"WR6_gUnUj-ztiW07KQcOCnTel9A"/> Notes From Atlanta: Grieving in America

Saturday, July 10, 2010

Grieving in America

By Farooq A. Kperogi

Our existential realities, to a large extent, define our thought-processes and preoccupations. This explains the thanatocentricism (i.e., obsession with death; that, by the way, is my coinage, and it’s derived from Thanatos, the Greek personification of death) of my recent essays. My inexpressibly deep personal loss in the death of my wife has changed my perspectives about life in ways I never imagined.

Death is indeed the ultimate uniter, the force that melts our cultural singularities, the spook that frightens and forces out the humanity that so often contentedly lurks in the sedate provinces of our minds and souls and bodies.

When my mom and dad were informed about the death of my wife on June 4, they were haunted both by the tragedy of the loss of their kind and caring daughter-in-law and by the fear that the impersonality and isolation of American life would lead me to think myself to death. Many of my friends and family members in Nigeria verbalized similar sentiments.

But they were all wrong. America is not nearly as detached and deficient of humanity as it has been cracked up to be in popular narratives in Nigeria—and in most parts of the developing world. In moments of momentous tragedy, Americans are just as sympathetic, supportive, and obliging as anybody else—if not more so.

When I was informed of the death of my wife, the first person I called was my closest friend in America, Dr. Moses Ochonu, who teaches history at Vanderbilt University in Nashville, Tennessee. We’ve been friends since our undergraduate days at Bayero University, Kano in the early 1990s. The next person I called was Jim Schiffman, my friend and Ph.D. course mate who is the Chief Copy Editor at CNN International. Next, I called my doctoral advisor, Professor Michael Bruner. Then my energy dissipated. And I collapsed.
Zainab, Sinani, and me at CNN headquarters

But less than five minutes after the calls, up to 10 different people in Atlanta—all of them Americans—whom I hadn’t even called, came over to my house. They said I must not stay alone. Moses Ochonu, my Nigerian friend, actually set out to drive to Atlanta from Nashville. He didn’t think anybody would be around me and said it would be dangerous for me to be alone. But many Americans, some of whom I wasn’t particularly close to, expressed similar worries as Moses.

I assured all of them that I would be all right. They weren’t persuaded. Finally, I decided to go with Jim Schiffman. Moses wasn’t convinced until he spoke with Jim, whom I had introduced him to when he and his family visited me in Atlanta last year. I spent two days with Jim and his wife.
Sinani, Zainab, me, and Jim

When my mom heard what happened she was overcome with pleasant surprise. “So even the Bature [white people] behave like we do in moments like this? This goes to show we are all the same,” she said. Many of my Nigerian relations have a hard time believing that an emotionally distant and isolated society like America still retains that level of personal warmth.

But it wasn’t just the spontaneous outpouring of empathy and emotional support from many Americans who know me intimately and casually that was overwhelming; the immediacy of the financial support was incredible. Before I could regain my emotional composure, Jim and his wife paid for my airfare to Nigeria. They chose the days I would travel and the length of time I am presently spending in Nigeria. They insist I not repay them.

The professors and students in my department also immediately contributed money to help with the logistics of my travel. When I said I might bring our 6-year-old daughter back to the U.S. with me, a colleague’s daughter offered to baby-sit our daughter for free.

Another person sent me an email about two weeks ago telling me she had enrolled my daughter in a pricey private school in Atlanta and paid the $7000 per annum tuition fee that students pay in the school. Her friends, she said, would contribute money for my daughter’s uniforms, books, funds for lunch, afterschool care, and field trips.

After this unbelievably generous offer, she wrote: “I sincerely hope I have not overstepped my bounds; this was the most immediate help I knew I could offer. If you have already made plans for your daughter… please do not hesitate to decline this offer.” I couldn’t resist getting emotional.

It isn’t only in Atlanta that people are falling over each other to help and to ease my pain. Students and professors at the University of Louisiana’s department of communication, where I studied for my master’s degree, sent me a beautiful, thoughtfully and delicately worded condolence card—and a check. And I didn’t even have the presence of mind to inform anybody there about what had happened to me.

These are just samples of the profusion of support I’ve been receiving from friends and colleagues in America. A typical American condolence message ends with the phrase, “let me know how I can help.” Although I had always known that tragedies bring out the best in Americans—indeed in most humans—I didn’t expect this much show of support. I expected people to treat my personal tragedy as my own burden. I wouldn’t have been disappointed if that had turned out to be the case.

Members of the Nigerian immigrant community in America and Canada, most of whom have never physically met me, have also been extremely supportive. It’s difficult to accept that I deserve all this.

It, of course, goes without saying that my family and friends in Nigeria have been great emotional props for me in this desperately trying moment. The management of Media Trust, where I worked for many years and where my wife worked until her passing away, has been simply overwhelming in its support. So are many present and past staff members of the organization, especially our family friend and Daily Trust Kaduna Bureau Chief, Ibraheem Musa, who has been nothing short of spectacular in everything, from arranging the logistics for the burial to getting the death certificate for my late wife.

May God recompense all—too many to mention in this short piece— who have in one way or another sacrificed their personal comfort to help us stabilize emotionally.

It is supremely ironic that it is tragedies and traumas, more than successes and prosperity, that bring out the depth of the humanity in us. Perhaps it is because these tragedies remind us all of our own mortality, our own frailty, our own vulnerability.

Related Articles:

Mourning My Wife and Best Friend
Zainab: One Year After, It Still Feels Like a Dream 
Grieving in America
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