The day is December 31, 2006. It is a warm summer morning in Nigeria. I wake up to my mother’s excitement about the New Year’s Eve party and fireworks that we are going to attend that evening. She tells me she has dropped off the van at the mechanic's to get brand new tires put on to make sure the car is in top shape for the journey. “You know how the roads are," she says. Around noon, we board the minivan; my husband, children, and a young girl my mother had taken into her care, all nestled in for the long ride. We are swiftly en route to Calabar to meet my father before the party.
My family and I are on vacation in Nigeria visiting my parents at my mother's request. My mother has spent the past two weeks happily showing our children around; sharing her culture, foods, and traditions with her 6 and 9-year-old grandchildren for the first time. Our flight back to the USA is in four days, and there is so much left to see. Celebrating New Years in Nigeria is my mother’s idea and we gladly oblige. We had little choice, seeing as she had purchased our plane tickets to get us there.
We have a pleasant morning together on New Year’s Eve. My mother seems to be deeply content and pleased with her life. She jokingly tells me that if she were to die today, she would have no regrets. I say to her, as I often do when she preemptively talks about her life’s end, “enough already about death.” She smiles. She is genuinely happy.
Fast forward to a few hours later on the side of the road: Our ride to the new year's festivities screeches to a halt, as one of the newly replaced tires has imploded, causing the van to roll. The van lies totaled on the side of the road as I find myself embracing my mother’s limp body, weeping as she bleeds out onto the dirt road. This can’t be happening to me. My mother, a pillar of strength and grace, is completely broken in my arms. How do I pick up the pieces of my broken heart and move on? How do I comfort my children, her two grandchildren, who have witnessed this incident? They have just spent two marvelous weeks with their grandmother. Only yesterday, my mother had my daughter’s hair braided with beautifully colored beads in preparation for the party.
My husband, the children, and the driver are safe—just a few bruises and cuts that would require stitches. But we are all in shock! The following days are buzzing with blinding chaos as I prepare for the next steps: the body, the funeral, the grief.
This was my first serious encounter with death. Over the past decade, death has decided that perhaps we should be friends. I keep praying that death would stay away from me, but to no avail. Before my mother’s death, life was moving along quite nicely without major interruptions and then, all of a sudden, this! I had been to funerals of friends and family members, but none of it had prepared me for my mother’s abrupt departure.
In 2010, my beloved sister, at the young age of 38, was diagnosed with an rare form of cancer. Within a year and half of her diagnosis, she too was gone. A few years later, my dearest friend and Godmother to my children passed away. Five months later, my youngest sister died in her sleep. As it has turned out, experiencing my mother’s passing somehow prepared me for what was to come.
I am writing about death now because just recently, I lost a beloved friend. She too has left prematurely, leaving behind her beloved husband and two teenage children.
People often ask me “How are you able to keep going?” and “How do you cope?” Sometimes I respond with short answers like “One day at a time,” or that “I keep going because I must.” I owe it to my children and husband to keep going. I owe it to myself to live. I owe it to my loved ones to carry on their legacy. But that is not the whole story. It hasn’t been easy--there are so many stages that one has to go through in order to cope. For some, it can be difficult to recover from the loss of a loved one. My mother taught me some lessons about life and death, and since her passing I have learned more about how to process these traumatic experiences. I offer the following suggestions, in the hopes that they may help someone else with their struggle.
My mother had what I considered to be a strange relationship with the idea of death. She spoke about it often. She referred to death as part of life’s journey; not the end, but a new beginning. She believed that when her time came, she would reunite with her loved ones and her Maker. She didn’t see death as something to be feared, but to look forward to. As a result, she lived with such bravado. She didn’t spend time worrying about death or trying to avoid it. To her, death wasn’t the worst thing could happen, which allowed her to be courageous and take risks. She was prepared for death down to the dress she wanted us to bury her in and the burial ring to be placed on her finger. The thing about death is that it comes unheralded. There is an absolute certainty that death will touch all of our lives, so I am learning to embrace it.
Let go of the need to always be in control
The irony of my mother’s death is that it was the tire she had replaced the morning of the car crash that caused her death. She got up early that morning to get the tires replaced to make sure nothing got in our way of getting to the party. Something on the road punctured the tire which caused the car to swerve in the direction of an oncoming cyclist. In an attempt to avoid hitting the cyclist the driver lost control of the car and we ended swerving out of control into a tree.
The way in which my mother died has taught me to let go of the need to always be in control. She tried to eliminate anything that would keep us from getting to the party, but in the end, it didn’t keep her safe. This doesn’t mean I do not take precautions in life, but it has taught me not to be over-cautious and to leave room for spontaneity. More importantly, it has taught me to let go of trying to control my children (and spouse) in order to allow them to experience life on their own terms. By relinquishing control I have allowed my children and myself the freedom to explore our passions and seek out different experiences, sometimes challenging ones. This is not an easy task and I often revert to needing to control everything because it gives me a sense of safety. But, like most things, it can get easier with practice.
