One of the greatest things that literature does for us is to show us who we are. Literature, like television and social media, acts as a mirror in which we can see ourselves, come face to face with our hopes, our fears, our victories, our regrets. This is why we read.
Many topics that have previously been taboo have slowly come to light through the efforts of people who seek to expose our vulnerabilities as a society. Child loss is one of these topics and I am yet read a book that captures the grief of a parent in a society that does not talk about the death of children as well as Stay With Me by Ayobami Adebayo.
In the story, Yejide loses two children and has to struggle with and stumble through her grief alone. Set in Nigeria, the book gives you a vivid description of how alone Yejide was when she lost her first child to SIDS at five months, after struggling for years to get pregnant. Normally, when someone died, grief was given a pedestal. People expressed their pain and loss in the most open ways and funerals were a big deal. However, during the funeral of Olamide, Yejide’s first child, grief was understated. People said to her the things any grieving parent hates to hear: You will soon get another child. She was chastised by her neighbours and her mother-in-law for being ‘weak’ as a mother and allowing grief to consume her when she was supposed to remain strong. Her mother-in-law even said that her baby was an evil child who had chosen to die. To add to her pain, she was not allowed to know where her child was buried, according to custom. It was believed that a mother who saw her child’s grave saw evil. This is how Yejide narrates it:
“If my Olamide had grown older, if she had married and had children before dying, if it was me or Akin who had died, the mourners would have been wailing openly, not biting their lips and shaking their head and asking me to forget because there would soon be another child. It squeezed me inside that no one wailed or screamed…No one was lost for words. They all knew what to say. Don’t worry, you will soon have another child. There was no framed photograph on a table with a condolence register beneath it. It was as if nobody would miss her. No one was sorry that Olamide had died. They were sorry that I had lost a child, not that she had died. It was as though, because she had spent so little time in the world, it did not really matter that she was gone—she did not really matter…I wished that I could wail, scream, roll on the ground and give her the mourning she deserved. But I could not. The part of me that could do that had gone into the morgue’s freezer with Olamide to keep her company and to beg her forgiveness for all the signs I had missed.”
This happened as well when she lost her second child, Sesan to sickle-cell disease when he was still in kindergarten. People continued to behave as though the lives of her children were inconsequential, a lesser loss than if she had lost someone else. They did not call her children by name, and over and over we see her correcting them, including her husband; they were not just children, they were Olamide and Sesan. And over and over, we see her grief trivialized by those around her. In one scene, after the death of Olamide, she goes to the salon she owns and asks the girls who work there to shave off her head. It was an act of grief that would have been viewed as normal had she lost someone else, not her child. And yet every one of her employees refused to touch her head, driving her to cut off her hair herself.
It is heart-breaking to see Yejide’s grief and even worse to see how she suffers at the hands of others because of the child loss she suffered. Instead of compassion, she got callousness. She is labeled and blamed for the loss of her children, as if it was not enough that she blamed herself and felt that she deserved to be punished for ‘letting’ her children die. Her mother-in-law keeps pushing Yejide’s husband to get children with other women, an act that clearly shows throughout the book that a woman’s value in our society is tied to her relationships with other people: her husband and her children. The only thing worse than an unmarried woman is an unmarried woman without children. In fact, one of the prominent proverbs in the story is this: he who has children owns the world.
Stay With Me may be a fictional account but tells the story of so many African women who are forced to bear their pain alone. It tells the story of women who experience child loss and the ways in which society doubles their grief by forcing them to stand alone. By showing us the experience of women like Yejide, the book shows us what we really are: a society that can do better, that must learn to do better. Child loss is one of the most devastating things that can happen to a parent and this is captured so profoundly in the book. The more we talk about it, the more we see ourselves in our stories, the faster we can learn to respond to grief with compassion, and nothing else.
Author: Michelle Korir
Michelle Chepchumba is contributor at Wanjiru Kihusa. She loves cats and enjoys reading and writing in an attempt to discover the mysteries of the human mind. She also works in mental health and writes about life at www.thescroll.co.ke.