so I chose to be the one to break the news.
Viewing the body was the most difficult part. My feelings swung from fear to pain to the desperate hope that my cousin wasn’t serious. At the morgue, I kept calling out my dad’s name hoping that he would wake up. Even when we went home, I was still hopeful that he would wake up before the funeral.
I am still grieving. My father was barely around during my teenage years and early adulthood because he travelled frequently, so I was looking forward to spending more time with him. But I am never going to see him again. Initially, I felt hurt and guilty, and was in denial. Sometimes I think he is in another country and will come back like he always did.
Through it all, I have received overwhelming support from my family and friends. Since the funeral, my friends call me regularly, spend time with me and patiently listen to me talking about my father. I am very grateful to them.
People’s attempts to comfort me using phrases like, ‘It is well’ made me realise that many don’t understand grief. Nothing felt OK at the time. I was heartbroken. I believe it is the bereaved who knows whether or not it is “well”. It might not be, and that is also okay. Again, time doesn’t really help one heal. We simply get used to the loss, and those who believe in life after death become hopeful of seeing their loved ones later.
My siblings and I each handled the grief differently. I kept wondering whether my dad made it to heaven and whether I’ll make it too, just to be with him. I tried to suppress my grief through humour for a long time, but I didn’t have the right information. One time I literally googled: What is the right way to grieve? I didn’t want to ignore the pain because I knew it would manifest as anger. I also nurtured my relationship with God, which made the burden lighter.
If you are grieving, allow yourself to go through all the stages, and know that it is healthy to talk about the person you have lost. That is the only way out.
Now, death is no longer scary to me. Losing my dad made it clear that nobody is immortal. Someday it will be my turn to face death.
Fridah Baariu, 22
Before I experienced it, I had never really thought about death and had no prior knowledge on grief. I was so unprepared for what I felt when my father died. One moment I could be totally OK, and the next minute I would break down in tears. These days, I don’t even try to block the emotions. Grief is quite personal so if someone wishes to be left alone, give them time to work on their emotions. It doesn’t mean they are being cold.
My father had battled diabetes for long but the pandemic made things worse for him. I was at home with him throughout and saw how fast his health deteriorated, which was very traumatic. Our hope for his recovery dwindled with each passing day.
One day, after visiting my dad in hospital, my brother came back with despair written all over his face. I just took one look at him and knew. My world fell apart. I cried loudly into my brothers’ arms. We didn’t have a dad anymore.
For some time, I was in denial and couldn’t believe it. I kept expecting him to show up at the door and pictured my whole family laughing it off as a joke. While grieving as a family, people’s presence mattered a lot. Having someone visit us, even without saying a word, was consolation enough. It made us feel better. Friends showed up to do simple tasks such as cooking and washing utensils, and others called just to check on us. Inside the family, we gave each other strength.
I once heard someone say that my brother and I should be grateful to have lived with our father past our teenage years because some parents leave behind very young children. It may have come from a good place, but it hurt so much because it was invalidating our own pain.
My father was my best friend and biggest cheerleader. We shared many common interests. He could make anyone open up to him, and he was a keen listener. I still remember the times he came to visit me in boarding school, and the times we stayed at home to bond.
Losing my father made it easier for me to let go of things and people. Nowadays, I am so open to change. I’ve also understood the benefits of healthy living.
It is barely a year since I lost my dad, and I'm still grieving. I still spend time alone once in a while to address my pain. But regardless of my feelings, I am not ignorant of other people’s pain. I want to be there for them too.
Joseph Otieno Owuor is a counselling psychologist, mental health coach, trainer and mentor. He works at the Kenya National Commission on Human rights (KNHCR) as a counselling psychologist.
Do you have any personal experience with grief?
I got married in August 1999 and my late wife and I had a short honeymoon before settling into real life. We had great plans for our family. In December the same year, my wife got involved in an accident while on her way to bury her brother in law. The accident left her with multiple injuries, including a fracture on her pelvic bone, and she was bedridden for nine months. In September 2000, she died. It was really hard to process her death because I was just newly married. It took me about two years to finally find healing after going for therapy sessions.
What is your professional perspective on grief?
I have come to understand that grief is a natural response to loss. It is a highly individual experience so there’s no right or wrong way. How you grieve will depend on many factors including your personality, faith, coping style, life experience and how significant the loss was to you. The most significant the loss, the more intense the grief can be. Grief can be overwhelming and it can disrupt an individual’s health, causing one to exhibit difficulty in various things including sleep, eating, thinking straight. These are normal reactions to loss.
What are the healthy ways of coping with grief?
A healthy grieving process requires striking a balance between the time you spend directly working on your grief and the time you spend coping with your day-to-day life. It also requires balance on the amount of time you spend with others and that you spend alone.
Some healthy ways of dealing with grief include crying. Tears are not a sign of weakness, but of love and strength. We cry because the body needs physical release of emotions. Crying helps in restoring the much needed balance during the loss. Additionally, accept that grief can trigger different and unexpected emotions so regularly talk about your grief and your memories with someone you trust. Go gently with the process of grief, and avoid giving yourself deadlines for when you should be over it. While grieving, understand the uniqueness of your grieving process, acknowledge the loss and the vacuum left, and accept some reduction in your usual efficiency and consistency. Finally, accept help when offered, speak to a spiritual leader, therapist, counsellor, a life coach or a doctor and make sure to maintain healthy eating and sleeping patterns and do what you love doing.
What are the right ways to help someone dealing with grief?
To effectively support a grieving person, there’s the art of ‘being there’ and it doesn’t mean talking. Be there and be of service. If you have to say anything, validate their feelings. Also, understand your limitations. You can never take away their pain nor change their situation no matter how much you want to be of help. Encourage the person to take positive action toward healing such as going for counselling, but do not rush them. Additionally, allow the person to express their emotions, talk about the deceased and share fun memories. This helps the grieving person come to terms with their loss.
What should be avoided?
Never presume to know their feelings, and don’t use words such as ‘everything happens for a reason’, or ‘he or she is in a better place.’ The truth is that you don’t know how they feel. Such statements or words offer very little solace and in some instances, may make the person more upset. Additionally, do not avoid the person. You’d rather be uncomfortable than avoid your friend in his time of need.
Have men been conditioned to grieve in an unhealthy manner?
We live in a patriarchal society, where men are expected to act strong and suppress their feelings. Yet like women, men also have emotions. Unexpressed grief has a negative impact not only in men, but to everyone. These may manifest in lack of sleep, stress, and irritability. Some resort to alcohol or heavy smoking, or become workaholics. These behaviours are not helpful.