Reflect on life and death regularly
I find that reflecting on my mortality allows me to focus on the important things of life: living with intention. I ask myself: What would I do if I knew that I would die tomorrow? How would I live out the last few days, months, or years of my life? Would I waste time fighting or arguing with my loved ones? Would I bother trying to prove myself correct? Perhaps, I would try to accomplish the items on my bucket list, or spend more time with loved ones, maybe even take a few more risks. In thinking about these questions, I push myself to try new things, spend more time with family, and be mindful of how I conduct my affairs and treat other people.
Cultivate an attitude of gratitude
As I bring myself to account on a regular basis, I try to recount my blessings. Sometimes it is difficult when life hands out tests and difficulties. But, I try to find something in my life that I am grateful for and take note of it. Some days, I simply acknowledge my breath and I am grateful for it. Cultivating an attitude of gratitude in my life helps me focus on what I have. As a result, I feel more content with life and am better able to handle life’s challenges. There is a lot written about how gratitude correlates with happiness. Recent research from the UCLA’s Mindfulness Awareness Research Center states that “Having an attitude of gratitude changes the molecular structure of the brain, keeps gray matter functioning, and makes us healthier and happier.” Research also suggests that gratitude can help battle depression and anxiety.
Have faith and try to live courageously
I used to refer to my mother as being a bit crazy. She often took risks that I thought were ludicrous. But she had a faith in existence that was so strong that it allowed her to live courageously. And since she had come to terms with her mortality, she often seemed unstoppable; when life beat her down, she would get right back up. Hers was a life fraught with challenges. But she persevered because of her unabashed fearlessness and will to live her life to the fullest. I am learning to live courageously, make mistakes, and see failure as an opportunity for growth.
Love is one of life's greatest gifts, and loving unconditionally is something that I continue to strive for. I’ve learned to pick my battles, to let go of my need to control my loved ones or to be proven right. My mother had many shortcomings and she wasn’t always the model parent. However, one message that was profoundly felt in our relationship was that her love for me was unconditional. Love is a powerful thing and I’ve learned that love transcends death. Her love continues to course through me, giving me strength when life gets challenging. My takeaway from this is: Make time for your loved ones.
Talk to children about death
Death is an inextricable part of life, so talk to children about it. Be real and honest with them. As a parent of two children who have witnessed the death of loved ones time and again, I find that discussions about death and processing it with them has led them to become more resilient. Sheltering children from death may cause them to fear death and hinder them from living life to its fullest. Our attitude towards death informs our children’s attitude towards it.
Allow them to attend funerals, and talk to them about it. It is okay for them to see us mourn the death of loved ones. Process the pain with them and acknowledge their loss and yours. In my opinion, there are three major events in life; birth, life, and death. As we celebrate the birth of a child, so too should we celebrate the life of loved ones that have passed on. One way we can do this is by sharing stories about them. In doing so they live on in our hearts and memories. I’ve found this to be healing for my family.
Anticipate death and prepare for it
My mother had written a will before she passed on and had carefully thought about every detail of her passing ahead of time. This made things much easier for us. I knew exactly how she wanted her funeral to go. There are certain details about her funeral we had spoken about and I was able to honor them. It was helpful not to have the additional burden of sorting out her financials and last wishes since we had a pretty good idea what they were and where everything was. Also, in her will was a direct note to her children reminding us not to let her death keep us from getting on with life. It was really comforting.
My mother’s death pushed me to grow and become an adult. The week she passed away, and during the planning of her funeral, I had a strong feeling of her presence. I felt she had symbolically passed on the baton of her life’s mission and values to me. To have courage, to persevere, be of service to others, and have faith in a power beyond my understanding. I am learning to derive joy from life and to live courageously, but it isn’t always easy. I feel her strength and courage when life gets to be challenging. Her life and, consequently, her death, have taught me to strive to live a life of meaning and purpose.
At about 11:30 PM on that warm New Year’s Eve, after a traumatic day of tending to our physical wounds from the accident, calling family members, and depositing my mother's body at the morgue, I gathered the family and just as my mother had planned, we headed for the stadium in Calabar where the festivities were happening. We were physically and emotionally drained, but I felt the need to go. We made it in time to hear one of my mother’s favorite songs called Winner, and I could picture her dancing to that song. When midnight struck, the skies lit up in a blaze of glory and thunder as the fireworks danced across the night sky. The image that came to my mind as I looked towards the heavens was that of my mother’s spirit dancing, rising up and into an ocean of light as our ancestors welcomed her home. It was a fitting display for a very special soul. At that moment I was comforted in my pain.
It hasn’t been easy, and it has taken years to heal from that experience. But as I think back, I believe the healing began the day of the accident because she had prepared me for her passing. More often these days, when I think of my loved ones, the tears are replaced with smiles and I remember the love and good times we shared together.