Short Nonfiction Week: Notes on Grief by Chimamanda Ngozie Adichie for #NovNov22

My father died twelve years ago and it is testament to the power of Chimamanda Ngozie Adichi’s exquisite and dignified account of losing her own father, that I recognised the emotions she describes as if feeling them just yesterday.

I am writing about my father in the past tense, and I cannot believe I am writing about my father in the past tense.

In the summer of 2020, when the world was in lockdown, Professor James Nwoye Adichie, Chimamanada Ngozie Adichi’s beloved 88 year old father, died. Despite his age, she calls it a ‘malicious surprise’ having talked to him on a Zoom call just the day before. What follows is an emotional yet austere exploration of her feelings of grief over the subsequent weeks and months as she tries to come to terms with the thing she has most feared, with the added pressure of it happening during a global pandemic.

Adichie traverses the land of sudden grief with a sensory and lyrical touch. This is not an abstract or elusive mourning, but a visceral, physical sensation. Loss has made her hurt, she feels pain throughout her body.

Why are my sides so sore and achy? It’s from crying, I’m told. I did not know that we cry with our muscles. The pain is not surprising, but its physicality is: my tongue unbearably bitter, as though I ate a loathed meal and forgot to clean my teeth; on my chest, a heavy, awful weight; and inside my body, a sensation of eternal dissolving

She describes too, a questioning anger about losing her father. Anyone who has undergone a similar experience, will recognise her moments of rage, against platitudes and having to make plans about funeral food – the minutiae of the trappings of death making one feel not only helpless, but resentful of steps that must now be gone through.

While Adichie’s experience is heightened by the pandemic, she does not allow this to be the centre of her book. She details the painful consequences of the timing of the loss of her father – having to view his body virtually over the internet; being unable to travel to be with her mother at this most difficult time, and the inability of the family to plan their father’s funeral due to the fact that Nigeria cannot decide on when they will reopen their airports. All this is difficult, making a heart-rending situation all the more stressful, but for Adichie, it remains secondary to her loss.

At the heart of this book is Adichie’s father and she offers up an exquisitely written portrait of a man who was accomplished, thoughtful, wry and, above all, loved. James Nwoye Adichie, was Nigeria’s first professor of statistics, and her words bring to vivid life the man whom she called “the original dada”.

“Never” has come to stay. “Never” feels so unfairly punitive. For the rest of my life, I will live with my hands outstretched for the things that are no longer there.

Notes on Grief is a beautiful tribute from a daughter to a father and an honest and raw account of the devastating finality of loss.

Most of Notes on Grief was originally published in The New Yorker and you can read it here.

nonfiction Novellas in November

Cathy746books View All →

I am a 40 something book buying addict trying to reduce the backlog one book at a time!

21 Comments Leave a comment

  1. This sounds amazing, I keep seeing it mentioned. I was in physical pain when I lost a friend a couple of years ago; it quite surprised me but I talked it through with someone from a bereavement charity which is something I now highly recommend.

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  2. Having lost both my parents recently (also during the pandemic but as with Adichie this was just an added issue rather than the main game) this book sounds spot on. the frst time I felt the physicality of pain wash my 30s when my sister died suddenly. Will never forget it. Grief shows you more than anything else how emotions control your body and mind and spirit. Great post Cathy. His so good when good writers tackle eperiences like this

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    • My sympathies to you, I lost my parents within 14 months of each other and what struck me most was, as you say, the physicality of the experience, but also the anger, which very few people write about.

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      • Except Elizabeth Kubler-Ross whom, I think, some now discredit but she did discuss anger as part of the grieving process!

        I’m very sorry about your loss Cathy, as you were clearly so much younger than I when you lost your parents. How sad, too, that they didn’t have more time with their lovely grandchildren. My children were in the 30s when my parents died.

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  3. My mum died 12 years ago as well Cathy and I miss her all the time, the grief changes doesn’t it and somehow we find that it isn’t everything we think about. This sounds such a good book, I’ve read her novels and now will read this.

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  4. I’ve been savouring my reread of this one. A couple of the early details were particularly painful to read as so similar to my own situation. Still, I’m grateful that I wasn’t also dealing with this at the height of the pandemic when travel arrangements would have been more difficult. I think I’ll pass it on to my sister to read. She’s taking things harder than I am — she was the one there at the hospital at the end.

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  5. Oh that weight in your chest that takes up residence when you lose someone. Thank you for sharing this, and sorry for the loss that made reading it so personal.

    I wasn’t sure I could read this book, but you’ve convinced me to try it. One thing I’ve learnt is that each grief is different, going through it once doesn’t necessarily prepare you for the next. It’s so dependent on timing, where you are in life, the cause of death, other things going on around you, the relationship you had….

    I was very close to Mr Books’ father, and his death five years is still something we are working through together. I’ve often thought that Mr Books should write a little something to honour his dad’s life….

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