In this post about unresolved grief, I highlight how the death of my loved one exposed other incomplete griefs
Grief is multilayered. It affects more areas than one can imagine.
I now know that grief is not limited to the primary loss alone, which is the death of a loved one, and includes secondary losses. What I didn’t know, which I am currently learning, is that the death of a loved one also unearths incomplete griefs and forgotten losses.
What is unresolved grief?
Unresolved grief is an experience of being “incomplete” with a loss. Each week unearthed other griefs and losses that I had either suppressed or not dealt with. I felt transported to each incident, and they felt as vivid as daylight can be.
I noticed a strange set of feelings as the weeks turned to months after my loved one died. It felt like I was also grieving other losses that had happened in my life.
I’d like to take you on a journey through how my wife’s death unearthed some of my unresolved griefs.
I had an older brother who died of cancer in 2008. I rarely spoke about him after he died, not because I didn’t love him, but majorly because of unwillingness to talk about the loss or acknowledge it.
I cried a little after his death. I became numb and hid the thought of his death deep inside my mind, locked the door with multiple keys, and threw the keys away.
He was one of my strongest pillars, my closest buddy. He was two years older than me and was my bodyguard. His name is Oluwakayode. He was the most generous person I have ever known. He was my playmate. We were incredibly close.
I can tell you many stories about him. Our parents had travelled out of Nigeria searching for the golden fleece and left us in the care of grandparents, uncles and aunties. Our parents were working class, and they ensured we had the best education.
They phoned us regularly, and it was in those days when only one person in the neighbourhood had a telephone; when you spoke on the phone, you had to shout so that the person on the other end of the phone could hear you—the telephones were the rotary dial ones.
Oluwakayode was tall, had meat on his bones. I was short, skinny, shy and cheeky (I often ate a portion of his food, too). He was bold, full of life, and his presence commanded respect. We did everything together, including me spending his money when mine finished. He would usually bribe me with fan ice cream and Chupa Chups lollipop.
Our parents made sure that we went to the best schools, and when we could attend secondary school, they ensured we attended a boarding school. My brother and I attended Chrisland College, Idinmu.
I found the senior students felt they had the right to oppress the junior students, especially those who had just started secondary school. The senior students acted like mini-gods who believed they had rights to your provisions, could send you on endless errands and gave you ridiculous punishments (like drawing a car and a bus stop, then asking you to push the drawn car to the bus stop), amongst others.
I found our boarding school experience taught us how to be sharp and quick on our feet. It wasn’t all a negative experience; we had great learning and fun too.
One of my fondest memories of my brother was when he flogged and made a senior ‘plant corn’ because of me.
I know what you’re thinking. You want me to share this gist with you. Did you say, “how did it happen?”
You like gist too much. Ok, I’ll share.
Saturdays were always a busy day at boarding school. We had to wake up early at 5 am, get into our sportswear for exercise, which felt like forever; then we had ‘environmental sanitation.’
I had finished my chores and was catching up with my roommates in the afternoon when this senior walked into our room, dumped his clothes on my bed and demanded that I wash them. He took it too far when he insisted I used my soap to wash his clothes. I told him, “I don’t have any left.” He responded by asking me to buy the soap with my money and bring him back some change.
This was his usual practice.
I don’t know what came over me that day. I protested and refused to wash his clothes. I spent the night under his bed on the cold floor. He ensured I missed lunch the following day, and let me just say I don’t enjoy missing mealtimes. My happiest times are mealtimes.
I decided he was ‘doing too much’ when he demanded that I clean the toilets in the evening.
I was in the red house (Oshobiken), and my brother was in the blue house (Ninan). What separated his dorm and mine was a small rectangular garden and the dining hall. A small corridor leads to his dorm, and his room was the second room to the last.
This injustice enraged me; I wanted to knock the senior student out. The only challenge was that I didn’t know how to fight. I was a tiny, skinny boy. I said some things to this senior; he got angry. He chased me like Tom chased Jerry.
I weaved and dodged as he chased after me. He didn’t realise that I was escaping to my brothers’ room. He chased me into my brother’s room. Now cornered against the wall, he hit me.
My saving grace was that my brother was in his room. This senior was in SS3, the last year of the Nigerian secondary school system, and my brother was in JS3, three years into secondary school. The odds were against my brother and me, we were both juniors. SS3 students can be notorious.
My brother was part of the ‘Man o’ War’ group outside the boarding school, an equivalent of the army cadet. Oluwakayode was disciplined but rugged. He frequently did things like fall like a mango tree and other adventurous things.
