Nine Nights and Forty Days: Grief, Trinidadian Style

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

Septembre Anderson with, from left, her Uncle Ojay, grandmother and Uncle Lyndon.

By Septembre Anderson

Two years ago, my 47-year-old Uncle Lyndon died from lymphoma.  A persistent shoulder injury turned out to be a tumor, and over a painfully distressing year, my family watched my athletic, energetic uncle, winner of many dancing, lacrosse and boxing trophies, succumb to the Big C.  Before him, the last person on the maternal side of my family to pass away had been my great-grandmother, when I was still in diapers. A family unused to death and loss was devastated as my grandmother had to bury her son and my mom and her siblings had to bury their younger brother.

My family has lived in Toronto for almost 40 years, but for my elders, coping with death means the Trinidadian ritual of the Nine Nights. The Caribbean is a medley of various cultures and the Nine Nights has its roots in the Yoruba tradition of Nigeria. For nine nights after my uncle passed away, my family held wakes filled with food, friends, family, booze and music. This collective mourning ensured that the darkest hours, figuratively and literally, wouldn’t be spent alone.

My uncle’s place and my grandma’s house were never without visitors. These get togethers were about feting (in Trinidad, a fete is a huge, loud, boisterous party) and the focus was on celebrating my uncle’s life, commemorating his impact on our lives and recognizing the continuation of his spirit through the influence he had on others.

My uncle’s funeral took place on the ninth day and was a grand affair. The man known as the Mayor of Toronto by his many, many friends drew a crowd of over 350 people to Our Lady of Lourdes Parish at Sherbourne St. and Wellesley St. While the funeral was a time for mourning and tears, the post-funeral repast was another celebration in the tradition of the Nine Nights.

Our death and mourning ritual didn’t end with the Nine Nights. A month and a half after my uncle passed, a celebration called the Forty Days was held to remember my uncle and thank all of the people who had helped my family during his decline and death. Another product of the multicultural history of Trinidad and Tobago, the Forty Days celebration is drawn from Islamic traditions. To end the cycle of death and communal mourning, we held another party in my uncle’s honour, with more food, music and drink, plus the speeches and the sharing of memories.

The togetherness of these traditions helped to alleviate the pain of such a tragic loss. Though we may have grieved alone, we were also mourning together