The trauma of losing loved ones is universal and impacts mental health in everyone, but the cultural responses are so unique. My own life and relationships have often been shaped by grief for lost loved ones, which gives me a personal interest in how others mourn, grieve, and honor legacies.I often wonder why there is so much stigma when talking about the long-term scars of loss. Personally, I am comfortable talking about, and celebrating lost loved ones, but I have learned that this isn’t easy for everyone. When strangers ask typical background questions about my parents or sibling, I watch them suffer in the awkwardness of my responses. Often, in that moment, I feel worse for their discomfort than for myself. So, instead of deep conversation, changing the subject is the best distraction with people breathing an obvious sigh of relief.
Generally, after initial memorials and condolences fade, there aren’t often secular spaces for celebrating legacies of loved ones within standard American culture. As time passes, we hear that “life goes on” as new people enter daily life bringing fewer ways to naturally share enduring memories. So, they start to fade…leaving a mix of sadness and a bit of guilt at not honoring the lives of those deeply influential people. I would even say that there is an unspoken timeframe when people begin to feel awkward bringing up someone who has died, as if a mention will harm hearts with reopened wounds. Instead, there can be a degree of invisibility to everyone but the person silently suffering in grief.
These thoughts are inspired by the deep imprint of a recent celebration spent in Nguekhokh, Senegal where we honored my friend Adama’s grandmother, Ada Mariama Diallo in her village home. It was the six-year anniversary of Ada’s death and the local village remembers her with food and prayers each year.
Although I won’t ever meet Grandma Ada, throughout the preparation and events of the day we developed the kinship of dreamers. In 1982, Ada purchased a plot of land in an isolated village and built more than a house – she built a human oasis. While others teased at her remote choice of a property, Ada knew it would be a special place for creating her lasting legacy, so she purchased herself a plot of land. Others soon followed, likely drawn by the creation of memories unfolding before their eyes. As we toured the property, Adama nostalgically told stories of eating from the fruit trees, playing with the animals, and enjoying games with the other village children. “You should have seen it then,” was a common theme of the place where she learned much about life through the loving lens of her family matriarch.
On the day of the celebration, we arrived to find Ada’s lifelong friends stirring steaming pots of porridge and comfortably chatting in the back of the yard. Her inner circle watched the events of the day from a loving distance – spending time in fellowship honoring their friend while focusing on the preparation of celebratory sustenance. Throughout the morning, neighbors strolled in and joined the family at large rugs near the mango trees, where they gathered to share prayers and faith. Many were prompted to make the village trek by personal memories that included the young teacher who traveled each year to remember the woman gave him shelter and shaped the successes of his life.
After prayers and sharing by Adama’s father, we marked the day with a commemorative meal and time together. I asked Adama how they spread the word to so many people. She said there is really no need to send invitations because people just know the date and remember to come. That is when it struck me that I wished for the same. It’s funny because I am not a person who enjoys celebrations that feel forced. While I love time with others, surprisingly, something as simple as birthday recognition can be a struggle. I often forget and feel like I can’t find the perfect gift under pressure of a specific timeline preferring “just because” gifts in natural ways. But with death, it is different; finding the place for recognition is hard, so reserving this special day for Ada felt right. It served as a place to remember a loved one and invite new friends to meet the person who so importantly shaped so many lives. The party served as a powerful release, and to me, provided a space that reduced the stigma of grief.
After the celebration, the inner circle of family extended their time together with visits to local friends and a delicious dinner near the beach. With the foundation of honor set by morning events, everyone seemed tugged by the reminder of the power of one person and relished these precious moments of bonding. I know that I did.
While I never met Grandmother Ada, I am grateful for the time we spent together and will look for ways to instill the value of powerful legacies in my own life.