Human kindness is a ray of sunshine
In this final part of my reflections on the challenging period when we lost close family members two months apart, my dad and my nephew, I have been reflecting on the excellent community support. I would not be doing justice if I did not mention human kindness in weathering the storms and the lessons learned or affirmed through this period. In African culture, there is immense community support, whether in the village or the cities. My experience in both spaces (i.e., in the village for my dad and in Nairobi at my brother’s house) was excellent community support and human kindness. Of course, the first source of support was from the immediate family. I come from a large family, both nuclear and extended. We come together as siblings in big and small ways, and we did during this period. We had constant guests and support through it all. I do not have words that would do justice to expressing gratitude for the support we received. The experience was a clear reminder of what it feels like to have others carrying you through when you do not feel like you have the energy to keep at it. On the other hand, I learned many lessons that will be life lessons and improve how empathetic I am in supporting others.
First, please, (on a lighter note) bread is overrated! My experience with bread is back to my university days, as it was the most affordable meal. I ate so much bread that I could not put bread in my mouth for a long time later! Bread is easy! When I think of paying someone an impromptu visit, bread! With bread, one will make tea, and there is a quick meal. But I have not seen as much bread (outside a bakery) as I saw during the mourning period. Everyone brought bread, and nobody wanted to eat bread. Okay, or only half of the people ate bread, and the other half brought enough bread to feed an army. We got so much bread that I will no longer carry bread to a bereaved home. I recall this afternoon when we were on calls, looking for the place to donate the bread, then a different group landed with a whole crate of bread, about 24 loaves of bread. To increase consumption, we tried to coax the bread in various forms, sandwiches. Well, there can be too much bread!
That aside, I reflect on the many lessons I learned during this period. Some were new lessons; others were an affirmation of lessons I may have underestimated.
Sincerity is not enough
I carry this phrase -sincerity is not enough- from an article I read a while back where the author explained that some actions with good intentions have a drastic impact. Sincerity is not always enough; one needs to be sure. I guess the near-equivalent is “ignorance is no defense.” The example in the article was when someone goes to the fuel station, and the attendant puts in the wrong fuel. It does not matter how sincere the fuel attendant was; the car will stall. I know that from firsthand experience when my petrol car got diesel! That story does not end well, but I digress.
I have observed that people’s intent on supporting someone when bereaved can end up causing more harm. At 18 years of age, I lost my older sister. It was the most devastating experience of my young life, and I made some enemies then. I recall an auntie who told me, “there is no crying here.” I looked at her and decided she was happy with her sister’s death. I did not forgive her for a long time. It was possibly over ten years later when I let go of the grudge and started relating to her in a better way. Mostly, or always people do not mean harm but do much damage. I learned different lessons from my experience and from reading books and listening to others on aspects that can cause harm. People fear sorrow and quickly push the bereaved not to express emotions. There is an unsaid rule that we can laugh loudly but should hide tears.
“Do not cry. It is okay.”.
Is it okay? For who exactly? Death is not okay; it never feels okay. It is a given, it must happen at one time, but that does not make it all alright. It is hard. Sad. Shocking. It is not okay. It does not feel okay. People being shushed from expressing emotions is still common. That infringes on someone’s right to express their emotions. In the African context, where community support is expected and often given, death and other events, happy or sad, are a community affair to a large extent. Sometimes in trying to help, one will get it wrong. Empathy is essential, and knowing what to say or do or not to say or do is critical. I appreciate that I experienced support during this period, and I know it is not always the case.
Small and big things matter
I recall this article I read a while back that stuck with me. The author received a devastating call. Her brother, his wife, and the sister’s children had died in a car crash. She needed to fly home as soon as she possibly could leave. As her husband booked flights, she was confused, moving from one room to the other. Then a neighbor came and said he had come to clean their shoes. The neighbor got to work and cleaned and polished every shoe. It may seem irrelevant, but when she needed to pack for her flight quickly, having clean shoes that she could throw into suitcases was important. At that time, she appreciated the clean shoes and the actions of the neighbor who stepped in to help without asking. Somehow that story stuck with me, and during the stormy moments, it resonated with me. A friend calling me to find out how I was or asking me to go for a walk were among the acts of love that made a difference, day by day. A friend took me for a walk, even when I did not feel like getting out of the house. I recall getting surprised at seeing some people I had imagined were only ‘online friends’ during my dad’s funeral or visiting our home. I was touched by the number of relatives and friends who found their way to my brother’s place to condole with us. The financial contributions went a long way. No action was too small to make a difference. The different actions of different people impacted me. I might not have thanked everyone for their kind gestures. But I am genuinely grateful.
A blank cheque may not be a cheque at all.
A black cheque has no signature; it is not helpful. Last year I was reading the book Option B: Facing Adversity, Building Resilience, and Finding joy by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant. The book narrates the experience of Sheryl Sandberg’s losing her husband, Dave Goldberg. She realizes that the first option- Dave- is no longer on the table and needs to find her joy. The book also shares different experiences of people going through adversity. One issue stuck with me, do not ask someone, “let me know if you need anything” or “let me know how I can help.” This is also the title of the article I referenced earlier. While that seems like an offer for help, it burdens the individual to look for the specific ask that s/he can request. It is easier to handle a more straightforward offer. When someone is in a challenging space mentally, making even simple decisions can be daunting.