I have never seen my brother as angry as I saw him that day. My brother grabbed this senior on his second attempt to hit, like when a superhero suddenly rescues an underdog in a movie. My brother ‘Wozed’ him twice, got the seniors belt, smacked him a few times, and asked the senior to ‘stool down.”
My brother invited me to sit on his bed, and I felt vindicated as I munched on cornflakes and powdered milk.
Before we knew what was happening, the entire dorm had gathered outside my brothers’ room, watching this unheard event of how a junior student was punishing a senior student. The housemaster and prefect rescued him.
Oluwakayode was bold and fearless. The seniors were afraid of him. Even the house master respectfully respected himself most of the time.
Let’s say that no one ever bothered me again. I love this west African proverb that says, “ti aja ba leni leyin yoo pa obo” which means that good backing often makes the difference.
Our parents decided it was best to join them in England since they were yet to find the golden fleece.
I will share some of the cultural shocks I had in my early months in England, including when I thought I could survive a bright “sunny” winter morning with a jumper and rubbing heatol Chinese balm on my chest.
My brother and I went to different secondary schools but ended up in the same sixth-form college. I loved playing basketball. He enjoyed football.
You know how they say, “you can take the boy from the village, but you can’t take the village from the boy?” He continued to play football barefoot. He integrated well and wasn’t ashamed of it, so much that some of his Caucasian friends did the same.
He was famous and was loved by many. He was unashamedly African. One time, he took ‘eba and soup’ to college for lunch, which he ate in the common room.
One day, he returned from college with a limp. Sports injury is synonymous with teenagers. We laughed and teased each other about how he got the limp. He had paracetamol, and we hot compressed and applied Aboniki balm, hoping that it would get better.
Mum was worried about him, and she would enquire about how he got his injury. I would respond that “he got the injury when he was scaling a fence to see his girlfriend,” we would laugh it off.
Days turned to weeks, which turned to months. Mum, anxious, arranged several GP appointments. The GP advised us it was nothing to worry about.
I think about the third month of several visits to the GP, and mum insisted that an X-ray be done; they did other tests following the X-ray.
Their conclusive findings rocked our entire family; it rocked mum the most. The test results revealed my brother had cancer. I became numb. I saw my emotions flee like one being pursued. It fled to the deepest part of me.
I put on a brave face, masked my fears and doubts with a smile and playfulness; deep inside, I felt like I was falling into a bottomless pit.
I moved far away from home to university, and he remained at home. He would spend the next four years in and out of the hospital as he went through fresh rounds of chemotherapy to fight off cancer.
Whenever any minister gave an opportunity for us to ask God for anything in prayers, a prayer request for my brother’s healing would be the second on my prayer list.
I wrestled internally as I struggled to see my bodyguard, a superhero, confined to bed, weakened by the treatments he was undergoing. When anyone saw me at uni, they saw my smiles and happiness; I didn’t show them the struggles I was battling.
I visited my brother occasionally at the hospital. Each visit was difficult for me as I watched my rugged brother lay docile on the bed with no hair on his head or eyebrows.
I thought about mum and my other siblings who couldn’t have respite and lived with the daily challenges. I felt I had to be strong for them, and showing my feelings and concern would only drag them further.
The only thing I could bring was my cheekiness and little antics to bring up everyone’s spirit. I would sometimes kick my brother off his bed so that I could lie on the bed, share his hospital dinner pudding and lay claim to his Lucozade bottle that usually sat in his bedside cupboard. I also regularly helped myself to his Twix or Sneakers bars.
Things couldn’t have turned more for the worst when the medical team informed mum that they had to cut his right leg to control the cancer spread. I couldn’t show any emotions when I heard the news. I froze and suppressed any feeling.
Eventually, our family had some much-needed news when the medical team informed us that the signs and symptoms of cancer had lessened and were undetectable. My brother was cancer-free!!! What a joy.
I went home a couple of weekends after to celebrate with him. Guess how I celebrated this glorious news with him?
I took his artificial leg, ran away, and he chased me around the house, hopping on one foot! I was sad that he had lost a leg, but ecstatic that my strong and rugged brother was back.
His hair grew back, and they were beautiful, soft, dark and curly. He had sleek eyebrows; you would think they were drawn. He also had curled eyelashes. As always, I teased him and asked him to take it easy on the girls when he goes around town.
Little did we know that the news about my brother being cancer-free would be short-lived. They went for the regular checkups and found that cancer had returned, this time spread into his lungs, and this newly found cancer was aggressive.
I was heartbroken at hearing the latest information. I couldn’t wrap my head around it; we did everything together. We had only smoked once. I mean, our attempt at smoking was when we were young. We hid behind our grandmothers’ house, tore some sheets of paper from our exercise book, rolled the paper, lit it with matches and smoked it. I know he didn’t smoke and was a healthy eater.
