Getting through grief together

It’s almost seven weeks since my son Kwajo died, but I knew within a few days that I would speak at his funeral. I also knew what I wanted to say. As time passes, it is becoming easier to think about the kind of person Kwajo was and remember his good qualities, but at the time I was overwhelmed by the pain not only of his death, but of the struggle we had been through as a family during the preceding 20 months of his severe depression.

It was hard to think about the things I loved about Kwajo and write a regular eulogy that described and celebrated his life. Instead, I was driven by the need to help everyone who loved him, including myself, to remember that suicide is not the only way out of emotional pain. Suicide can trigger other suicides, and I don’t want anyone to die because he did.

I also wanted to share some of the values that kept me going throughout Kwajo’s depression and in the days following his death. I wanted people to be able to grieve in a way that would help them live bigger, stronger, fuller lives.

My official role was to give thanks to everyone for attending the funeral and for supporting us. I drafted what I wanted to say and ran it past Kwajo’s dad, step-mum and siblings to make sure they were happy with it. They were.

When I stood up to deliver my speech, I turned to look at the room and was overwhelmed. A sea of over 300 people, lining the walls and spilling out into the yard. Kwajo’s friends, schoolmates from as far back as kindergarten and their families. His workmates and fellow students. My brothers and other family members. Family friends and church members from the Ghanaian community. People I work with, neighbours. Friends that I hadn’t seen for years as well as those close to me, who had been supporting me through Kwajo’s depression and the immediate trauma of losing him.

So of course, being me, I went off script for a while. The gist of it was that this amazing turn out reflected what an awesome person Kwajo was, and was a credit to us all. This wonderfully diverse bunch of people — people of many races, cultures, faiths, of diverse ages, sexualities and abilities, brought together by the death of a brilliant, charismatic young mixed race man — represented the very best of what Australia could be. The gathering demonstrated all the values that I was about to talk about in my prepared speech. I clapped. I asked them to applaud themselves, and they did.

After my spontaneous outburst, I did return to the script. The words I’ve shared below are based on what I had prepared, but I’ve added some of the other things I said plus a few things I would have said if I’d thought of them in time.

Words for those grieving at Kwajo’s funeral

Love, connection, hope, forgiveness and gratitude. These are the values that will strengthen us and enable us to support one another.

Today is all about love. I want you to look around you and feel the love that is in this room. Since Kwajo died, his dad, step-mum, siblings and I have been surrounded and supported by love. I call it love immersion therapy.

Kwajo loved us. And when he was well, he knew how much he was loved. I believe that he didn’t want to hurt us, that night he died. But he was in more pain than he could bear and he wasn’t able to understand how much it would hurt us to lose him.

Love was not enough to save his life. But I hope and believe it will be enough to help all of us get through this difficult time of missing and grieving for him. The love of our families and friends and communities, and the love of people we meet for the first time today, because of Kwajo.

Always remember that you are loved. Always remember how much love you have to give.

With the World’s Best Uncle and baby Abrantie

Love is closely related to connection. Kwajo was a great connector. He always remembered people’s names and was always making new friends. He saw countless opportunities to connect ideas, people, things. This crowd is evidence of how connected Kwajo was. We are such a diverse bunch of people, here in this room, brought together by our love for him and his family and friends, and by our wish to support and care for each other. We are connected across all our differences.

Hold onto those connections. Value and build them. Keep reaching out to each other. Be generous — if you think someone is troubled, reach out to them, connect. Be hopeful — especially in your darkest moments, don’t give up. Keep trying, someone will be there for you. I wish Kwajo had realised the strength of the connections he had, and called just one more person on the night he died — maybe he would still be with us.

Scary times at the Grand Canyon. That devilish smile.

Which brings me to hope. We passionately, desperately hoped that Kwajo would win his battle with depression, but he did not. So what can we hope for, now that the worst has happened?

I hope that the ripples from Kwajo’s death will be more positive than negative. Of course I don’t mean his death was a good thing, but I believe that even in the wreckage of it, we can find the tools and the means to build ourselves better lives.

I hope that we can all learn from this experience. I hope that we can learn how to make Australia a safer place, so that people like Kwajo don’t lose hope and instead can heal and lead happy, satisfying lives.

I hope that we can all grieve for Kwajo in ways that are emotionally healthy so that we continue to grow and flourish as humans should, instead of being damaged or destroyed by our loss.

I hope that you will remember Kwajo’s creativity and confidence and be inspired. One of his employers emailed to tell me that they couldn’t come to the funeral because their staff would all be busy teaching kids computer programming — including a robotics/internet of things course that Kwajo had developed. Right now, students in those classes are benefiting from Kwajo’s legacy. I hope they go on to achieve great things for our world.

