Just over a decade ago I attended the funeral of a man I had worked with on a teen talk show in the mid-90s. I remembered JJ, a cameraman, as a reasonable man and reading about his death in Zambia where the boat he was in, capsized in the Zambezi River, greatly saddened me. My fond memories of JJ and not much else drove me to that funeral at NPC Valley Road. Listening to the tributes about the man, made my heart flutter with sorrow and I couldn’t help but wonder about the uncertainty and seeming unfairness of death.
I ponder about death quite often. Not sure whether it is because of its definite inevitability or it is a result of my experience with depression and suicidal ideation where thoughts of death were my everyday companions. Or perhaps because, after a certain age, the reality of death becomes more of a truth to be confronted than avoided. I don’t know.
At JJ’s funeral service. I allowed myself to grieve, yet I was curiously aware that my sorrow had little to do with his death. I realized that whatever sadness I was feeling would certainly not make any difference to JJ nor to any of the speakers who were strangers to me. I wondered if I was being disrespectful by hijacking others’ genuine grief. Yet, the tears continued to flow. A most poignant moment at the service was the acceptance that this space at Nairobi Pentecostal Church was the best place to grieve all the losses in my life – not just the death of a loved one. It is as if a dam in my heart had suddenly given way to the floodgates of unmourned sorrow and grief. I allowed it all out. I was at least confident that I wouldn’t stand out. We were, after all, in a sad space. Talk about being at the right place at the right time.
Princess Diana’s 20th Death Anniversary
This past week I watched The Story of Diana, a documentary marking the 20th anniversary of Princess Diana’s tragic passing at age 36. I stumbled on the documentary on Netflix and I almost did not watch it because I preferred a flight to fantasy fiction film – anything to momentarily forget about (my) life. But a memory of twenty years ago flashed in my mind and I knew I had to watch the documentary.
I loved a Sunday morning drink at the local bar. Well, any bar where Sunday morning found me. It almost always felt like an act of rebellion. Here I was drunk, happy and free when others would be trooping to church to pray for the same experience. The camaraderie and sense of unity in the bar on Sunday mornings were, to me, the ultimate acceptance of being human. Perhaps only a few will identify with this sentiment.
On this Sunday, I was at Mugumo Bar in Eastlands in Nairobi. I had perhaps come in at about seven am with a severe hangover. There is an unwritten rule that there were only two known options to combat hangovers; one, do not drink or two, stay drunk. Avoiding a drink was never an option on my radar then.
Seated on the wooden chairs that were arranged along pastel Formica topped tables, I took gulps of cold pilsner straight from the bottle. I often harboured secret thoughts, brought on by my miserable financial situation, that the next gulp would be the last one – a horrific thought that was immediately obliterated by yet another gulp. Alcohol was the ultimate escape from reality.
The present reality at the time was the breaking news report beaming on CNN about Princess Diana’s accident and her subsequent death in Paris. I almost immediately felt like I had been stabbed. I never knew why. I tried to focus on the song, most likely, mwendwa wakwa mariru or some other Kikuyu song playing from the jukebox at the back of the bar. Yet, I also wished the barman would increase the volume on the TV over the song. I dared not make that request which was only reserved for the 7 and 9 pm news bulletins.
That whole week was a very painful one. I could not explain why I was hurting so much about Princess Di’s death. I had never met her nor had any crush on her. I had fleeting questions why I was so shattered by her death. And I would not dare tell anyone what I was feeling. Alcohol was the best anaesthetic for the secret pain of grief.
“Why am I feeling so saddened by Princess Diana’s death? Si, I am a man?”
“How come she was so unhappy yet she had everything anyone could hope for, especially never have to worry about money?
“Why is the royal family saying nothing?”
“Why was life so unfair on her? Will God forgive her derelictions?”
Hurting people hurt others. During the week, I got drunk whenever I could and watching her funeral the grief coupled with shame and a severe hangover were a recipe for disaster in the coming days. I caused a lot of mayhem at home that week. I never once talked about my experience of grieving Princess Diana’s demise until perhaps a couple of years after I had stopped drinking and now on a journey of recovery from alcoholism. Grief became a partner in this phase of my life. Recovery presented an opportunity to deal with losses, failures, that would usher fresh experiences and new beginnings. JJ’s funeral was a turning point in helping me understand the importance of letting go of the past.
This week, I got my full-circle cathartic certificate after watching the story of Diana documentary on Netflix. But more than that, in a Psychology class on Loss and Grief I shared about it and my lecturer asked me what I thought my real grief was about.
“I think I felt that Princess Diana was the unwitting underdog in the story of her life. And I somehow connected with her need for love and yet in her search, she died, just when she seemed to have found it.”
It. Just. Seemed. So. Unfair.
I wondered whether her search was in vain. I assumed that as a princess, love ought to be an automatic reality and for me, an African man, it should not be an issue worth searching for or contemplating.
In my loss and grief class, I could now acknowledge that, though it may have taken twenty years to realize it, I have since experienced unconditional forgiveness, extraordinary love, and meaningful freedom.