An example is instead of asking someone, “what do you want for lunch.” They may not feel like eating, so they can easily say “nothing.” But if you narrow the options to “I am at a pizza place, which type do you prefer.” Even going further to indicate some 2-3 options is more helpful. The person may not have thought about eating pizza, but they can suggest one out of three options. And if they say “any,” you can take three different types.
I know it comes from a good space, but the many times when someone said, “let me know how I can help,” and that ended at that. There are those people close enough to us that it is easy to ask as we know how they can support us. One needs to understand some circumstances around you to see what you are able and available to help. For example, I called a friend when my dad passed away when I was in the village with my son and the nanny. I asked her to come to pick them up. She was in my village that afternoon, picked them up, and came back for me the following day. She has done that in the past, dropping my kid and nanny when I am away, so I knew she could easily do it. If she asked what she could do, I could tell her anything that needed action, and she could see to it or ask someone else to. Some friends could easily ask that question, and since I know the lengths we go to for each other; I could blurt out a request without much thought. Some friends offered, and that was very easy. Someone offered to support the purchase and transport of flowers, getting that off my plate. She coordinated and transported them. A friend called saying she was at the supermarket and asked if there was anything specific I needed. Another friend called asking if I needed any errands, and she indicated she was having a flexible day and could run around. I appreciated the specific asks. I have learned to be specific or not offer when I know I am unavailable or unsure of what I can do. Even those who just said, “I am praying for you,” that was enough. Sometimes when people are facing difficult moments, I say, “how can I help” and leave it at that. I have learned this is not exactly an offer for help.
Get involved, and engage whoever matters
In a community setting, gender, and age, among other characteristics, matter. People who are invisible under normal circumstances are even more invisible during such occasions. It is easy to ignore the roles of different people. Sometimes, people who need to be involved are not involved. I recall when I lost a cousin. During the planning meeting, I noted that the mother was aside, not getting consultations as the male members of the family made decisions. I recall stepping in and asking, “but what does the mother want” and asking that she be in the meeting. Some of the men at the table looked at me with eyes that indicated they had not noticed I was there. The women there were quiet, except me. Gender and other inequalities play out in such situations.
During the planning committee meetings, the Late Vincent’s friends approached us and requested to be more involved. We had not intentionally engaged the young people in tasks that mattered. I met with their team leader, asked about the roles they would like to engage in, and suggested what they could support. I must say, these young women and young men left quite a mark! I was impressed by how well they engaged in ‘getting their hands dirty’ and being part of the planning. It is easy to assume that the ‘urban youth’ do not like physical work or engagement. It is easy for young people, children, or women to be invisible on such occasions. I recall how, the morning after agreeing on the tasks they could engage in; a young woman was at home by the time we woke up and asked what she could do. I thought she could wait until someone went to the market, then she could help prepare meals, but she volunteered to go to the market. The youth were engaged and active in supporting to lay to rest their friend. They engaged in different tasks with so much dedication. I was happy to know my nephew had such friends.
It is not about your personal comfort
When one visits a bereaved family, the intention is, or should be, to ease the pain of the bereaved, not the guest’s personal comfort. While hosting guests is expected, it is upon the guests not to prioritize their comfort. Food can, in particular, be a sensitive issue. I have heard different episodes around food that leave me surprised. I recall someone saying how when he had just buried his wife and left with three children under five, he had no idea what was happening around him. Sitting at a corner, a friend complained that he had not eaten lunch. Could he arrange it?
In another instance, a friend lost her mother at the height of the Covid19 pandemic. At that time, serving food was not happening, and there was a limit to the number of people. While walking back from the cemetery, my friend heard some neighbors complaining. They indicated how the bereaved family has resources and should have provided some cash allowance for the mourners to buy food. While supporting a friend who had lost a loved one, I remember someone fussing about food and eventually taking a plate from my friend, who we had been trying to coax to grab some food.
A while back, eating during mourning seemed forbidden in the Kikuyu culture. It seemed that we would think eating could carry bad luck. Our practices have evolved, and we now appreciate hosting and sharing a meal in joy and sorrow. That does not negate the need to remember it is not the visitor’s comfort. This is one time that hosting is not hosting per se where the host caters to the guests.
One experience stuck with me during the mourning period for my nephew. One person indicated they needed a different snack when serving tea and snacks. When the person serving offered the alternative snacks that were available, the guest wanted another snack.
There is the sunshine of human kindness
Overall, this period rekindled my hope and belief in humanity. Many things happen, good and bad. Sometimes one wonders if human kindness exists, and I know it does. It was humbling to see the extent people went to support us in different ways, and the warmth of humanity makes all the difference. No wonder Covid19 effect was even direr as the social aspect was threatened. Such experiences remind me that I have wonderful people around me. May human kindness give rays of hope in all situations.