Grief and loss
Warning: long post, and not a cheerful one
Campus bulletin boards are covered with many announcements – apartment for rent, car for sale, a recital. All useful things, and important too, measured against their temporal setting.
Then this poster appeared: “Missing”. Olamide Adeyooye was last seen in the video rental store, but someone abducted her after that. She didn’t show up for her job, or for classes, as friends tried frantically to get the police to understand that she wasn’t just another unpredictable college student.
I work on campus, and learned of her disappearance on a bulletin board. As a parent of three college students, I stared at the poster as the awful reality sank in.
Several questions and intuitions came to mind as I read the facts on the poster:
- She had an African name – was she a foreign student? A child of immigrants? In my experience these are often the hardest-working and most dependable students.
- Apparently taken while near her off-campus apartment in a tough neighborhood a few miles from campus
- Her ‘96 Toyota with the broken passenger seat (she wasn’t rich) was missing – a carjacking?
- Her friends were worried about her – the posters were everywhere. Ergo: she has friends – but probably not a sorority.
- Laboratory sciences major – a pretty serious goal
- She was small; 110 lbs. Could she fight back?
- From a suburb of Chicago, ergo her family lived in America
It turned out she was indeed from a loving family as her stricken parents pled for anyone knowing her whereabouts to help. Their accents, phrasing, and word choices suggested they had come here from Africa.
Welcome to America, I thought. Land of opportunity. As I stood looking at the poster, I imagined how her parents must feel, and what lay ahead for them.
To some extent, I didn’t have to imagine, because one of my children was missing for over two years. As far as I currently know, he’s alive and doing OK, but that is one part indirect information, one part wishful thinking and one part guess. He left of his own accord and for over two years we couldn’t find him. It turned out he had changed his name and made it clear he did not wish to be contacted.
The land of pain
I spent hundreds of nights awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to get past the hole in my chest and find a rationale, or at least my breath again. I know about feeling like a hollow man; where is my son? My wife and his brothers wrestle with his absence. People ask us; “How is Joe doing? I haven’t seen him for a long time”, and we try to answer.
I kept telling myself: he’s probably fine. Over, and over.
Much worse lies ahead for Olamide’s parents. I’ve had only a glimpse of the land of pain where they will live from now on. I simply cannot imagine how they will ever again have a day of peace. They sent their beautiful, promising daughter to school, and were looking forward to her graduation in December. Then a phone call, I suppose… and after an agonizing two weeks, her remains were identified from dental records in a burned-out chicken house two states away.
There are certain tasks a normal parent is simply not equipped for. After a while they will struggle not to imagine her last day, her last moments. Just to keep breathing they will try not to think of some demon out there, preying on the innocent. They will try to stop obsessing over news reports of missing persons. And they will fail.
Hallmark has a line of “sympathy” greeting cards, but our culture is pretty short of recognized ways of grieving and caring to support those who have lost loved ones.
I read once about a culture where the village will gather to hear a person tell about their loss or injury. Everyone listens attentively, and in a few weeks they gather again, and then later a third time. The evolution of grief is shared. It seems like a very good idea, but we don’t have anything like that.
Funerals only cover one occasion of grief, and then everyone pretty much steps back. We have counsellors and advisors but professional help is, well, professional rather than personal. We live in a fragmented society where families are scattered and contentious, friendships often weak and superficial.
Religion has the answer for grief, if you can whistle loudly enough in the dark to keep believing in a benevolent afterlife.
Olamide’s father, Abiodun Adeyooye, said; “We are depressed. It’s a sad moment to hear about the death of my daughter. If God said this is how it’s going to be, I thank God.”
At some point, he may think; “Thank you, God. Thanks, God. Hey, thanks a lot, God. Thanks a WHOLE HELL OF A LOT, GOD!” But if he does think that, he may not say so, for one cannot hate God, cannot deny God. And then he will be more alone than ever.
No wonder antidepressants are a 10.9 billion-dollar industry. It is considered impolite to express normal feelings, or even to draw obvious conclusions.
Attachment and grief
On Wednesday I decided to include an image of Olamide’s poster in this post, but didn’t have my camera with me. On Thursday I took my camera to work with me, but the news had broken that she had been found and most of the posters had been taken down. Many were replaced by a poster about a lost dog.
