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Drowning On February 3rd (II)

One early morning I was making tea at a friend’s kitchen, she came to break the news about the death of a friend we both knew very well. Before that week my brother had told me about the traumatic demise of a cousin we grew up with. A famous Ghanaian drummer also died around that same time. We are in a new year, my high school friend has been trying to reach me for some time now to pass the news about my high school girlfriend, and she wanted to know if I am coming to the funeral. Well known Ghanaian highlife artiste died just around the same time a basketball player had a plane crush with seven more people on board, they all died. There is death everywhere; everything on the news is just about death

 

Death and its attributes come with bitter realizations. It becomes a constant reminder. The grief which follows as the inevitable visit as a more promising delusional partner later becomes one of the great isolating forces in human life. Grief is all too often invisible, misunderstood, and unwanted. It leaves many people in difficult positions of having to deal with the pain on their own, if they deal with it at all.

I have heard people say death is not the greatest loss in life, but what dies inside us while we live, is. I lost my dad on February 3rd 2018, many other happenings have made me come into terms with this statement whilst trying to avoid the aftermath of feeling okay altogether again, to the best of my knowledge and ability.

 

Within the past few years “you will be fine” has been a vibrant intonation everybody around me comforts me with, but it has become surface words. Growing up in a Christian family hearing about death and people loosing loved ones had a particular tone as well. After its announcement, it is expected to be a short transition where we don’t cry much; we sigh, celebrate and rejoice that the person now rests in heaven. In this period a lot of time, money and energy are spent on burials and funeral rites.

What interests me most is what happens to the bereaved, as years go by? Do they keep wallowing in agony till they can’t after all the fancy things are done?

 

The people who find themselves in this situation, do they just live through this in self-pity and pain? Women are to cry their hearts out; men are to have a straight face. Are men allowed to cry, do they cry too? How does a man release unshed tears embedded in his heart and eating his soul, how do the people around him view his expression?

How should men deal with grief?  Can a man be comfortable with expressing his grief as the news grows old? It is almost like men must be austere.

 

“You are a man, you have to be tough” is one of the most popular Ghanaian phrases built on a transcending gender stereotype of masculine normative ideal. This is a socially constructed ideal which is harmful and leaves lasting effect of toxic masculinity on how men think of themselves. Expression of grief is deeply gendered; most men grow up believing they can’t express how they feel to other men, women, and the society at large because we need to stand tall and not break down. Dealing with pain is difficult and deeply emotional. It is an experience with a different type of attachment that follows us around. No matter how long it takes, and how easy one may come off, the reoccurrences from the trauma haunts and lingers in the present and future lives.  It still hangs around creating an obstacle between the man, his pain and the outside world.

 

 

Men are expected to advertise and fulfill this idea of a fixed manhood and not be emotionally vulnerable. But healing demands a lot of work, it contains messages one haven’t yet received fully

 

My own grief in the past few years has taught me how our society has allowed patriarchal perception to control men and deny them of their own pain. There is a certain grief police that decides and enforces murky standards on who, what and when grief is expressed and at what degree.

 

Through my experience I have come to understand how the reality of grief works in today’s contemporary Ghanaian society. I believe there is a huge cultural shift which teaches men to be aggressive and openly vocal by virtue of the masculine power and boy code. Though society’s expectations gradually change, many men remain silent when they experience deep cuts in a moment of life. I have been less willing to talk about my grief, more reticent to express emotions, and less likely to seek support because I find myself in a space where most men around me don’t show their pain. Sharing becomes difficult day in, day out. I had rather spend time with myself and wallow till I can’t any more

I have had conversations with fathers and others for the past few years about parenthood, most of them believe raising a strong boy means discouraging tears. Others also expressed believe that the women in their lives have to take care of male vulnerability when necessary.

 My own grief, resonates to the lyrics from a famous song by Senegalese singer, Akon titled Quicksand, slowly pulls me down into dark places, I keep on falling and finally end up in self-destruction. In this quicksand I also do see a lot of men walking around me, yet all they do is watch. Often times, in front of my mirror I would have conversations with myself, asking my reflection about the critical importance of his awareness of my own pain, the ability to feel it, own it, and allow it to move through me and yet wonder if the next person I smile to when I walk out of my house ask me how are you, what would be the answer?

 

There is a deep profound loneliness in being aware that one must endure such difficult intense work and willingness to share the pain and not be judged for being too emotional. I think there is a deeply ingrained social conditioning that will take some work to undo and reverse the perception surrounding male grief. There is a “as a man you have to be tough narrative” that encourages men to be emotionally detached and pressurized. To effectively tackle these issues, one needs to identify it as a problem, challenge the norms and rethink masculinity.

Sometimes it is communicated pretty clear, as a man “You're on your own, you have to deal with it”

Men also become emotionally bound up, pressurized, and live with a thick veil as a shield over all that anger, despair, dissociation, post traumatic disorder, memory loss, high temperament, anxiety, isolation, self-destruction and struggling to find meaning  with an “I am  okay” mask

Another thing that reminds me of grief is a stuck in a moment in time. As an artist some of the many ways of healing for me has been reading, travelling,  listening to music, dancing, taking photos and painting, but in these times there are so many unfinished projects that I have absolutely zero urge and inspiration to complete.

Sometimes I am stuck in this moment with the presence in the absence, the absence in the presence where I get completely drowned with no energy to pull myself out when ropes are offered by the few people who care.

Many times the stuckness also graduates into substance abuse. It comes with its amazing friendliness which seems to offer temporary solace to my soul, that temporary escape fuels beautiful reassurances, eats up the isolation, and gives me imaginary strength and peace of mind. It creates a never ending intimacy and love affair with addiction. I quit smoking and drinking so many years ago but fortunately I found some peace in running back into it because it made me forget the pain. Before we moved into our new apartment one of the things my house owner mentioned is “no smoking here, please” but my brother who has been my friend from age four has grown a loving addiction to smoking after we lost our dad and I can’t even ask him to stop because I am equally responsible.

 

I have family or friends who have lost a loved one (all of us) try to remember that lost, like drowning, can be deceptively quiet.There is a disconnect between what I had believed deep grief will look like and how it often presents. Deriving from deliberate courage, of innate survival instincts, most people appear “okay”. We are going to work, showing up for family functions, honoring their obligations, nodding appropriately, dressed and going through the motions of life. It looks like a float yet on the inside it is flood. 

"An inability to flail my arms out for help"

 

Sometimes the most common indication that someone is drowning is that they don’t look as if they’re drowning. They may just look as if they are treading water and looking up at the deck.

For most men I have had the chance to speak to, getting clean is also getting used to coping with substances, it can be overwhelming. Many of us can’t handle the rush of emotions that flood our souls once the substances wear off. We tend to marry the popular phrase “I need a drink, I need a smoke!”, which actually helps numb our feelings with alcoholism and other unmanageable addictions. It gives our brains the feel-good chemicals. Grieving men are vulnerable to substance abuse and addiction, and are prone to cling to grief until it becomes a disorder; I have been fighting this battle, too.

It takes herculean effort to stay afloat during the rough waters of grief. There is no rescuing someone from their grief but as men, we can offer support to help others stay afloat and survive it

 

“To end male pain, to respond effectively to male crisis we have to name the problem. We have to both acknowledge that the problem is patriarchy and work to end patriarchy”

Except from Bell Hooks’ The Will To Change

 

Project: Drowning On February 3rd II

Medium: Photography

Photos: Sel Kofiga & Morel Donou

c. 2020

 

Others

Out Of Shadows