A guide to grief: As told from the ‘inexperience’ of the living

By Alice Mbeya

As a fledgling, I had constantly been guided into knowing that there was a heaven and hell with one true God and that your place on earth and the ways you treated people would determine exactly where your eternity would be spent. As the years progressed and varied instances of inevitable and unexpected deaths came to light, my views of the afterlife faltered greatly.

My earliest memories of death came once my ‘grandmother’ from my father’s side had passed. I was between the ages of 9 and 12. All I recall was this immensely sombre blanket covering the emotions of the many people in my childhood home. Unable to fully grasp the concept, I was still conscious enough to recognise that she would no longer be a permanent fixture in my family’s lives. 

The next instant came when my great grandmother from my mother’s side of the family passed so suddenly. Sure being 90-something might have contributed to her absence but it was never explained to me or my mother how it came to be. This woman was the highly respected matriarch of the family, with a temper that rivalled the fiery caverns of volcanoes, and the business savvy of even the best entrepreneurs.

My great grandmother-Freeda – whose name ironically means ‘peace’ – was a force to be reckoned with and the sole reason for my mother’s survival in life. Raising a bevy of relatives, including her granddaughter – my mother, after her own mother’s untimely passing at the age of 37 – my mother was only 19 – Freeda came to care for the woman I value most in life.

From the stories I’d heard growing up, their bond was unbreakable, and seeing my mother scream into the heavens she praised so much whilst crumbling to a heap on the ground beside Freeda’s grave, shot me to my core. I’d never seen her exhibit such unbridled emotion in all my years alive. At that moment, I wanted to crawl into the ground in which Freeda had been laid to rest, wake her from that eternal slumber so she could stand beside my mother and console her once more… but I couldn’t. I was frozen in time. Thereafter, it became crucial that I spent as much time loving and cherishing my mother and all the relationships I held dearly. 

Coming into University, I never thought my time spent there would alter me as greatly as it had. All the friends I’d known in high school had all spread across the globe for higher learning which meant I had to form newer connections, something that proved easier than you’d think. We were all a group of young hopefuls, intent on managing the new independence that College life had to offer. Within the first year on campus, I had ingrained myself into a group of beautiful artistics that valued each other more than I ever thought possible for mere strangers to accomplish in such a short time. Fights and arguments were thunderous but rare at best and what mattered most was enjoying our youth together. 

Among those connections, I value my friendship with him the most. Kai Singiswa was something of a protagonist personified in real-time. Eccentric, authentic, loving, combative but always true to self. That’s the thing I admired most about him, was that he never strayed from what or who he believed in, especially his friends. Taking time to converse with any stranger on the street, and treat the homeless with care, Kai had the gift of the gab. No wonder he was so popular beyond belief, and as our friendship grew I found that our paths would have crossed in many instances but we ultimately met in College. 

I’ll never forget seeing his tie-dye-coloured hoodie walking into the packed lecture hall accompanied by his unruly bistered curls. I just knew I had to befriend him! After months of partying together, sometimes cleaning up his vomit after a rager, being escorted safely home by him post-rave, and spending the best time with someone I always knew to be such a great soul – hearing of his passing one Tuesday morning after 3 short years of friendship, felt like a prank. As if the rug had been pulled from under me and someone was filming only to see my reaction. My best friend was gone. This death hit me hardest as I had been an active participant in all the memories we had created, only for them to be put on a permanent pause.

The signs had all been there, intuitively at least. Whenever we’d speak of our futures together or how our children would be the best of friends, I never saw him there. Never saw him in my mind’s eye. We’d speak of partying until we were old and grey and yet, I could never see him aged. It was as if he was immortalised as this young 20-year-old and at the time I couldn’t understand why. But when that phone call came when my mum and I were driving back from the grocery store, it hit me instantly. His battle with depression and other outside factors informed his decision the night before the 1st of December 2019, and just like that, someone I valued as closely as I did my own family, was so out of reach. 

The days that followed were spent shrouded in the darkness of a bedroom where sleep was the only place I was free from the burdens of my reality. So time ticked on, as did my anger because if the people I cared for were to be taken from me with such quick instance then why form these meaningful bonds at all? What was the point? I wanted to block and delete everyone’s numbers and remain in my cocoon of sorrow and detachment.

That’s when the disembodied voice came to me. Paraphrasing, it said; “Don’t do that. Please. Don’t stop loving so freely because Kai’s gone. Remember how great it feels to care and connect. Take that feeling with you always and create newer, stronger bonds but don’t stop loving as freely as you do.” 

Whether that voice was my subconscious, God, the universe, or Kai himself, I’ll never know. What I do know is I felt this immense wave of gratitude and calm wash down my spine and settle in my toes. That night I bellowed and howled as the steaming waters of the shower consoled and coerced more tears from me. That became routine in the months without him. Leaning into the anger, the sadness, the acceptance, I allowed all emotions to be present and trade places with the other in my day to day. I never fought them, hid them, or controlled them. I suppose that’s what grief is, allowing yourself to feel the absence, cherish what was, and value the present.

There will always be times when sadness will visit me at the recollection of a show we used to enjoy, or when I see his face in strangers that pass me by. His memory is thankfully ingrained within me and however I choose to immortalise him, be it in tattoos of his name, or the writings of our haphazard adventures together, he will always remain with me because the truth is no-one ever truly dies. Stories are told in remembrance of loved ones, legacies are made to commemorate their impact, and hearts are bonded permanently to loves lost. So grieve as you wish, grieve as you must, for the pain is evidence of how fiercely you love and are capable of being loved.

Alice Mbeya

Creating art has intrinsically planted itself into so many avenues of my personal and professional life. Being a Social Justice Activist alongside my passion for writing, acting, and performance has allowed me the freedom of expression I never thought I needed. I have since made myself of use as an author, content creator, and performer. Doing what I love and loving what I do – Alice Mbeya