Notes on Grief
"'Never' has come to stay. 'Never' feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for things that are no longer there."
Is critical and popular darling Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie almost too articulate and intelligent for her own good? That was one of my most resounding thoughts after reading her new book-length personal essay, Notes on Grief, which gives voice to the author's experience of grieving for her father after his sudden death due to kidney failure at the height of the coronavirus pandemic in 2020. When my own father died three years ago, I didn't have words to put to the experience, nor did I want to, and I imagine many others might feel the same in their states of utmost mourning.
Yet it would do a disservice to Adichie not to recognize her achievement in crafting this slim and visceral reaction to her father's death: a small, thin volume that allows the reader to literally get a close hold on grief. Her essay first appeared last September as a lengthy tribute to her father, James Nwoye Adichie, in The New Yorker and was just published in May in book form by Alfred A. Knopf. While the focus of the book is the deep bond between the author and her father and the particulars of their relationship and his person that she will miss—his laugh and his wit and wisdom among them—she also manages to capture an experience that is both universal and one that is unique to those who have suffered loss within the last year and and a half. For doesn't everyone lose a loved one at some point in their lives and confront the kind of all-encompassing grief that Adichie describes? Losing a loved one during the pandemic, however, has been for many a different kind of experience entirely. Adichie was at home in the U.S. when she received the call from her brother that her father had died in Nigeria. She had to coordinate socially distanced funeral plans over Zoom calls with her family and make last minute changes as she awaited the reopening of Nigerian airports in late summer. These familial Zoom calls had united her with her father at the start of the pandemic, as they suddenly did for so many family and friends divided by distance, but were soon transformed into sessions to craft a grieving itinerary. Although Adichie's father did not die from COVID itself, she joined millions of people around the globe in loss. While Notes on Grief is deeply personal and specific, it is thus also very much of the moment—this bizarre moment we have been in, in which loved ones have not been able to properly visit family and friends in hospital, say goodbye, mourn together.
The book is full of strong emotion—Adichie's rage, hurt, disbelief—and of her sense of regret, such as when she reflects on not recording her father's stories as she had planned: "There is a sensation that is frightening, of a receding, of an ancestry slipping away, but at least I am left with enough for myth, if not memory." The writer doesn't shy away from the worst realities of experiencing a death, yet in the very act of writing and sharing this lengthy essay, she implies an effort to heal and to offer her story to others who maybe, just maybe, can understand what it means to start speaking of someone in the past tense.
There are many moments in Notes on Grief when Adichie describes a particular instance of her father's sense of humor wherein I felt like I was a little on the outside of seeing quite how funny and charming it was, but it actually served to bring home her point. These moments were so affecting for her because they were her father, just as surely as the detailed memories that I have of my father, his sense of humor, his sharpness, his love, would not seem nearly so profound or delightful, so worthy of reverence, to an outsider. This is, after all, the great mark of love, and thus of grief.
If you're interested in exploring Adichie's popular and acclaimed work further, request some of these titles or watch her incredibly articulate, witty, and impassioned TED Talk below:
Dear Ijeawele, or A Feminist Manifesto in Fifteen Suggestions
TED Talk: The Danger of a Single Story