Journey Through Grief: A Son's Tale of Loss, Denial, and Healing

FamilyKids & Teens

  • Author Olonade John
  • Published December 18, 2023
  • Word count 3,546

“To those grappling with grief and the searing loss of a loved one, this I have written that you might find peace, comfort and warmth within these pages".

“Mummy is dead, Brother John.”

“No!” I said defiantly. “My mum is not dead.” “We need God to bring her back.” “He will…”

That was the conversation between my younger sister, Joy and I that fateful Thursday afternoon. The news hit us both like a thunderbolt at two far ends of the country, where we were on our compulsory national youth service. Joy was in Anambra state and I was in Abuja. I cannot remember what I was doing but I remember being behind the broad office table at the office that day when my sister's WhatsApp message came in. She was asking if I had read Dad's text. I checked for it and that was the first yet gentle blow of what was to come.

“Mummy stopped breathing this morning. Exodus 17 is yet a call for God's supernatural intervention. I am expecting a miracle from the God of all possibilities. He leads us always in triumphant procession. Please don't allow Jenefa and Joshua into this yet. They are all alone in the house and may get confused. Uncle Ayo and Daddy Samuel are joining me for sustained prayers that my wife shall yet arise like Lazarus. What God cannot do DOES NOT EXIST!!!!”

I rushed out of the office exit in a frenzy, ignoring the prying eyes begging for answers. The first person I called was Leah. Managing to suppress my troubled emotions and agitations which often spurred incoherence, I broke the news to her. She tried to calm me down and told me she was heading to the church with her Mum to intercede for a miracle. They say the first stage of grief is denial but I was not sure the denial towards this news was due to grief. I think it came from a place of a knowing that my mum could not possibly be dead. How could a woman who had been so full of life, who throughout my twenty-five years in this world never got admitted in a hospital for any illness, a woman who would rather go to work no matter the odds than stay in bed nursing an illness, be dead? How could such pillar of strength fade away from life? How could such a person possibly die? I found myself contacting a few friends next; one of whom came to join me in prayers at my office. All of them assured me of their never relenting prayers and I spent the next few hours on a conference call with Leah and her mum, my friend, Mercy, a few other friends and my sister whose voice was severely pierced by nerve-racking sobs. We cried, we sang, we groaned, praying - hoping for a miracle! “What if she does not wake up?” my sister asked. We had just finished praying that afternoon and I was speaking to her, assuring her with the little flicker of hope within me that my mother would rise again.

A few months before, I got the first news about my mum's illness. Everyone back home--my dad, mum and two siblings all fell ill, were treated for malaria and got better, except for Mum. The illness persisted and worsened so she was rushed to a nearby hospital where she was yet again treated for malaria. She got better and was discharged a few days later but she fell sick again soon afterwards and it was far worse this time. My dad then took her to another hospital where the doctors suggested they both got tested for COVID. The results came back positive but my dad was asymptomatic. I had no idea what was going on and I had even been trying to reach her over the phone to no avail. Dad told us she fell ill and had been admitted at the hospital. That seemed rather strange to me, knowing how energetic my mum was. A gnawing fear engulfed me but I tried to encourage myself with, “it's probably an untreated illness gone wrong” and I kept saying it out loud. How wrong I was. Days rolled into weeks and my mum remained in the hospital. The next update from my dad ranks among the biggest shockers I have ever received. “Mummy has been placed on oxygen” He said. How? Why? What sort of ailment would leave my mother on the thin line between life and death? What on earth could it be? We had the diagnosis but it did not register in my mind. A virus, they called it. Viruses come and go all the time and this one would not be different from all the other before it. It had us following safety precautions religiously during its first wave but it certainly was not peculiar and surely, Mum would fight through it. We kept praying for her safe recovery as the days went by and just when it seemed life was returning to her, she crashed again. My two youngest siblings, Joshua and Jenefa who were home from the time she fell ill until when she passed told tales of how sickness left a once agile woman weak and spent. My brother told me how she kept muttering God, remember my sacrifices on your altar with the little strength she had. She would also sing: Apata ayeraiye (Rock of Ages) Mo sa di o o (I run and hide in you) Ninu re ni iye mi wa (In you, lies my survival) Each time I think about the lyrics of that song and how much it meant to my mum, my heart bleeds to tears. It's a song that reflected her constant dependence on the only God who could save her from the clawing hands of death even as she drew her last fleeting breath. The last time I remember my mum singing that song was when Bimbo Odukoya, a revered woman of God, died in a plane crash. It was a time in Nigeria's history when a myriad of air mishaps rocked our airspace and brought the country to its knees in grief. My mother loved her to bits. She fasted and prayed that God would bring her to life and she enjoined her children to do the same. To this day, I am upset that sickness ended the years my mum spent so full of life and agility.

