Losing my grandmother abroad taught me grief isn’t a linear process

As the nation tuned in to watch Prince Phillip being laid to rest last April, little did I know that in a few hours’ time I’d be observing my grandmother’s own funeral rites take place in Nigeria after her passing that evening, watching teary- eyed via a poor connection on WhatsApp video.

My mum, sisters and I huddled over the phone, watching as Mama Gade (a name we affectionately called her) was prepared for burial according to Islamic rules.

I found comfort in videos a friend sent me from the funeral prayer and burial site the next morning, as I watched Mama being carried for the last time to her grave, my father and two uncles laying her into the ground before prayers were recited.

Over the next week, once my mum finally waded her way through the hurdles of pandemic travel restrictions and arrived in Nigeria, video calls became our lifeline. My sisters and I, being the only members of our family in the UK at the time, were alone as we came to terms with the great loss, all in the midst of lockdown.

As I witnessed family and friends in the background of calls gather at Mama’s home to pay their respects – Covid restrictions being a little more lax in Nigeria – I couldn’t help but feel left out of the grieving process. Everyone back home got to say their goodbyes properly and be together.

Back in England, I was dealing with my university coursework, looking after my sisters and making sure we were all doing alright. But by the time my mum came back three weeks later, I felt like I had done all the grieving I needed to do.

As heartbroken as I was, almost a year later I now realize how the physical distance between myself and Nigeria made it somewhat difficult to properly grieve Mama. The distance helped numb my feelings in a way that everyone back home, due to proximity and family and community support, were able to fully embrace and experience.

In the weeks after my grandmother’s death, I wrote in my Notes app: “I’ve been able to comprehend Mama’s passing, but I don’t think it’ll hit me until I go to Nigeria and go to her house.

“Her house is the longest relationship I’ve had with any home in my life. I have some of my earliest memories of her there and I do not ever feel like I’m truly settled in Nigeria until I’m in her home from her.

“But next time I visit, her chair will be empty, her wheelchair out of sight and the blanket mummy had crocheted for her which she never got to use, folded away somewhere.”

And I was right. It was n’t until a trip to Nigeria earlier this month – my first from her since December 2020 – that I was overwhelmed with emotion at being in Mama’s home from her, for the millionth time, but this time without her from her.

Less than five minutes upon entering, I broke down in tears as I realized her home and Nigeria would never feel the same again. It was at that moment that I realized that grieving is never truly over.

But I’d be lying if I said that with Mama’s passing, there wasn’t a mild relief. An ever so small one. The relief of no longer holding my breath when phone calls come through from family back home unexpectedly or at odd hours – a holding of your breath I know so many other people who have been raised continents away from their loved ones have felt.

The relief of no longer hearing my mum’s panicked voice answering a call saying: “Hello, me ya faru?” asking what’s wrong in our native tongue. Those three words, loaded with such emotion. The constant fear that the next phone call from back home is going to be telling us something has happened to Mama. Just like that one call, that April evening.

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A Pandora’s box of questions has since opened after my trip as I find myself now navigating how to continue and strengthen my relationships with family in Nigeria. My parents have done such a good job ensuring that we’ve always known where we come from and been close with our family. But it’s reached a time now where it’s no longer their responsibility, but mine. And it’s not one I take lightly.

There’ll come a time when my own parents will choose to settle back in Nigeria, and I’ll also be faced with the responsibility of having to balance life here in the UK and there.

Figuring out where I’ll settle in the future is something I wrestle with at times. The UK is home and Nigeria is their home, but it’s also mine, to an extent. It’s the place they want to be buried when the time comes and it’s a wish that I want to honour.

As a child of the diaspora, my grandmother’s loss has taught me a lot about the importance of documentation. Through countless videos and photos, I’ve been able to keep her memory of her alive as we recorded varying stages of her journey with Alzheimer’s, from when she could still walk, talk, laugh, to her more subdued and mellow self in her last couple of years.

It brings me joy and peace. But with the end of every video comes the wish that they lasted just a little longer, so I could get one more day with her.


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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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