What do loss and grief have to do with our identity?
Loss is one of the things that mark our lives the most. Some losses can hurt us even more than we expected, unleashing a wave of emotions and feelings we didn’t know we could experience. That’s what happened to me when my grandfather passed away. Although I knew this day would come (he was diagnosed with cancer, and the doctors told us it could happen at any moment), I just couldn't let go, to the point that I think I still have some issues ten years on. Other losses affect us differently because they happen along with other things going on in our lives. It’s not that you don’t care about that person, but you know that you’re feeling that way because of all the experiences you're going through at the same time.
So, there’s no doubt that, while we know we’ll eventually have to face it, loss always comes as a surprise not all of us can handle well. But what happens when the person you’ve lost was the one thing that connected you to this world and gave you a sense of identity? That’s what American writer Zinzi Clemmons explores in her semi-autobiographical novel, What We Lose (2017). Clemmons tells the story of Thandi, a half South African and half African-American young woman dealing with her mother's cancer, and later, her death. The novel deftly explores the entire process of the illness, from the moment the doctors give them the news, to the moment of her death, and the grief Thandi experiences afterwards.
However, although the story might sound quite simple, the richness of the text lies in the narrative structure Clemmons uses to drag the reader in and make them feel what the narrator is experiencing. It’s impressive how she uses different sources (like vignettes, graphics, medical and academic studies, songs, poems, photographs, and email excerpts) to give us a broader picture of everything the character is going through. And isn’t that what life is like in a way? A cluster of different fragments that fill our days.
But let’s get to the core of the novel and why it has received so much praise since it came out earlier this year. Clemmons takes the processes of loss and grief as a lens to explore a more profound subject: identity. Remember the question I asked before? Well, that’s precisely what Thandi goes through when her mother passes away. She thinks she's lost her own identity. Growing up feeling as an outsider between cultures, but never belonging to any, her only cultural bond was to her mother, who was going through the same process. So, what happens when you don’t feel like you belong anywhere and cling to those who are close to you? You never let go.
Besides cultural identity, the novel also delves into womanhood and what that represents. There’s a heartbreaking moment when Thandi tries to take care of her mom and throws away all the food in the fridge and fills it with healthy stuff recommended by the doctor. Just as she’s finishing putting away all the food, friends and family arrive to visit her mom and bring her all sorts of goodies that she happily accepts and eats. It makes Thandi feel powerless: is making her mother miserable the only way to take care of her? This moment leads to an analysis that asks the question: what is womanhood? Is motherhood essential to it? What are the links between sisterhood and solidarity? Has she ever experienced that? In the end, the loss of her mother also means a loss of herself and a rebirth to explore everything she’s been pushing away and all the experiences she’s neglected.
In this way, the novel becomes an opportunity for readers to ask how we deal with loss and how sometimes we base our own identities and lives on those close to us without putting ourselves first. It shows how our identity is sometimes more related to others and our relationship with them than in who we really are. Grief and thus become a process of renewal and rebirth.
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Images by @pnh_