Chalya Dul Johnson
There seem to be some phrases that are particular to Nigerians and maybe others, I am not sure, since I have lived in Nigeria all my life. These phrases have managed to transcend the ethnic and religious differences that have torn us apart. They range from being hilarious, confusing and many times inappropriate for the situations in which they are being used. Phrases which are embedded in our culture, expressions of delight, excitement, confusion, fear and attempt to offer comfort to each other. And there seems to be no effort to correct or ensure they are used properly.
Our culture provides very strong support systems especially during weddings, birthdays and other forms of celebrations. This support is also evident when a family member, friend or loved one dies.
Death is inevitable. Like Mo Yan says, “Where there is life, death is inevitable.” Knowing this, I will confidently say we have all lost someone: a father, mother, brother, sister, cousin, aunt, uncle, friend (enemy) etc and should be able to understand what this is about.
If you live or have lived in Nigeria, then you must have heard this phrase, ‘Sorry for your loss’ after you have informed someone of the death of a family member, friend or loved one, or maybe it was said to you during a period of grief ,or you heard it while visiting to comfort someone else- or maybe you said it yourself. It has also become the default message used by many Nigerians on social media in an attempt to offer words of comfort.
I wonder if we really think through some of these phrases and what they must mean to the person or group of people it is being said to.
This phrase ‘Sorry for your loss’ is almost always accompanied by its famous ‘cousin brother’ (another adapter Nigerian phrase) – ‘It is well’.
After the death of her Mom, my friend Yeipyeng brought to my attention the use of these phrases by social media users and the lack of empathy in it struck me like a lightning bolt!
Now I don’t know which is worse, “it is well” or “Sorry for your loss.” But I have just realized how they make me feel.
My cousin had just died and all I was trying to do as I walked into my Aunty’s house was be as quiet as possible. I pressed my back against the wall, trying to merge with the concrete, hoping that no one recognizes and calls my name. I was afraid with my new found knowledge, I might curse anyone that says sorry for my loss. I quickly scan the room and see relatives, family friends and many other unrecognizable faces. Aunty was seated in the middle of the sofa, surrounded. Groups of people periodically walked in and made space beside her, others squatted in front of her; they held her hands, shaking and rubbing them, someone else rubbed her back, another draped a hand around her shoulder in a halfhearted attempt at a hug. Then they all chant the same things repeatedly, ‘Sorry for your loss’, it is well…it is well…it is well, sorry for your loss, it is well…it is well…, Take heart, sorry for your loss, it is well…, Take heart, it is well’.
That day, all that was missing from the scene is a choirmaster to lead the chorus. I even waited for the request that we turn to Hymn 901 from the famous red covered Sacred Songs and Solos and start singing.
As a Christian, I believe in resurrection on the day of judgement, and we comfort one another with the assurance that life and death are temporal, but come on! It can’t be well when all you have left are sweet memories that make you smile and shed tears; along with bitter memories that fill you with regrets and more shed tears. How can it be well when a loved one is gone forever in the flesh? How can it be well when in the midst of your grief all you can think is, “How can I move on?”, “What happened?” and “Where do I start from?”
There must be a thousand and one things going through the minds of grieving people. I personally remember the faces that were there for me more than the countless words I hear. I remember hugs not the words, the holding of hands, the helpful hands and the presence of people. Probably other people feel this way too because why else do i usually hear, “Thank you for being there for me/us?” and not “Thank you for the things you said to me/us?”
A little more about ‘sorry for your loss’.
When we are truly comforting another person, is it just their loss? Are we not comforting them because we identify with them and want to make them know that we understand? So how does saying sorry for your loss show that I mourn with you when I clearly said it is “YOUR LOSS.”
Now close your eyes after reading this paragraph and imagine that a family member, friend or loved one has died and you are sitting on the cushion like my Aunty, and the first thing you hear is, “it is well.”
Do you truly feel well?
Imagine that the next thing you hear is, “Sorry for your loss.”
What are you suppose to say in acknowledgement?
I just heard myself reply, “My loss, then why are you here?”
Personally I have learnt not to use these phrases when comforting others, I must not be heard during the grieving period, but seen. That for me, is truly being there for one another.
And please, what does “take heart” mean?
I’ll just quietly leave that alone.