Dealing with the end

Nigerian writer Elnathan John: Look death in the eye

Looking death in the eye. © Adria Fruitos for The Africa Report

You had only known Graham for a short while, only a couple of months since you first met him at the home of a mutual acquaintance, the oldest person in the room with a beautiful salt and pepper beard. He spoke the least, but when he did, everyone paused to listen to his low baritone as carefully considered words tumbled slowly out of his lips. You always wanted to make older male friends, and you reached out after, encouraged by a mutual friend, to see him again.

He invited you to his flat. He cooked, and you both ate and drank and chatted about writing, about politics, about activism. He discussed a writing project he was having challenges with, and you told him you were thinking of pivoting away from full-time writing now that it was getting harder to pay your bills.

A week after the dinner he called you.

You picked the call, upbeat.

Hey Graham!

And the subdued response came back. He saw your email, he said. He was going to deal with it. But right now he had to get on a plane. And then he broke down. My boy, he said. My boy killed himself last night. And then he began apologising, saying he would take a look at your email once he returned.

An apology

You protested, insisting that nothing was more important than dealing with this tragic incident. It struck you as odd, this apology that grieving people issue  (more common in the West than in your native Nigeria) when they break down publicly.

A wave of sadness sluiced over you, everything slowing almost to a halt. The already grey Berlin skies became greyer still. His son was miles away, but a man you knew and just had dinner with had lost a young son. It had been three years since you were last in such close proximity to death in Berlin. Two years after you moved to Berlin, a woman in your neighbourhood, who stood out because she always said hello to you, died of cancer.

You still do not know her last name. There were no posters littering your neighbourhood announcing her death. No gathering of neighbours incandescent with grief at her home. No announcement of funeral plans. She exited your neighbourhood and the world as quietly and unobtrusively as a grain of icing sugar falling off a doughnut.

You thought of her for many days after. She always looked quite well to you, sprightly, always a joke on her lips and a wink in her eyes. You used to see her when she came to pick up her kid from the kindergarten close to your flat. And then it occurred to you that in two years, you had not known of a single person who had died in Germany. Sure, people were dying every day in the city. But you did not see or hear of any of it. Death had been removed from the public eye, erased from polite conversation. This was a society that held life in hands not begrimed by messy things like death or dying. Mourning was as private as going to the bathroom and the process of dying made invisible, outsourced to special institutions and maybe very close family members. Death and dying were expelled from the world of the living. If this was Nigeria, you thought, I would have known she had cancer, would have visited her, would have attended her funeral; being a neighbour would have been enough to justify your presence and tears at her funeral.

Death every other day

In Nigeria, where you lived all of your life before moving to Germany, you saw death every other day. You observed in painful, minute detail every aspect of dying. You saw people wasting away from disease until they passed, you saw suspected thieves being savagely beaten in the streets, sometimes until they died, you saw motorcyclists without helmets crash to their death, you saw people being slaughtered during religious riots, mangled bodies in head-on collisions or otherwise healthy looking people just slump and die. This is not to mention the many who got ill and died of everything from malaria to the catch all “brief illness”, a phrase used by Nigerians to describe the very short commute from some nebulous illness to death.

Growing up, you lived in a mostly Muslim community that had a small Christian island where all the forbidden things happened: brewing of local alcohol, and the sale and consumption of pigs and dogs. As a result, pigs kept by this Christian community often strayed into the Muslim neighbourhoods around. Each time this would happen, kids would scream Alade! Alade! announcing to everyone that a pig had been sighted. The pig would be chased, and if caught, beaten to death.

The first time your youngest sibling saw a dead body, he was about 10 years old and in a car driving through your city which had just been ravaged by a religious riot. He saw a person whose skull was cut open and pointed to it before someone in the car, you cannot remember who, covered his eyes.

Sometimes you try to recall the first time you saw a dead person. You still cannot remember a time in you life that you had not seen people dead or dying.

Feeling troubled

When the woman in your Berlin neighbourhood died, you tried to unpack why you felt so troubled. For two years, you had been living in a dream, where people do not die, where sick people and those in accidents are safely ensconced in neat ambulances and the only people who have to deal with dead bodies are trained professionals.