To worsen my hurt, I did not get to see her before she was wrapped up and buried (no thanks to the State Health Policy on patients who died from the virus). I wanted to be able to see her face and caress her hair once more, even if it was the last thing I did. I would have done anything possible to have that moment with her. On Thursday, 19th of August 2021, I woke up to a message from my dad informing me about my mum's deteriorating health and requesting that we all record videos singing and praying for her. I did mine and sent it. Little did I know she was never going to see it. Dad once told me that Mum wanted to talk to me on the phone while she was in the hospital but we never got to have that call and until today, I wonder what she wanted to tell me. I got up that morning day and prepared for work like any normal day, unaware of what fate the clouds held in store for me that day. When I got back home in the evening, I went to see the NCCF (Nigerian Christian Corpers Fellowship) president, David and told him about my mum's situation. We prayed together and he encouraged me. I spent the rest of the day rallying for prayer altars from all the people I could contact and at night, we had series of calls, still praying and trusting for a miracle. I remember the anger, irritation and revulsion that welled within me when my dad forwarded the list of things that would be needed to lay her body to rest. Everything in me was drowning the voice of reasoning. We have no business with this please. I thought. The darkest hour is always before dawn, they say. The few sleepless hours I spent in prayer that night were the darkest hours of my life; only that dawn did not bring any glimmer of hope but rather, a grim hit of reality. And it hit me hard. It was my sister's call that jolted me awake. Another conference call. Dad's voice was the first I heard. He was crying profusely, like a baby. A quality I have always loved about him is his ability to express his feelings and be vulnerable. I think it's a true mark of strength. He was crying and praying as he stood across the room where she lay. He asked us to pray that God would bring her back to life and in his words, “that my wife will get up and walk right here to embrace me.” My uncle, Jonathan and his wife were also on the call with my two other siblings who by that time, knew what had happened.

I remember pacing around the basketball court that early morning as we all raised our voices in feverish pleas, crying that God would bring our mother back to us. One of the few friends I made from social media called when we were done. After her prayers and usual words of encouragement, she asked me a pertinent question. If God decides to keep Mummy with him, can you release her? The answer to that question prepared me for my new reality and I started to adjust. With all the splendour and glory of heaven, do you really think Mummy would want to come back? We cannot preach so much about eternal life still get mad at God when he decides to take our loved ones into that eternal life. I sat in the bus conveying me from Abuja, The Capital State where I served to Ibadan and ruminated on those words. In my mind was a deep battle raging like the storms of the sea to either release my mother or grapple with the reality of her passing. My dad had asked Leah and her brother to help with the burial arrangements. She was reluctant to disclose this information but she eventually did and that somewhat prepared me for what was ahead. I also learnt that my mum's brothers were in town and were helping out with the arrangements. Leah kept me posted. While they were all getting the coffin, preparing the ambulance and transporting her body from one end of the city to another, I kept praying, hoping for a last hour miracle. What God cannot do does not exist, after all. I kept holding on to the last ebb of hope in me for my mother's life and at the same time, fighting back the tears trying desperately to push through. Not now, please. The sympathy of strangers was the least I needed. Minutes became hours and dusk arrived. By the time I arrived in Ibadan, the burial was already underway. I boarded a bike to get home faster, hoping that I would at least be able to see her before she was lowered into the earth. The burial site was located in the outskirts of the city. Joshua, Jenefa and Leah met me at the junction and dissuaded me from going as they were already rounding up and would be on their way back in no time. If there was anything that added to my sorrows that evening, it was that my mum was not surrounded by her children, save for Joshua and Jenefa, and the husband she loved the most when she was buried.

It was midnight and I lay on the couch staring at the shining light bulb housed by the small chandelier above. The memories of a mother we loved so dearly poured in like heavy torrents and the tears flowed freely. As I laid there, I thought of everything that would have been if mum was still alive. She would have called to know if I had arrived home safely and pleaded with me not to ever take a motorcycle no matter how bad the gridlock was. She had a bike accident many years ago and that scarred her from getting on any moving vehicle on two tires. She would probably have been the first to throw me a welcome hug and taken it upon herself to make me a nice meal. She would have given me the gist of all that happened while I was away–from the incompetent staff giving her a tough time to the lousy parents with endless complaints. My mum would have taken me around our house to show me how much progress had been made with some of the construction going on. She did not study architecture but her creative side always shone through. She was the brain behind all our building and project plans. She would have loved to see her visions and plans come to life. The next day brought with it a stark sense of reality. The first set of visitors was the pastor of our church we attended along with another minister in the church. My dad who was still in the isolation center had given us some instructions about the place my mother was buried. I went with the pastor and the minister who came with him to the burial site. Seeing the concrete grave that now housed my mother left gushes of tears streaming down my face. As the pastor prayed, echoes of grief descended heavily on me and the tears flowed ceaselessly. The overbearing pain of grief wore heavily on me. Death did have a sting; one that comes with so much agony. It stings like an army of embittered bees would do to someone who intrudes their colony. I visited my dad at the isolation centre after supervising the workers at the grave site. On getting there, I was dismayed to find out that he had been moved to another centre. I was told that he seemed to have relapsed so they had to move him and some others to another centre for observation. My sister arrived that evening and was the first to welcome me home that night. We spent the evening reminiscing about Mum. I woke up in the wee hours the following day to find her holding Mum's pictures and sobbing uncontrollably. She told me about the last moments she spent with Mum before she travelled to Anambra state. On the day she was to travel, Mum came into her room and noticed Joy's sad countenance. She said she was having a tough time in her relationship and she just wanted to be alone. After narrating her relationship ordeals to her, Mum tried to console and hug her as she usually does whenever she was downcast but Joy, still overcome with her sadness, cringed at the feel of any touch at that time so she restrained Mum from hugging her. That morning, my sister said with regret, that she wishes she could travel back in time to that day and give her all the hugs she deserved. She wanted that hug now more than anything. She also talked about the times Mum would call her to massage her feet (my mum really loved us massaging her feet.) and stay with her in the room whenever Dad was not around. Joy was not comfortable sometimes with some of Mum's requests but she did them anyway. Now, she wished she could go back and do more of those things for her.

