The only way out is through

Instead of distracting ourselves, what happens when we grasp our new reality?

5 minute read
Chikaonda Mlotho Malawi BSR 4 12 20

A close family friend died at the end of March. Not from complications of COVID-19, though, given the global context, this was my first question when my mother messaged me from our home country of Malawi to break the news. Though I loved our friend very much, I am not close enough to her or the family for the funeral to have been delayed just so I could attend—funerals in Malawi typically take place immediately after a death happens, unless there’s a delay for family members arriving from abroad. So I sent my condolences to her family through my mother, and then went to bed early that night, work and dinner suddenly becoming insurmountable challenges in the wake of receiving the news.

My mourning

Feeling like I still had to do something to mark the occasion of her passing back here in Philadelphia, I decided the next day to wear the same clothes I would have worn had I been back home in Malawi, with my mother at the funeral. A black maxi dress, black head wrap, and silver teardrop earrings, and because it was a chilly early spring morning, a black pashmina and black tights. The last time I had worn the head wrap had been at my father’s funeral, almost a year and a half prior; though I have worn the dress more often than the head wrap I had initially bought it for my first trip back to Malawi after the funeral, for visiting his gravesite.

The only people who saw my complete outfit that day a few weeks ago were myself and the counter staff at the corner restaurant where I got a take-out lunch; even if anyone else had seen me they would have had to share a similar cultural background to understand why I was dressed the way I was. Whether in quarantine or not, it was always going to be mostly just for me.

Placing my grief

The day after that, however, I felt curiously better. Much, much better—energized, able to really focus for the first time since being sent home to work remotely in mid-March, even vaguely happy—to the point that for a brief moment I started to question how deep my love for our friend had really been. Over the course of the day, though, as those feelings persisted, I realized why I felt that way: wearing my mourning clothes the day before, even though it had been solely for myself, had given me somewhere concrete to place my grief.

Given the new global context that binds us, the grief I had had sitting inside me also revealed itself to not be just about the death of our friend, but about what was and still is rapidly unfolding around the world, the terrifying illness that has finally forced people everywhere into a grave unity with each other. All of us sequestered at home, obsessively refreshing our social-media timelines, constantly messaging friends and colleagues to feel some kind of contact in the increasing isolation we know we must labor under in order to live.

What the shoes taught me

Since early March, article after article has advised us on surviving the emotional realities of the pandemic—how to manage our anxiety and depression, what movies to best distract ourselves with, which social media platforms to limit using the most (all of them). I go for my midday walks, I have calls with friends every couple of days, I make sure to get in at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day; but those have all served to merely hold the anxiety and sadness at bay, guard the walls of my existence just a little longer as more people fall ill and die around me and in circles increasingly close to me. What I discovered the day after our family friend died, though, was that perhaps there is a salve in leaning directly into this reality, rather than merely managing it: actively acknowledging it in the form of my own life, as with the clothes I wore.

After laying wreaths at the gravesite: Michelle Chikoanda with family in Malawi last year. (Photo courtesy of the author.)
After laying wreaths at the gravesite: Michelle Chikoanda with family in Malawi last year. (Photo courtesy of the author.)

When we were going through my father’s things after he died, my mother asked me if I wanted to take home a pair of his sneakers, as he shared my shoe size. He had been an avid exercise walker for most of his adult life, and whenever I would visit my parents in the two years of his cancer treatment, I would join him on his evening walks, so we could catch up while Mom prepared dinner.

I don’t wear those sneakers often, but on my daily neighborhood walk the day after our family friend died, I realized that the necessity of feeling grounded in that experience of mourning was a total one. So instead of my typical Converses, I wore Dad’s sneakers, a solid black pair of Skechers. Perhaps it was simply a matter of keeping my funeral outfit matched; perhaps it was a way of linking the two deaths on an ongoing continuum of loss. What it showed me, though, is that the balancing act between the dual needs of managing our realities and stepping directly into them is a necessary and neverending one, as we push forward with our lives in a world that seems in each moment to be ever more tightly shrouded in death’s shadow.

Looking loss in the eye

Some might light candles in windows, as signs of camaraderie or marking memories of lost loved ones; others might pick their clothes intentionally every day, whether mourning clothes or work clothes, insisting on maximally maintaining the known meanings of their lives. I make sure to eat my daily greens, but might also write notecards to loved ones to let them know they are still with me in mind and heart. And we all write our condolence messages, on the same social-media timelines we are also limiting—even as the messages continue to stack up, even as the effort feels more painful and draining with each note.

The ubiquitous reality of loss will be the most permanent shift when the effects of the pandemic finally slow, and thus it is the first thing we must look directly in the eye. Whatever the active shape of difference is in our lives, we step deliberately into it: for only in making the changed shapes of our lives tangible—a form of acceptance, perhaps—can we finally breathe more freely around the disorientation, and begin to make within it a new kind of home.

Sign up for our newsletter

All of the week's new articles, all in one place. Sign up for the free weekly BSR newsletters, and don't miss a conversation.

Join the Conversation