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The Semantics Of Grief

Diriye Osman

When my mother, a celebrated gynaecologist at Benadir Hospital, Mogadishu, passed away from ovarian cancer in the late eighties, it destroyed the connective tissue that held so many different factions of my family together.

Our shared lexicon became steeped in the semantics and silencings of grief. My father, who was at the height of his career as a chemical engineer and professor, suddenly found himself not only mourning his soulmate and best friend, but being in the unenviable position of becoming the sole carer of five small young children whilst the Somali government was collapsing in on itself.

When the civil war erupted, we immigrated to Nairobi, Kenya. My father remarried a young, passionate woman who he hoped would help him raise his children. But my stepmother was experiencing her own private griefs and fears, and even though she did her stoical best in the immensely fraught circumstances, she struggled, and in silence, which can corrode anyone's sense of self-esteem.

The nineties were the most painful period for Somalis everywhere. My father, though, moved quickly and settled us almost immediately into a quiet neighbourhood called Kilimani (right next to the Yaya Center Shopping Mall, the Ethiopian Coptic Church and a cute kindergarten that my younger sister could attend.)

Having now set up his own successful pharmaceutical company in Nairobi, my father, bolstered by faith, was still grieving the loss of my mother - a grief he has never recovered from. Even though he was struggling internally, he remained pleasant, chipper and charismatic, and we all adored him because he was, and remains, a good man, but there were so many things he couldn't discuss with others (again, grief casting its spell.)

Despite being a difficult-difficult child, I was kindhearted and a good listener. On many occasions, my father and I would sneak off to the cinema to watch ridiculous but utterly entertaining blockbusters of the era like Twister, or Val Kilmer's delightfully daft remake of The Saint.

Afterwards, we would go to Steers or Java House or Haandi or Carnivore for a meal, and ever the storyteller, my father would spin fascinating tales about his youth, how he met my mother, and at times the regrets he felt about the course his life had taken.

Although I was a child, I understood his plight and I didn't judge him. By witnessing my parents' kindness in action, I learnt from my father, my mother, and my stepmother that empathy is the salve.

This is why I always look back at my occasionally challenging past not with nostalgia, but with a mellow-yellow sense of forgiveness. I forgive the many missteps I have made, and I forgive the many trespasses made against me in the name of love; familial or otherwise.

Forgiveness is the only viable counterpoint to the semantics of grief if you don't want to die a needless psychic death.

And whenever I now watch Val Kilmer's The Saint, in my own home, nearly thirty years later, I mutter a modest dua, and raise my cup of ginger shaah in my father's honour.

With love,



Song of the moment: 'Motherfather' by MUSIQ SOULCHILD.


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