Embracing the discomforts of grief helped me to stop wrestling with both death and life. Sometimes grief is simply not allowing what is dead to die.
This essay discusses death, grief, and mental health, and mentions suicide
By Namupa Shivute
2019 was a year of upheaval. Much of what was foundational in my world crashed and disintegrated into scattered pieces that I never had any chance of holding together. At the start of the year, I was let go from a job that had caused me great mental turmoil and emotional distress. Even amidst creeping anxiety about the impending financial insecurity—which I had experienced even while on the job—I was relieved and extremely excited to finally be free from work that was unaligned with my spirit. I regarded the termination as a tremendous blessing, albeit one I felt largely unprepared for. Still, from that point, I resolved to only work where I was appreciated and where my soul felt called to.
Soon after I had just embarked on my newly chosen life as a recluse writer and homemade candlemaker, my brother passed away. The dreamy life I was trying to create was now under the threat of collapsing towers in my mind. Justice was born almost 12 years after me; a delightful baby brother, who turned into a stubborn youth with a shy smile, a loving heart, and a giggle that always made me laugh along. A beautiful soul. As her first and now only child, I mainly diverted and directed my grief toward comforting our mother. My mother tried to support me in the best ways she knew how, but I isolated myself even more from intrusive family members in a family from which I am often already withdrawn. Luckily, I had a close friend, Oshi, my chosen family who completely understood, and that helped.
But a few months after Justice transitioned, while I was still frustrated from unrelenting sadness and unsuccessful pitching in the freelance world, Oshi passed away too. The pain of separation and sense of abandonment that I felt and had not yet fully expressed since Justice’s passing came out in sudden rushes of anger, taking me by surprise. Oshi and I had shared an inseparable bond forged through the magic that connected us since we were little kids. As youngsters we shared cassettes and clothes until we did not know or care who owned what. In our pre-internet childhood, we sent snail-mail when we lived apart, always complaining when one of us took too long to reply. Growing into adults with a mutual love for travel, we later brought each other gifts from around the world. My world crumbled as familiarity untangled itself from my grasp. Her death took with it memories that only we shared, some of which will now forever be lost, even to myself. I did not attend her funeral. I promised to visit her grave in solitude, away from the big show of public mourning that seemed inapt for her humble heart.
Embracing solitude when my brother passed on earlier had helped me find myself outside of loss. Strangely, that is also how I recalled that as a teenager with another good friend, Antoinette, visiting the cemetery had been our thing. It may sound odd now, but back then, we never wondered why. We did it simply because it was silent, solemn and soothing. Reading engravings on tombstones, some grey and grim, others cool and creative, we wondered about the former lives of the dead. Graveyards are calming. The neutral presence of death and spirits at peace is welcoming. The relative absence of the living feels like an embrace to the soul, encouraging it to wander around tranquillity. Without judgment, the nourishing dirt of the earth holds an essence that is grounding. The dead do not care about the heavy densities of the world of the living. They do not care about the absurd restrictions and oppressions of racial capitalism and white supremacist cishetero-able-patriarchy. The dead are accepting. They see us as we are and as we think ourselves to be.
Week after week, equipped with cigarettes, meat pies, and yogurts, always two of each, we would ritualistically partake in our spontaneously created version of ancestral veneration. Feeling small underneath the big trees, with the occasional glimpse of wandering stray cats, we would sit by a grave, eating, sipping, and inhaling smoke, sharing in the delight of naïvely living teenage lives that did not have to make sense. Each time we would depart in quiet gratitude, promising to come back, which for the longest time, we surely did.
On the day I finally felt called to visit my beloved Oshi at her ultimate earthly resting place, by her grave, my friend reminded me of a scrapbook she had given me years before. A whisper to lovingly remember and cherish old memories, and to eventually unbind from them all to create new ones as we had always done before. Spirit reminded me that even without ultimate understanding or complete control over my life, I can choose to carry on. I was urged to bring myself back into the centre of my life.
2020 entered beautifully. My daughter chose to study in Thailand and her father surprisingly not only agreed to pay for her studies but also paid for me to take her there. After a temple visit to the magnificent Wat Arun, I stood on the balcony of her student apartment, admiring the bright, red full moon in Virgo and renewed the promise to always honor my soul. My flight home to Namibia was scheduled for the day after WHO declared COVID-19 a pandemic and so, still bedazzled by Bangkok, landing to mandatory masks and suggested limited human contact felt bizarre. As social panic grew in the days and weeks that followed, I calmly adjusted to pandemic living, which at first anyhow did not feel too different from how I was living before. Even while I was mentally and emotionally still figuring out how to process this global connection and its accompanying adversities, somehow on a personal level I felt that I was prepared for anything. After surviving grief and unemployment in 2019, I had just returned from a fully sponsored trip to one of the most beautiful places that I had ever been to. I was still high on hope.
With my firstborn out of the country, I had not much reason to stay in a town I loathed and which had kept me neatly tucked inside capitalism’s false sense of security. I happily took my Piscean ass and my lastborn back to the ocean and the beach, to the place that I called home. At first, it was good. Soon after though, the parts of my life that I had thought to still be at least somewhat in charge of also began to unravel. As more money exited than entered, years of friendships floundered, and Black grief collectively consumed us, I desperately took on commissioned work even though it did not sit completely well with my soul. But I made it until December and so I still thought that I was alright.
Then personal grief came back around and it did not knock as it entered. First grief came in peace as the memory of Oshi hauntingly reappeared in a beautifully written article by the multitalented queer futurist Masiyaleti Mbewe. But two days later, my beloved high school and uni friend, Mandela, died from COVID-19. I was not prepared for that. Mandela had always listened to my soul, encouraging it to go beyond its limits. He had also carried me when suicidal thoughts wanted to take me away. Another loved one departed, another sanctuary gone. I longed for the old, for the unchanging and pleaded with Neptune to take back the new. The vacuum that opened inside me also threatened to suck me in. Through seemingly endless dark nights, my shadow took a walk in that void until it grew weary and it was forced to pause. In that pause, I remembered the promise of life that I had given to myself. I pulled back my power and shortly after bid farewell to the work I was doing. Grief had shown me with absolute certainty that the job was not a match for my soul.
Embracing the discomforts of grief helped me to stop wrestling with both death and life. Sometimes grief is simply not allowing what is dead to die. The belief that death needs to be avoided or feared holds very little, if any, space for the ancestral and spirit guides which my dear ones have become. Death is not separation. Death is not selfish. Every time I died when my loved ones did, death also offered me another taste of life. For me, to die while still alive is to submit. Submitting does not mean giving up and I sometimes forget this. I submit to death precisely because it is not the end for me. After death comes transformation. Still processing, but willing to fully live again, I allowed the ancestors to lovingly hold me in the space where separation does not exist.
Namupa Shivute (dey/dem/they/them) is a nonbinary Namibian griot, documentarian and abolitionist. Dey are dedicated to African sovereignty, internationalist socialism, spirituality and trans liberation. Namupa dem can be found on Twitter and deir work on their Linktree.
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