I wrestled with how he could have cancer in his lungs, and I wrestled with how God could allow this. I suppressed any emotions and felt deeply sorry for our mum. I still believe that no parent should go through what she went through, especially in that season.
The treatment for this return of cancer was equally aggressive. He sometimes reacted violently to this new treatment course. The medical team also informed us that Oluwakayode might not father a child when the treatment was complete.
This season was a blur for me; I remember little of it. It was like living in hell on earth. They eventually discharged him from the hospital, and we were re-adjusting to the new normal.
Let’s fast forward, and I received a phone call on the afternoon of the 3rd of July 2008 to inform me that Oluwakayode is dead, that he died yesterday, the 2nd of July. I remember where I was on the day. I was at work, on a coach with 50 teenagers, ten other adults in Manchester, on a trip.
I felt like someone had tied a heavy weight to my chest and pushed me further into the bottomless pit of numbness that I was experiencing.
I returned home after my long trip; I was in disbelief that he was indeed dead. It jolted me to reality as I saw people comforting and mourning with our parents. I watched as our grief-stricken mum, filled with tears, continued to keep the praises of God close to her lips.
I remained numb; I arranged to visit the funeral home the following day to see his body. I poked him a few times when I was left alone in the room with him. I offered him Chupa Chups, and I asked him to stop playing pranks and begged him to get up. He didn’t.
I never spoke again about him to anyone after the day we buried him. I withdrew and slightly detached from family, friends. I kept the t-shirt I wore on the day we buried him and would occasionally stare at the shirt in bewilderment, sometimes put it on and still not utter a word.
There were times when family members would speak about him; in those times, I either responded superficially or covertly left the room. I struggle with words each time I think about the fact that he’s dead. He was a light snuffed out before he could shine.
During our dating and courtship season, Chidinma would ask me about my brother; I either respond in a brief sentence or avoid talking by changing the topic.
It wasn’t until the middle of 2019, 11 years after my brother died, that I welcomed the idea of sharing my feelings about him. Our initial conversation was painfully brief; it felt like drawing blood out of a stone. I would withdraw into my cave each time; I had buried the loss too deep within, but the feelings were still too raw.
I realised I had incomplete grief when the thought of him overwhelmed me; I began to grieve my brother and other forgotten losses about five months after my loved one, Chidinma, died.
It felt like his death was fresh, and I was experiencing the combined loss simultaneously. I felt some comfort a couple of months later when I bought The Grief Recovery Handbook, especially when I read the chapter about the grief and loss history graph.
The goal of the loss history graph is to help anyone grieving identify other losses or losses that occurred in their lives and which losses remain emotionally incomplete. An emotional incomplete grief is an unresolved emotional communication.
The loss history graph exercise also has the primary goals of creating a detailed examination of loss events in your life and identifying the patterns they have left behind. It brings everything up to the surface where you can look at it. Buried or forgotten losses can extend the pain and frustration associated with unresolved grief.
I have found this tool helpful in identifying my unresolved grief and forgotten losses. Like the secondary losses, you must identify and grieve each of your unresolved griefs and forgotten losses. I am slowly chipping away my unresolved grief bit by bit as I journey towards wholeness.
Here are some strategies to cope with unresolved & incomplete grief?
You have a variety of options for dealing with unresolved or hidden grief once you’ve acknowledged it.
Here is how I am learning to deal with my unresolved grief:
- Identifying the loss that is associated with it is the first step.
- Give it your full attention; honour it and be honest about your feelings about it.
- It would help if you took as much time as you need to fully process your grief until you are ready to let it go.
Grieving can be hard work, it takes courage and bravery to delve deep to begin to unpack incomplete grief and forgotten losses. Nevertheless, it allows you to become a better version of yourself as you learn and grow from your losses. As a result, you’ll feel lighter, brighter, and more motivated to live a joyous, meaningful, and purposeful life.
I’d love to share your coping with grief story too.
I intend to expand the blog and resources on the website to include stories of other people who have lost a loved one, not limited to losing a spouse. I’d love to hear about how you handled grief. Would you please let me know if you would like to share your story?
I am also open to having anyone anonymised if that’s your preferred option. Complete the contact us form with the text “I would like to share my story.”
- Fall like a mango tree: a Man o- War drill, where the cadets fall forward like a log of wood
- Oluwakayode: God has brought joy
- Wozed: Smacked or slapped
To Be Continued Next Wednesday…
I would like to hear from you. Would you please share your thoughts, comments and reflections below? Thank you.