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Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie

29 October 2021

Memoirs of grief can be helpful amid the aching, says Martyn Percy


GRIEF is a hard education. We do not choose it. Bereavement picks us out, and even when we know it is coming, we are invariably caught unprepared. Grief is one of love’s tariff’s — we are seldom ready for the lessons that it teaches.

When we lose someone we love, we are quickly inducted into how ungentle mourning is. Feelings of remorse, anger, regret, and aching overwhelm our senses. We lose sleep. When awake, we are barely present. In the midst of aching loss, we quickly discover how words fail us — gasping and grasping for some language to clothe our rawness. As for the very first grief that the scriptures record, we sew our fig leaves. But it is futile. The unclothed ache is etched into our faces, and the stoop of our bodies. Small wonder we try and hide.

Memoirs of grief have become something of a literary genre in our Covid-stricken time, serving as valuable sources of nourishment amid turbulence, ache, and loss. Richard Coles’s fine The Madness of Grief (Books, 23 April) provided a wry, raw, and frank account of bereavement, reflecting on the death of his beloved David.

Coles skilfully blended his befriending way of writing with rich wisdom, giving us a folksy modern spiritual classic, as though C. S. Lewis’s A Grief Observed had been adapted for Radio 4’s Saturday Morning Live.

Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie is a prize-winning novelist (Purple Hibiscus, Half a Yellow Sun) and essayist (We Should All Be Feminists and A Feminist Manifesto). This deeply touching pocket book (just 85 pages) is an exquisite testament, after the death of her father. It is small details that catch us unawares. She recalls her father fretting about shaving before seeing the hospital consultant. She finds herself needle-pricked by resentment of those who have the same disease, and yet are living on much longer. How does this world keep breathing and turning, she asks, while “in my soul is a permanent scattering”?

We can’t find the words for our own grief, because it is only ours. People try to communicate, but in truth, some sentences hurt. I have lost count of the accidental bruises and cuts picked up from well-meant words of comfort. People mean well. But few do well; and it is not their fault. They speak to your grief from their own helplessness. Their silences will hurt you as well. You can’t win.

I especially liked Adichie’s discussion of that oft-spoken phrase of consolation “I’m so sorry.” She notes its banality, which presumes nothing. Yet in her Igbo (Nigerian) language, the sorry-word is ndo. It carries what she terms “metaphysical heft” (eat your heart out, Donne). Ndo connotes sincere and warm memories of the deceased, with cadences of kindness, honesty, calm strength, peace, compassion, and integrity.

Good memoirs — this is an especially fine one — can give us the vocabulary to help clothe our inner language. If you have loved and lost, you will know that most people around you are lost for words; and, in our numbed senses, we cannot find or feel for the right words, either.

For me, wording the fathomless depths of grief is a gift from any writer. Thank God that someone like Adichie has woven her own searing loss into words of comfort, truth, and beauty. She gives us her own patois that you can wrap around yourself like a long thick shawl for some bitter winter day, and sense the kindly warmth of its weaver.

The Very Revd Professor Martyn Percy was Principal of Ripon College, Cuddesdon, before becoming Dean of Christ Church in 2014.


Notes on Grief
Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie
Fourth Estate £10
Church House Bookshop £9

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