Burying Another Dear Brother: Reflections on Grief and Death

By Tunji Olaopa

Death is something we have all the facts about but we never ever come to terms with. We know, for instance, that death is inevitable, and yet when the Grim Reaper appears, it always catches us unaware all the time. Death is one of the greatest existential paradoxes that humans have to contend with. For one, it is with the loss of someone very dear to us that we come to appreciate the fundamental essence of living. It is at the place of mourning that we get motivated to learn more from life. No wonder the Scripture admonishes that it is better to always be at the place of mourning than where mirth is abundant.

One of the consequences of death is utmost grief. This terrifying emotion derives from a sense of deep loss. And this grief does not need to be about anyone you love or you are close to. Grief is grief as long as you have an iota of humanity in you. Losing anyone deprives humanity of one of its not-yet-unfolded potentiality. But the grief at losing a loved one is the greatest of all griefs. It is a consuming emotion sense not only of loss but also of impotence—of being totally powerless to triumph over death and rescue a dear one. This kind of grief becomes elastic—it stretches the bereaved heart to an endless point of emotional trauma. C. S. Lewis, the British writer and theologian, aptly captures the trauma of grief: “Part of every misery is, so to speak, the misery’s shadow or reflection: the fact that you don’t merely suffer but have to keep on thinking about the fact that you suffer. I not only live each endless day in grief, but live each day thinking about living each day in grief.”

Grief is unmitigated simply because death intervenes in the temporal lifetime of love and affection. When a loved one dies, a finality is introduced; you never get to see that loved one ever again. The Yoruba say your reunion is now only possible in the realm of dreams. From losing a friend, a companion, a relative or any loved one, I do not know whether grief has quality; whether grieving over a relative is qualitatively different from losing a friend. Either one or the other, grief is overwhelming. I think I have now reached a point in my life where I truly understand what grieving means. In 1998, I lost Mr. Timothy Adebayo Olaopa. The grief of his death did not come from the fact that he was my late parent’s first son. Rather, it was that I lost someone who was more than a brother to me. He brought me up as his own son, and eventually became a solid mentor to me and grew to be very proud of me and indeed celebrated my achievements as we planned a twinning arrangement for his then impending retirement from the service of the Oyo State government. When he died, I could not fathom why, and my grief came with lots of anger. How could someone who loves you that deeply die? Is love supposed to be all-conquering even of the stings of death? Surprisingly, I learnt not only from his life. His death also further provided the strongest push I had to be a strong manager of my emotion and my marital affairs. In 2011, it was time to contend with the loss of my dear sister, Mrs. Florence Bosede Idowu, my mother’s second child. Her own death resulted from the struggles with the unintended existential consequences of some life choices a beautiful young lady had to make to combat with the searing poverty we all had to grow up with. This was a death that got at me simply because the tough though naive decisions she had to make when we were growing were those I was aware of (even though they were not decisions I could have influenced either way then). I however watched her struggles, her hopefulness, and at the point she should have started to harvest her lifelong labor, she passed on.

The exit of Timothy and Florence inevitably bonded me tightly to Mr. Sunday Adegoke Olaopa, my mother’s third child. Both of us, together with the other siblings, lived together not only in mutual love, respect and reciprocal affection, but also in the unity that loss often brings. We all shared a sense of family values and the burden of growing up under crippling existential conditions. We were brought up to know that education and the grace of God were the only resources we had as young lads to build on to be something in life. Indeed, I enjoyed some unequal share of affection from everyone, including my parents. They came to the awareness very early about my academic endowment, and I was given all the encouragement I needed. I once wrote an essay that not only brought tears to my father’s eyes but which, in retrospect, already hinted at my awareness about life and its vicissitudes. In that class assignment, I articulated an agenda for the future that would furnish me with a shoulder strong sufficiently to carry the burden of any of my siblings who might be trapped for any reason in the relative poverty that defined our youth.

It was therefore surprising to my father and my big brother, Adebayo, when I later indicated that I wanted to train as a philosopher. I have written a lot about my first encounter with Plato’s Republic and my fascination with its programmatic vision about the state and the ordering of the human society. What I have not been clear about is how my unraveling existential awareness of poverty and trauma and pain all around me were leading unconsciously to the evolution of a reflective personality in tune with my natural introspective temperament. The consternation of my family derived from the supposed uselessness of a discipline like philosophy vis-à-vis our existential predicament then and the need to make career choices that would transform our life chances. All these put together makes my grief unbearable when I recently lost Adegoke to this relentless Reaper. It is a terrible blow to my filial vitality. It was not that I wanted to stay the hand of death but I just was not ready to lose my brother. And I am sure he was not ready to die too. I have been struggling to get my balance of how to cope in the absence of all these loved ones. Our parents died a while ago, happily at their ripe ages (the 90s) and this makes my loss perhaps, less traumatic.

My grief gave me a peep into the existential trauma of many in Nigerians who have to contend with the trauma of underdevelopment. The Nigerian society has effectively become an existential blackhole that sucks life out of those who are bereft of the will to live. The suicide rate in Nigeria is unlike any we have witnessed in the past years. Presently, Nigeria ranked as the 5th most suicide-prone country in the world with 15000 suicides in every 100’000 suicides. And depression is a top risk factor leading to all these deaths. In essence, Nigeria has become an uncaring society where the youths are left to their own devices without as yet effective national framework for engaging them. It is therefore so easy for a graduate unemployed for ten years to fall into depression and take the final plunge into irreversible death. It is this irreversibility that leaves us so numb with grief and longing. It is what separates us forever from our loved ones—what has separated me from Adebayo and Bosede and Adegoke; what has separated hapless parents from those children in whom they preserved so much hope and aspiration; what is short-circuiting Nigeria from achieving her future. For if the youths are killing themselves, where then is the hope?

Death has compounded our lives and our development. But then death may leave us gaping with grief, but we are not helpless. The Stoics of ancient Athens counsels that when death happens, we have no means against it. Death, for them, is not up to us. but then, death does not sum up the whole of life and existence. Death may not be up to us, but so many other things, so many other initiatives, are up to us. My loved ones may have been taken from me, but I have the leeway to either let them die in vain or honor the legacies they left behind. We could either let the hapless Nigerian youths die in vain or give policy thoughts to what led to their suicides in the first place. With death and grief, we are given an opportunity to become better, to do things right, to reflect on what has been left undone; on what has suddenly been brought to our notice.

It is not inevitable that Nigerians must drop dead or commit suicide. It is not inevitable that we capitulate to the vagaries of life. Many have met with unfathomable sorrow—and yet they have risen beyond it to give deeper meanings to the essence of living. Jabez was born in deep grief, but he rose beyond it to become honorable. My own very life has been transformed by the loss of my siblings. And so we return to the paradoxes: death is the gateway to life; grief is the bedrock for happiness. As Leo Buscaglia once remarked: “Death is a challenge. It tells us not to waste time… It tells us to tell each other right now that we love each other.” And what best way to show love than to attend to those things that led to death in the first place? What is love for the dead if not to ensure that no one will ever die needlessly again?

*Olaopa, a retired federal permanent secretary, is a professor of Public Administration (tolaopa2003@gmail.com ; tolaopa@isgpp.com.ng)

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