• Mihlali Mbobo

The Aftermath: Untethered

About 6 months after the funeral a friend asked me how I was feeling about everything and I remember using the word ‘untethered’ specifically. Maybe it was having recently watched Jordan Peele’s ‘Us’ but that was the only term I could think of to accurately describe what I was feeling. The Cambridge Dictionary defines ‘Untethered’ as not physically connected or fastened to something.

This word is so fitting because to be tethered is to be connected or fastened to something, the term itself denotes a kind of safety and stability. Untethered is the loss of connection and the security of being fastened to that something. As is the norm, our parents and loved ones are our primary tethers in the world - a fact I had never really thought about until that tether was severed.

In my mind’s eye I saw that old Vodacom 4u advert with the baby in a space suit with the cord dangling out in space. The static of no up or down or sideways, just floating in an undefined space. Like a ship stuck in the doldrums waiting for the wind to carry it in whatever direction. I felt like that for over 2 years and only recently have I been feeling more grounded but the underlying feeling has never really gone away.

There are still days I'll be working around the house or out with friends and it will dawn on me all of a sudden, that I'm orphaned. There is no mom or dad at home, no one to call or worry about and it's a strange feeling.

I still have my parents' contact numbers and details unchanged on my phone and documents. I remember meaning to delete them in the early days but I just never got around to doing it and now I realise there’s no need to rush this process or get on top of it as I constantly find myself trying to do.

So I haven’t actively deleted anything, it would feel unnecessarily final. They’re already dead, what’s the harm in keeping the little pieces of their memories that I’m able to hold on to. I’ve never actually called the numbers nor do I even look at them, I’m just comforted knowing that if I scrolled down or searched their initials on my contact list I would find them there. The thing about grief is, no one else will feel your emotions or understand the strange ways you’ll find to cope with and commemorate the absence of your loved ones but do it anyway. Find your tethers in their favourite music, in your special memories of them or their unique quirks and the things they loved. It will help you feel closer to them and the lovely moments you once shared together.

The Losses After The Loss

When we talk about the initial loss in grief it’s centred on the person that has passed on and how they were connected to everyone’s lives. What we don’t often think about are the far reaching ripple effects losing a loved one has on the grievers and their lives processing that grief from that moment on. There are many other losses after a loss. Loss of friends and family, loss of employment, loss of status, loss of future plans and loss of self in a lonely world thrust upon them by unchangeable circumstances.

Loss of Family

We don’t like to speak about the dysfunctional ways some of our families are made up. The unspoken feuds and open alliances that came before us and live on after those people are gone that create a toxic environment for everyone involved. Relatives and elders turning on you in your hour need, out of pettiness, misguided loyalty and all out greed. All over the world we see the soap opera trope of families that suddenly switch up into evil monsters you’ve never met fighting about money, property, children and everything after the funeral. I heard these stories and I had a close friend deal with a particularly explosive case involving their siblings but would’ve sworn up and down that it would never happen to my family. Well, never say never.

It’s a bewildering experience being in the middle of the worst time of your life and having your support system and the people you thought you’d be able to count on not show up for you. In some cases people struggle to relate and comfort you in your grief which is a common and valid reaction but we can’t deny how damaging it can be to the grieving party. At their moment of need for whatever reason, they are left to fend for themselves.

In nefarious cases you find that who you thought was a person who cared about you in life was only interested in you in relation to the person who has passed on and what that meant to them. You find the family and community you thought you had built was only in the interest of looking a certain way or being associated with certain people. You see the veil lifted on underlying dynamics that have been happening around you and the way resentment and bitterness can poison even the most foundational relationships. It’s a disappointing reality that death changes you and can change the people around you and you can never prepare for it nor is there much you can do about it.

Loss of Friends

As we get older the ways our friendships come together and what keeps them together changes. What we hope though is that the mutual contract of love and support remains the same and never does one need their friends more than when they are going through a difficult time.

From condolences to regular check ins to catch up dates, some friends showed up and really carried me in a way they will never understand.

What surprised me were the people I thought were solid friends who barely acknowledged my situation or were quickly bored with it because it wasn’t fun and light. I was heartbroken to realise over and over again that only my life had changed, the rest of the world and it’s ways were still intact.

I found out I had a lot of acquaintances, party friends, work buddies and numbers in my phone but when the chips were down I actually had few friends. It was confusing and sobering to realise I had overestimated my importance in certain people’s lives and that I spent a lot of time and energy on people who didn’t appreciate or reciprocate that investment.

In all the hurt and resentment I also realised I was given valuable information. Now I knew who to continue giving my time and energy to and who to disengage from. It may seem harsh but I realised that I no longer had the capacity to deal with lukewarm energy and unreliable people who didn’t share my values of loyalty and reciprocity. That decision cancelled out a lot of people and it really sucks to be in my late 20s with barely any friends, going through many changes and feeling like the biggest loser some days but what it has also left behind is a select few people who get it and sincerely show up for me in all my life journeys and at the end of the day, all I feel is grateful.

Loss of Self

Now 3 years later and having just turned 30 I can see the many different versions of myself, the how and why they came about. Which ones still linger on in my subconscious and which have long gone. I can see how they all shaped me into the person I am at this moment. The passing of my mother and dealing with the grief of that has been a major catalyst for change in my life, it feels like I’ve become another person. Facing my own mortality and what my life means to me forced me to ask myself some hard questions, look at situations from a different perspective and force myself to take action on the things I’d been too scared to do. Like leaving a toxic job, cutting ties with draining friends, starting a more fulfilling career and making the lifestyle adjustments necessary for my long term success. With new eyes I’m looking at old memories and learning new things about my family, about purpose and what my goals are for the future and the rest of my life.