Before Mum passed, she had called Joy who was already at the NYSC orientation camp to inform her she and the rest of the family had malaria. This was strange to her because as people with AA genotype, even though we had no serious health challenges, malaria was no stranger to us. We simply took our drugs, got well and moved on with life. It was as though someone calling to inform you that he had catarrh. That's how petty malaria seemed to us so Mum calling specifically to tell her about having malaria did not seem news worthy at the time. Coincidentally, Joy fell ill later that day and a few days later, she was informed that Mum had been admitted at the hospital. The only time we had ever seen this woman on a hospital bed was when she had our youngest brother, Joshua. I still feel a mild tinge of jealousy anytime I remember that it was Joy who had the privilege of hearing Mum's voice before she died. She had called Dad to confirm the state of Mum's health and he placed the phone on her ears. Joy was praying and crying at the same time and Mum mustered the strength to speak to her, telling her not to cry and assuring her that she will be fine. That was the last time she spoke to anyone. My mum owned two groups of primary and secondary schools and it was a burden on her heart to see us gain mastery of the school business that saw us through our university education. It was as if she knew her time would be up soon. I probably should have let my sister cry freely because when I thought to console her, I broke down in tears myself. Seeing tears on the faces of people who came to pay their condolences was like a tearjerker for me during that period. The tears were a sort of trigger and an ever-constant reminder of the pitiful and grim valley of grief our family was wallowing in at that time.

We went to the Agbami Centre, one of the Centre for Virus/Diseases Control, mainly used for the Covid-19 patients then, a day after my sister's arrival. Being a Sunday, she had a day of rest from the long distance road trip and the next day, we set out to see Dad. We were asked to wait outside for some time before the officials let us in. The protocol around centre like that were very tight. Visitors were not usually allowed past the gate to avoid further spread of the virus but they made an exception for us. My dad came out of the clinic and was talking to a nurse but he did not see us from where he stood. Joy was the first to break down in tears on seeing him. He looked like a shadow of himself. He looked healthy but you could tell he had been emotionally battered. This man had spent weeks with his beloved wife, caring for her and fighting for her life until she died in his arms. Before I realized what was happening, I broke down in tears myself and wept like a baby. I had never felt sorrow and grief the way I felt it that day. “When you walk through the fire, I will be with you. The fire shall not burn you. We really did walk through the torments of fire”. The nurse my dad was talking to earlier kept trying to offer words of comfort to douse our tears. My dad sat a few feet away from us as instructed. He had so much sadness in his eyes. When I told him he must be very strong not to have broken down under all the emotional trauma, he shook his head and said, “Ah John, I have been through hell,” his voice almost collapsing under the weight of his tears. It was there I saw the agony and sorrow in his eyes. If I could be suffering this much, I wonder how much 34 pain he was going through losing a woman he had spent over twenty-five years of his life with. In his red misty eyes, I saw a heart suffering unimaginable grief and I wept again. We sat on the bench few meters across from him and relived our sorrowful tales. We were worried about Joshua, who had not shed a single tear in a bid to defy the well of emotions within him since the incident. We talked about how none of the church members, including the pastor who had been our shepherd for over ten years paid us a visit the previous day, a Sunday despite the fact that the church was very close to our home. It seemed as though the fear of the virus was now the beginning of wisdom. The stigmatization patients and even families of those with peculiar illnesses go through is very disturbing. You would find, to your utter disappointment that even those who pride themselves as elites would allow themselves fall prey to such ignorant and naïve stereotypical 35 beliefs. That was the situation we found ourselves in. A sorry plight indeed. I remember talking to a childhood friend on the phone, 'Even if God wanted to take her home did it have to be COVID?' It was the manner and timing that hurt the most.

Olonade John is a practicing lawyer, seasoned writer and author of books and numerous works

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