The politics of grief

Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Photo by Halden Krog
Winnie Madikizela-Mandela. Photo by Halden Krog

I know something about grief. Eight years ago, almost to the day, I saw the feet of the man I loved more than life itself sticking out from behind the bed on our bedroom floor. We had spent two amazing years together. He was an extraordinary man – larger than life, funny, generous and kind. And for a short while he was mine… until that awful day in April 2010.

The moment I looked down on his lifeless body, my long, painful journey with grief began – a journey that only those who have walked a similar road can fully understand. It was in that moment that I became a member of a club that everyone of us will find ourselves part of at some point, but none of us ever wants to join.

Over the last eight years, I have come to understand a lot of what that membership entails and how people who do not share the membership react. I have learnt, for example, that you never "get over it". As a woman in Ireland told me decades after her husband's death: "Grief is like a handbag that you pick up the day your loved one dies, and you can never put down again. The best you can hope for is that with time the handbag becomes lighter and that you might eventually, for a little while, forget that you are carrying it."

Over the years, my handbag of grief has indeed become lighter and there are now days, sometimes weeks, where I forget that it is there.

Sadly, I have also learnt how cruel people can be in the face of grief. Sometimes they mean well, with misplaced words of "comfort" ("Don't worry, he is much better off in heaven") or by telling those left behind not to cry or to just keep busy.

But it is the deliberate cruelty, heartlessness and even the sadistic pleasure of some that continue to take my breath away.

It can take many forms, such as old enemies suddenly claiming central positioning at the mourning rituals. Or denying those who were truly the closest the space to bid farewell. But the worst injury occurs when the ones that have died are insulted or maligned at a time when they can no longer speak for themselves and when they have lost the legal protections they were afforded in life.

When this is done to someone who was well known the destruction of that person's legacy can happen in hours. To those who are left behind this means having to deal with a second death as devastating (or perhaps even more) than the first.  

So why am I writing about grief in a political column?

Well, because I know all too well that when the person who died was in the public domain the grieving process becomes political – as we have also seen so clearly with Ma Winnie's death.

It was all there – the positioning of those who wanted to claim that they were her closest and best friend, as well as those who wanted to use her death as a way of promoting themselves. There was the battle by the family to somehow retain control, or at least a role, during the rituals of her final journey.

And then there were the unbelievably mean and hateful reactions by many on social media, radio and in the press.

I wonder whether those who did this have any idea of the pain and damage they caused? Not only to the biological family, but to the broader "family" of the millions of people who saw her as their political mother?

When you lose someone you love, it is as if your emotional skin is torn off and therefore the insults do so much more damage. When I read and heard the cruel words of those who showed no compassion to, or understanding of, the woman who died, her family or the millions of grieving South Africans, I wanted to weep with sadness and fear.

Sadness, because of the additional, and totally unnecessary pain that was caused to our already traumatised country. Fear, for the long-term damage it might do.

From experience I know that the death of a loved one scrambles your emotional DNA and it takes a long, long time to figure out how to put it back together again. Some people never succeed and even those who do are never the same as before.

I hope that the strength and extraordinary spirit of the majority of people in this country can again overcome the hurtful events of the last two weeks.

But I can't help wondering how many times more they can be called upon to forgive, before something cracks irrevocably.

- Melanie Verwoerd is a former ANC MP and South African Ambassador to Ireland. 

Disclaimer: News24 encourages freedom of speech and the expression of diverse views. The views of columnists published on News24 are therefore their own and do not necessarily represent the views of News24.

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