Post Traumatic Growth

I was interested in understanding this surge of renewed energy and focus in my life in the midst of all this grief and that’s when I discovered Post Traumatic Growth. Researchers define Posttraumatic Growth as ‘Positive psychological change experienced as a result of the struggle with highly challenging life circumstances’.

What does Posttraumatic Growth look like? There are 5 major domains.

1. Greater appreciation of life and/or changed sense of priorities

2. More intimate, deeper, or warmer relationships with others

3. A sense of increased (or discovered) personal strength

4. Openness to new possibilities in life

5. Spiritual Growth

I was relieved to discover this research and the stories of how others survived and thrived in the aftermath of their trauma and tragedy. Of course PTG is not possible for everyone whether it’s grief or trauma related. It’s also not to be confused with the ‘What doesn’t kill you makes you stronger’ philosophy that can be dismissive as if it isn’t natural to be negatively affected by adverse circumstances.

There is no obligation to improve your life or force some inspirational result to be perceived as strong or progressing past your trauma or grief. Whatever experience you find yourself in is what is true and valid for you in that moment.

I share this story of PTG because it was never something I knew about or thought possible for me. I thought that such a tragedy would surely end me and any goodness in the world but I was surprised by this pivot that has changed the course of my entire life. I’m not happy about how I got to this point but I am happy that with the cards I was dealt, I have been able to build something bolder and more beautiful than what I thought possible.

I think it’s important when life changes and transitions happen to connect and share with people in similar situations. Grappling with these confusing feelings of joy, guilt, excitement, shame and everything under the sun I reached out to some online communities.On a Grievers forum I asked fellow orphaned members what were the unexpected things they realised in the aftermath of their Grief.

1. Anonymous, 25 (twin girls)

We loved our father, he was a present and dedicated parent but we’d always had a difficult relationship. He was a hard man to please, he lived his life in a specific way and thought that was the correct way for everyone to live as well. As a result I think my siblings and I are more liberal and struggle with order and authority in rebellion of that strict upbringing. We hadn’t realised how imprisoning his presence could be, not intentionally or even maliciously but that was the dynamic. A few months after he passed, we realised we felt a little relieved to not have him sitting broodingly in front of the TV, sucking all the light out of the room. We realised we didn’t have any expectations to live up to anymore, we had no one to disappoint with our different ways of expressing ourselves and contentious opinions. For the first time in our lives we felt like we were our own people and no longer an extension of our father’s wishes for us and about us. In the aftermath of our grief, we didn't expect to feel free and the guilt that came with that.

2. Anonymous, 31 (man)

I realised a lot of my identity was formed in relation to my sisters and our family dynamic. I was the youngest and the most care-free/careless person that everyone felt the need to coddle and protect. In their absence I realised I had internalized a lot of their opinions of me and when they passed on, I realised the version of me that also believed I was weak and irresponsible,had no direction in life and wasn’t cut out for ‘the real world’ had to die too. I was no longer anyone’s baby brother or last born and it was crazy to realise how much my mom and sisters did to take care of me throughout life and the reality that I now I had to do all that by myself. I had to grow up fast, not because I had to be strong or because I was the man of the house now but because I knew I was capable and I wanted to make them proud. I want to be the man they sacrificed so much for even when I didn't realise it. In the aftermath of my grief, I realised I am much smarter and sturdier than I give myself credit for.

3. Anonymous,40 (woman)

We were never a religious or spiritual family, my father had been raised Catholic until his teens but never observed anything with us so church and God weren’t really a factor in our lives. When my father passed on from Cancer a few years after my mother died in a freak accident I remember this swell of overwhelming rage. I didn’t understand why two good people could have their lives cut short just like that for no reason. In the space of 6 years I lost my whole family and for 4 years after that I struggled to care about anything and anyone because I felt so empty. Nothing about life and living seemed consequential or important anymore, what was the point? I eventually found myself drawn to spirituality and religion but from a logical perspective. I’m not entirely sold on the blind faith aspect but I wanted to understand whatever stories were out there because I realised I needed something to believe in. When my parents were alive and my family was intact, that was my guide and my anchor on how to understand the world and my place in it. In the aftermath of my grief, I’m on a spiritual journey with myself and figuring out what makes sense for my life.

Reading these stories I felt so comforted and validated. I related to many of the complex thoughts and emotions shared and it helped me realise that this Post Traumatic Growth stage can also be a natural part of the grieving process. I felt like I was in a club within a club and it didn’t matter that there were only a few of us, we were living in our own new worlds and it was something to be excited about.

Now on the other side of the darkest part of this journey, I can see some of the lessons. In these past few years I’ve had to unlearn and relearn a lot of identities I had taken on because of other people, wanting to fit in or even passively sometimes because being different can be hard and draining. I put up with a lot of negative treatment because I was scared of being lonely or I held on too long to things because I was scared nothing better would come along and this coloured every facet of my life. I became passive and small minded in my career aspirations, romantic relationships and friendships. There was a deep fear and insecurity that this was as good as things were ever gonna get so just shut up and be happy.

Now having had to reclaim and rebuild myself I have better self-worth and I’m secure in myself and who I am. Loneliness is still hard but also bittersweet because it’s all this time alone that has allowed me to tap into myself and the abundance of the good things within me.

In the aftermath of my grief, I'm healing the scared little girl who always had to please everyone and be liked.

I am stepping into the person who is sure of their value, who is more giving, more patient and compassionate with themselves and other people.

Grief is often a lifelong journey so it’s important to allow ourselves to be wherever we are in it, no matter how long it has been or how many times we’ve been there. Patience and self-compassion are important to getting through anything in life and there’s no formula for grieving the people and things that meant so much to us.

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