On Death and Mourning From a Distance

by Adwoa Afful

My family is Ghanaian, but we’re spread out across the globe. For this and a number of other reasons,  I never really got to know my mother’s side of the family. I had met many of my father’s siblings and relatives, but we never got along, and all communication with them ceased shortly after my parents separated. And so it is only towards my mother’s family that I feel a strong, but ambivalent sense of kinship, a feeling that  has been further complicated with the deaths of my great grandmother and grandmother.

The women in my family tend to outlive their husbands by decades and my great-grandmother was no exception. She passed away in 2009, having already outlived my great-grandfather by nearly 40 years . My mother isn't quite sure what year she had been born , but she was about 96 when she died.

When my great-grandmother passed away, it was my mother who broke the news to me. I do not remember much of that time. I know my mother grieved, but she did so mostly away from my sister and me.  It was heartbreaking for my mother, but my sister and I were not sure how to feel. We had only spoken to my great-grandmother on a handful of occasions over the phone. Despite her age, by all accounts, she was a lively, active and large woman (though we were told by relatives that she had lost a substantial amount of weight near the time of her death), with light gray eyes. She was a true matriarch. She had loved her Ghanaian husband deeply, and raised their children and grandchildren in a strict, but supportive household.

My great-grandmother was fluent in many languages, but only spoke the barest English. My sister and I only spoke English and French.  I do not remember any of the conversations that I had with her, but my sister has some memory of them, mostly of my  mother translating between Twi and English. The last time they spoke, my great-grandmother said, in her stilted English, “I love you,” over and over again. That was among the few English phrases that she knew.

I do not know how my sister took my great-grandmother’s passing, but I know she grieved. I grieved as well, but if I am being honest, it was not for the person, exactly. I was nostalgic for a relationship that I wish that I had, but with language and other barriers would have been impossible. The fantasy of what our relationship could have been was built entirely on snippets of the woman’s past that were relayed to me by my mother. Through those stories my great-grandmother become flesh and blood to me and it was the closest I ever got to her. 

My grandmother was born in the mid-1930s and died last year in her home in outside Sekondi-Takoradi, Ghana. Where my mother and great-grandmother had enjoyed a strong bond, my mother and her mother did not. My mother does not talk about her relationship with her mother that often, but I grew up with the impression that they were family by blood, and not much else. When news of her death reached us in Toronto, my mother was with my sister in her bedroom, watching DVDs  on her laptop. From what I remember, that was also where I found my mother when I heard that my great grandmother had died nearly four years earlier. I heard the news  through my uncle, since I was the one to finally pick up the call from Calgary, after he had left several urgent messages politely pleading for someone to answer the phone. My mom had already guessed why my uncle, with whom she spoke to infrequently, was all of sudden desperate to speak with her, and was still reluctant to return his calls. 

When I went to see my mother to pass on the news, she was already upset and my sister was crying.  I cannot remember how I told my mother or what I even said, I just remember that I could not get upset. My grandmother was a difficult woman to get close to. She and my sister spoke relatively frequently, but she and I were never able to talk for more than a few minutes.  My grandmother spoke English better than I did, but we barely understood each other and neither of us made much of an effort to change that. Despite that, I was still affected by her death, and grieved for my mother. I never understood the nature of their relationship, but I knew something very important had been lost when my grandmother died.

My mother, who has not been back to Ghana in 30 years, had  lost one of her few remaining direct links to “home.” Sekondi- Takoradi is hardly the city that it was two and half decades ago when she left. My mother does not talk about my grandmother’s or great grandmother’s passing that much, but she does talk about going back “home” now more than ever. My sister and I often plot on ways to get her there somehow, but for the moment plotting is all we’ve done. Sometimes, while my sister and I are dreaming up  plans, I wonder,  with my great grandmother and grandmother now gone,  what will “home” feel like if we ever manage to get her there.