The Buddhists are right that desire is the cause of suffering, and attachment is one kind of desire. Grief is the outcome of broken attachment, and the intensity of grief is closely related to the strength of the attachment. What attachment is stronger than a parent to their child? Children do not realize; as the popular song says;
And You, of Tender Years
Can’t Know The Fears, That Your Elders Grew By
And So Please Help, Them With Your Youth
They Seek The Truth, Before They Can Die
Don’t You Ever Ask Them Why
If They Told You, You Would Cry
So Just Look At Them And Sigh
And Know They Love You.
Teach Your Parents Well
Their Children’s Hell
Will Slowly Go By
And Feed Them On Your Dreams
The One They Picks
The One You’ll Know By.
- Crosby, Stills, Nash & Young: Teach Your Children
My father was a professor at Central Washington State where a student was abducted from campus and murdered. He didn’t know the victim well and it still weighed on him for the remainder of his life. Students – your professors may seem busy, even cynical. And a few may not care but trust me; most do, more than they can say without sounding maudlin. Even the administrators, the grounds keepers, and the secretaries do care, a lot. You seem like our own children to us.
The college community is fragmented by its nature but it is a unique time of life and students (when the situation calls for it) do rise to the occasion. Hundreds of students have put up posters, phoned in information, and met on campus to pray and share.
Ours is not a culture that encourages caring but people care anyway. We just don’t have many ways to show it – again a lack of ritual and formal relationships places an enormous expressive burden on our community. How to say how we really feel? A horrible tragedy like this one breaks the cover, if only for a moment.
That is how we know that most people are good and decent, whatever their personalities and culture. And it is the reason a crime like this one is truly a crime against the whole community.
At a press conference, just before breaking into tears, Olamide’s father said;
“The person who killed her will be brought to justice. Whoever killed her, Olamide’s spirit will find him out and he will be brought to justice.” …
This is a sad moment, but I want justice to take place…”
In 2000, Illinois Governor George Ryan rightly placed a moratorium on the death penalty when it was found that many death-row inmates were innocent. But on occasions when guilt can be certainly determined, a case such as this demands it. The murderer is a total waste of valuable oxygen, and I say we don’t give him any more.
Spare me any sophistry about “justice vs. vengeance” or how it is cruel and unusual punishment to execute a murderer. A crime such as this is a permanent wound on hundreds of people, and can even destroy the lives of close survivors.
Notice Olamide’s father didn’t say; “I want deterrence to take place.” It isn’t complicated.
I could go on…
I’ve written for hours, covering a scant 173 lines, trying to convey the mix of feelings and connections I make from this crime. Now it’s your turn. Keep your eyes open for weakening of the community thread and try to strengthen it in small, personal ways. Look out for your neighbors, especially the young, just starting out in life. Take care of your children the best of you can, and watch out for other people’s children too. It is the kind of world we should live in, where if you cannot be there to protect your children, someone else may be.
- UPDATE: I found indirect information about my son after writing the original text of this post, and three comments regarding him had been posted. The editorial problem is: only a couple days have passed since the original post and it really should be changed. But I want to preserve the context of the original three comments. An imperfect solution was to edit those three paragraphs and post their original text here:
To some extent, I didn’t have to imagine, because I have a missing child. As far as I know, he’s alive and doing OK, but that is part wishful thinking and part guess. He left of his own accord over two years ago and we can’t find him.
I have spent hundreds of nights awake, sitting on the edge of the bed, trying to get past the hole in my chest and find a rationale, or at least my breath again. I know about feeling like a hollow man; where is my son? My wife and his brothers wrestle with his absence. People ask us; “How is Joe doing? I haven’t seen him for a long time”, and we try to answer.
I keep telling myself: he’s probably fine. Over, and over.
Future updates to his situation, if any, will be posted here in the notes (and certainly in a whole new post) – the current text of this post will remain as it is.
- For a rough analog of what happened with my oldest son, read Siddhartha, and note the part toward the end where his son leaves. I think it was something like that, and the book helped me a lot.
- The phrase “land of pain” is shamelessly stolen from a book about Alphonse Daudet entitled In The Land Of Pain by Julian Barnes.
- Olamide’s friends tried in vain for what seemed several days to convince the police that something was terribly wrong. The police apparently felt it was normal for a college student to disappear leaving her cell phone on the couch, lights on, food in microwave. The Chicago Tribune was referring to the case as a homicide before the police even issued a statement; “It appears certain that criminal activity has occurred” (when they found her personal effects in a dumpster). To be fair to the police, it probably wouldn’t have made a difference, and they are in full-bore investigation mode now.
- The comfort offered by organized religion is double-edged, because it includes the possibility your lost loved one is burning in hell. Nice.