And we all hope that Kwajo is now at peace. For those of us with religious faith, we hope he is in heaven; for those of us without, perhaps, like me you can hope he is zooming around the multiverse, joyfully disrupting the very fabric of reality. Either way, he is no longer suffering.

Forgiveness – I know many of us in the room are asking ourselves why Kwajo did this, what we could have done to help him. Maybe we’re angry, with him, with ourselves. Anger is a common part of grief. As is regret. I know I can’t help wondering, what if I had done this or that differently … would he still be here? There is no point in going down the rough roads of anger and regret. It won’t help. Instead I ask you all to forgive Kwajo, forgive each other, and forgive yourselves.

It’s not easy to do this — I struggle with forgiving myself for all the things I wish I’d done differently as a parent — but it will not bring him back. Those of us who were closest to Kwajo did everything we could to help him get better and keep him with us. We must keep remembering that and be gentle with ourselves and each other.

For years before Kwajo died, I have been practising gratitude. During his depression, it helped me cope to spend time focusing on what I was grateful for. It continues to help me now he’s gone.

I am grateful for the feel of the winter wind on my skin and the warmth of the sun on my face. I am grateful for the gloomy days that bring essential rain.

I am grateful for the colourful, elusive birds that distract me from my grief, as I try to spot and photograph them.

I am grateful for my lively, noisy, generous Ghanaian family; for my loving, kind, pragmatic brothers; and for my inspiring friends and overlapping communities, all of whom have made this time more bearable.

I am grateful for good health and for being alive. Life is good.

Never miss an opportunity to enjoy life.

The past 20 months have been so challenging that it’s hard for me to remember the good times, but the stories people have been telling me since Kwajo died have reminded me of all his wonderful qualities: his exuberance, his cleverness, his sweetness, his belief that people should treat each other well, his wild and wicked sense of humour, his ability to do backflips, his channelling of Ananse, the trickster of Ghanaian folklore … I am grateful for this. I’ve been reminded that we can all be grateful to have had Kwajo in our lives, even though he wasn’t with us for very long. It was a dynamic 25 years.

On behalf of Kwajo’s family, I thank you all for the love and support you have given us. We feel cherished and we are grateful.

Thank you for coming today to share our grief and our celebration. It means a lot.

Thank you to everyone who helped us organise the funeral — more people than I dare to name, in case I forget someone. We are grateful to you for managing this massive project, driving us around, negotiating with the priest (his first Ghanaian funeral, yikes!), funeral directors and Rookwood cemetery, designing the invitation and the program, compiling the slideshow, listening to us cry, MC’ing, and organising the many things that needed organising, such as:

  • the keyboard player, sound system, recording and DJ
  • drinks and bicultural catering (Ghanaian team: jollof rice, kebabs, fried chicken, bofrots etc; non-Ghanaian team: brownies, scones, sandwiches, lemon tarts etc.)
  • chair covers (yep, they’re a thing).

Thank you to everyone who has hugged and consoled us, sent messages, cards and flowers, given me places to stay while my home remains too a sad place to be, gave financial contributions for the funeral, and brought us jollof rice and fish stew, cartons of soft drinks and water (the Ghanaians), or cakes and fruit (the non-Ghanaians).

We are grateful to everyone who has helped make this big fat Ghanaian funeral the send off that Kwajo deserves: bold, slightly chaotic, full of love and unforgettable.

Thank you, thank you, from the bottom of our hearts.

Lifeline: 13 11 14

8 thoughts on “Getting through grief together

  1. Jill you will always remain in my heart as such a special person. Unfortunately I hardly ever see you. Facebook is our main connection. Prior to that your dear brother Mark who attended our craft group every week sharing our spinning and weaving passion and often hearing about your family especially Kwajo. Stay strong your words are so beautiful and meaningful. Love Karen.

  2. Jill, thanks for sharing. So moving and thoughtful. I know it must be incredibly hard for you. And just a reminder that you don’t need to be strong all the time. It’s okay to lean on people, including me. Hugs. x

    • Thanks Lara, I’m doing quite a bit of leaning. Also was thinking maybe we could go to the gym together. I need to get back into it.

  3. An incredible, beautiful tribute – your son must have been an incredible person. You should write a book or at the very least a magazine article on dealing with this. It’s hard to believe how inspirational it is during what must be such a difficult time for you. Hang on to the good memories and keep him in your heart.

    • Thanks Tina for your very kind words. I think I was running on adrenaline in the weeks after his death. It’s been hard to write since, but I guess I will come back to it when the time is right.

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