What is the shape of grief? For writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, grief takes the shape of her father’s absence: the hole he left behind when, in the summer of 2020, he suddenly died of kidney failure. In her slim memoir, Notes on Grief, Adichie pays homage to her father’s remarkable life while observing her own surprising emotions as she moves through the messy process of bereavement, completely unprepared. She writes, “How is it that the world keeps going, breathing in and out unchanged, while in my soul there is a permanent scattering?”
By any measure, James Nwoye Adichie lived an extraordinary life. The first professor of statistics in Nigeria, he also lived through the Biafran War and had his books burned by soldiers. He was an honorable and principled man who was naturally funny. When he visited Adichie at Yale, she asked him if he would like some pomegranate juice, and his response was, “No thank you, whatever that is.”
Adiche lovingly describes such details about her father, from his ease with humor to his discomfort with injustice. Upon learning of a local billionaire’s desire to take over ancestral land in their Nigerian town, he immediately looked into ways to stop him. But what is most memorable in this tribute is Adichie’s father’s love for his family and their enduring love for him. Adichie simply calls him “the loveliest man.”
Processing grief is difficult enough, but Adiche learned of her father’s death in Nigeria while she was home in the U.S. during the COVID-19 pandemic. One day, they were having family Zoom calls; the next, he was gone. Arrangements had to be made through phone calls and Zoom, and the funeral was postponed for months because the Nigerian airports were closed. Honoring Igbo traditions and arranging a funeral with her siblings during a worldwide pandemic was enough to make Adichie come undone. The hole her father left behind began to fill with guilt, denial, loneliness, panic and eventually bottomless rage.
A raw, moving account of mourning and loss, Adichie’s memoir reminds us there is no right or wrong way to grieve and that celebrating life every day is the best way to honor our loved ones.