17 October 2012

How to be Devastated

When death happens I am either professional or polite.  

Sometimes, I know what to do because I am the nurse who directs the bereaved. Or, I don't know what to do because I am just a sad friend.  This is how to grieve in America. The professionals tell us what to do and how to be.  Friends are awkward and polite.  Death is terrifying.  It is quiet.  It is to be overcome.

We don't know how to be devastated.

I mean, who does?

Well, maybe the Congolese.  Or at least they have a script that explains what to do.

Before I continue, I think about this excerpt from Binyavanga Wainaina's piece, "How to Write About Africa":
Also be sure to include a warm and motherly woman who has a rolling laugh and who is concerned for your well-being. Just call her Mama. Her children are all delinquent. These characters should buzz around your main hero, making him look good. Your hero can teach them, bathe them, feed them; he carries lots of babies and has seen Death. Your hero is you (if reportage), or a beautiful, tragic international celebrity/aristocrat who now cares for animals (if fiction).
I am going to write about death in Africa.  I am going to mention a Mama.  But, I am not the hero.  I am the confused person trying to figure out if I should smile kindly or cry softly.

Before Sarah and I went to visit Laure after Jean Baptiste's death, I talked to people.  I talked to all of the cultural consultants I rely on to not be offended by my absurd questions.  These people being Mama Vida, Mama YouYou, Tchic, and Evelyne.  I said, "I feel so sad.  But how should I act?  What do I do?"  And they all said, "Just be sad. It's not hard.  Why are you so worried?"

Then, separately, they each gave me the exact same instructions for what to expect after someone dies.

There will be an initial visit to the house.  You will shake hands.  You will sit.  Then, there may be a wake.  If you are Congolese, you absolutely must go.  If you are a foreigner, everyone understands that Westerners don't like dead bodies and you need only stay ten minutes.  Following, there will be a funeral.  In the morning if it is a child.  In the evening if it is an adult.  You may sing in church.  You may march messily through the streets, thrusting photos of the dead one in the faces of the people you pass. You will play happily with the children who don't understand.  You will hold the wife who is destroyed.  It is not hard.  These are easy things to do.

How to be devastated.

There is a script.  So, even at the moment when you find yourself panicking about the social appropriateness of your tears, you can just look around the room to see what everyone else is doing.  And go through the motions.  You sit.  You shake hands. You sit.  

A social script carries the awkward friend through confusion.  It gives a widow something to do in the hollow days after losing her love.  It forces family and friends to gather and support and take care of the kids.  Tchic told me that at most funerals he's been to, the peanut and hard-boiled egg sellers come when they hear the keening and singing, and people buy and they eat.  Funerals need food.

I find this matter-of-fact approach to death both deeply disturbing and seriously comforting.  I tried to tell Tchic how upsetting it was to hear that there is a specific time of day to bury children and everyone knows this.  Children dying is not a significant part of my worldview.  It is an everyday occurrence for Kinshasa.

On the other hand, a collective knowledge about the details of life and death is incredibly helpful.  People sometimes need just know what to do.  A woman giving birth often needs guidance in the last minutes of labor - when she is sure she can't do it.  I think it is the same for those who are grieving.  The brain stops working.

If you don't have a script, you are completely lost. 


  1. I'm so sorry about this. And you're right, it is so much easier to have a script - and this goes for so much in life and why it's so disorienting doing ... well... anything from greeting someone to raising a child to mourning a child in the US. That's one thing I like about living abroad. Even though it's often a script I have to learn, at least there IS one. You wrote about this tragedy beautifully and with so much sensitivity.

  2. Thanks for these words, Kim. It means a lot.

  3. What a beautiful blog this is! I came to you via World Moms Blog, and am so glad that I did. Looking forward to following you two. Erin (a fellow WMB'er)

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