Grieving for Mandela: The Mess of Loss

Wednesday, December 18, 2013


I will carry with me the memory of when I first found out that Nelson Mandela died. I was in the lobby of a hotel in midtown when my best friend put her hand on my shoulder, pointing to the TV. I didn’t register at first what they were saying, but she repeated: “Nelson Mandela just died.”

There is something about death that makes my teeth ache. It brings me back to other losses. I started Googling the name of my drama teacher from high school who passed away last winter to find her acting profile, and although it was a year ago, I again felt that absence pressing down in my stomach like a stone. I wrote about my naiveté during that time, how I believed “you couldn’t possibly lose someone whom you loved enough.”

I am sure that it is a similar feeling with Mandela for many people. While I can only relate to him as a public figure, someone we talked about in history classes and when I was first getting into radical activism, I am still reminded of the profundity of loss. It can be all-encompassing and make your joints ache like you are old before your time. We are pleased to note that he lived a full life and died at an old age, but the loss still weighs heavy on us.

A member of my community recently died at a rather young age, and though I personally didn’t know them well, their death tipped a whole community into action. It made personal the issues that they was battling with and brought us all out of a collective sleep about things we often think abstractly about. Lack of care, lack of knowledge, slipping through the cracks… Contrary to Mandela’s passing, it felt like their life went unfinished. And many were left raw with their emotions, blowing up at one another because of it.

So, as I am consuming more and more media about Mandela’s life – in the glowing idolized way that we talk about it or in the down-to-earth representations of his life, about the fake sign language interpreter and presidential selfies at the funeral – I am also seeing visions of other grieving periods and other deaths. There is anger there, mixed in with sadness. For those who live on, grieving lets us become liberated with our own emotions.

I don’t want to idolize Mandela’s legacy any further than it already has been. I want to acknowledge that his life was messy, just as messy as the aftermath. I want to hold on to the idea that we are all works in progress, and that death is yet another moment of transition. But I want to go back to my somewhat naïve notion that you cannot lose someone who you have loved enough. I still believe this, though now I think of it as a different kind of process. Sometimes it can be clean. We shave off the excesses, the complications of their life and make them a symbol to play a part in our continued struggle. And sometimes it can be messy. We generate more and more ways to deal with our anger, with our sadness. We do not sit with those emotions unless we are using them to act. And it takes immense effort to cut through all of that to get back to what our main goal was: to love that person enough so that their memory is not lost.

I hope that as we use the stories of our losses in the future as ways to motivate our actions that we may also reflect on these people not only as symbols, but as the same messy individuals that hold us accountable every time we invoke their memory.