When your brother wasn’t breathing after you pulled his body out of a swimming pool in Nigeria in 2003, there was no phone number to call, no ambulances on standby, no paramedics and police to cordon off the scene of the accident and save the public from seeing his cold lifeless body. You had to plead with a stranger who was also at the pool to take you in his car to the hospital. The driver was young and at first reluctant but when he saw the tears in your eyes he picked up his keys and asked you to come along. When the funeral happened, all of the neighbours were there, all of the members of the church, all of his friends and yours and those of your parents, all of the relatives, until the house was bursting with bodies and people had to leave to make space for others.

The first time you killed an animal that wasn’t an insect, it was for food. Your mother had brought home a live chicken as she did at least once every other week. She did not trust the dead chickens that lay in heaps at the market. She trusted even less, chickens that were frozen. It was important that the slaughter was done halal style, and so she bought it from the poultry farm of a neighbour and brought it home. You had seen her do it, but now you were old enough to do it. Before now, you had only helped to pluck feathers and clean innards. This time she let you take a knife to its neck. The knife had to be sharp because she did not want it to suffer.

Nothing of the chicken was wasted, not the head, not the feet, not even the intestines.

Numbing to death

When a vegan asked in a room you were in in Germany if people would still eat meat if they actually had to kill the animals themselves, you burst into laughter. After a few seconds you realised you were the only one laughing. It became apparent to you that none of the other meat eaters had ever taken the life of an animal or seen it being done. The next few minutes were very difficult as you tried to explain that your laughter was not that of a bloodthirsty lunatic and that in fact killing animals for food did not make you value them less or turn you off meat. Especially growing up at a time and in a country where there was no inhumane farming of meat, you cherished every part of the animal that was dying to give us food. You do not think you were successful convincing anyone.

As the years pass with you in Europe, you become less and less numb to death. These days, most of the deaths you hear about are deaths of people you know in Nigeria, mostly conveyed via WhatsApp by your sister who does not fail to mention when someone is terminally ill or has died. When her messages pop up on your screen, you brace yourself before opening it. You never get notice before she sends you pictures of someone in hospital, or bullet holes in the walls of her house when kidnappers attempted to gain entry and take her and her children. You do not know when or how often she will tell you that so and so has died.

In the past couple years a global pandemic that has taken the lives of millions has thrown death into our faces. Unfortunately, especially in the West, this has not led to any healthy collective grieving. Even worse, the nature of the disease is such that death from the virus happens in such seclusion. People die without family members holding their hands, without children and grandchildren kissing them goodbye.

Going it alone

Grief is a difficult emotion that takes time to work through. And it becomes harder still when we are forced to do it alone, away from eyes that do not want to be reminded of mortality.

You constantly imagine a world away from both extremes, not an aseptic one, where death and dying are completely dissociated from living, and not one where death and dying are so hyper-visible people become numb to the violence and lose value for human life. You imagine a world where we can sit in the space with death, where we can contemplate life while dying, where the process of dying doesn’t have to mean exclusion from community, where public grief and mourning is a healthy, even rejuvenating process where people can collectively contemplate mortality. You think, not only of public grief when a collective tragedy happens or a famous person dies, but of the right to publicly grieve one’s private loss; you think of societies that are not merely voyeuristic or sentimental but allow for the public expression of pain.

In Nigeria and places like it, you know this can only happen when governance improves and security is taken seriously. Because with each injustice, whether it is social injustice, legal injustice, economic injustice or political injustice, the ground is made fertile for self help, for violent agitations and for opportunistic violent crimes. With lack of development and resources that should be used to build better roads and hospitals being stolen by politicians, people will keep dying needlessly in preventable accidents or from treatable injuries. Until this happens, death will keep being hyper-visible, making a society that is increasingly numb and indifferent to suffering, death and dying.

Discussing grief and death

For countries like Germany, the cultures must evolve to allow a healthy place for discussions around private grief and death. No one should need to apologise for crying in public when traumatic memories are recalled. Instead of awkwardly turning away, we should learn to sit with death, to look it in the eye.

As Graham travels to spend time with his family and bury his son, you think of the imponderable nature of private grief. Of death being part of life and the process of living also being the process of dying. You think of Graham and of the immense trust involved in sharing his grief publicly. You do not take for granted that he could cry on the phone to you. It does not make you uncomfortable. And when he returns from the funeral, you will be there. There will be no time limit before it becomes awkward. If he is taciturn, lost in sad reveries, you will sit with it. If he wants to cry again, you will sit with it, contemplate mortality with him, not wallow in self pity, but hold death in the cup of life and drink from it, and after that maybe, also find something to laugh about.