I left my home. I left all the people and places I cared most about. Like a toddler leaving behind her things played with, is how I left them, without concern; confident that they would be there when I returned and surprised to find when they were not.
My most prized possession was my doll, yet on my return I found her lifeless; body broken and no longer able to remember me. How could I have abandoned her like this? Guilt set in.
Then the farm set, with the red barn and plastic animals that oinked and neighed. It had been taken from me without even a last turn to play with it, let alone hand it down to my children. I blamed myself for coming back too late and shame set in.
My favorite Barbie was still there, wearing the blue and white uniform I dressed her in for work, but I could tell she hadn’t been played with for years and regret set in.
Cumulative loss. The experience of one loss after another. Where the most recent loss is really just the ear of the hippo.
To understand this African proverb is to picture a hippopotamus as you would find it on safari in sub-Saharan Africa where I’m from. These giant beasts are the third largest land animal after the African elephant and white rhinoceros. They spend up to 16 hours a day in the water to keep cool, only leaving the water at night to forage for food. So, when you happen upon a pod of hippopotami at a waterhole in the midday heat, all you will see is the flick of an ear or the spray from a nostril, that belies the dangerous existence of the two ton machine beneath the surface.
So, I find, it is with grief. A body of loss lying submerged that, if not effectively addressed, tends to sit waiting inside us until another loss hits. The surprise of the intensity of emotion, as this new loss meets the sadness stored within us, is like the sudden eruption of a hippo launching from the water; jaws open wide, threatening to swallow us.
It’s been almost twenty years since I left South Africa with a backpack seeking adventure with my husband after only a year of being married. We had the arrogance of youth as we stepped on to a plane bound for London, England, without even a glance at what we were leaving behind. What was meant to be a two-year working holiday, turned in to naturalization, a house, and two kids. It was the time of our lives. Except when it wasn’t.
Some of my first losses were experienced in this transition. A friend’s wedding back home I couldn’t attend, my grandmother’s funeral I had to miss, not being able to watch my sister’s belly grow through her pregnancies, and in turn having to birth my own babies without her or my mother at my side. And though I thought I’d grieved each loss as it surfaced, I did not realize the parts of it I’d stuffed in to the pit of my stomach.
The first indication of something lurking beneath the surface was after moving from London to America for my husband’s job. The initial loss for me was not being able to work as a physical therapist due to licensing restrictions in the state of Texas. I had worked at some of the top hospitals in London for almost ten years and was now being told that I’d have to go back to college to get credits that would take me at least a year to obtain. I put my pride in my pocket and started the process until I was interrupted by my third pregnancy. With no family around to help me with my growing family, I made the choice to pack away my uniform and part of my identity.
Shortly after that, my mother was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s disease and we found ourselves scrambling to hold on to memories that were disappearing faster than we were able to create them. The final blow, a few years later, was being told that mom also had stage four lung cancer and only had months to live. It was in a letter that I began writing to my friends in London, to tell them of her news, that the hippo began to emerge from the water. Hungry.
The letter turned in to a list of losses, both big and small, new and old, until my husband found me crumpled in a heap under the weight of the beast that had come up from the pit of my stomach to sit on my chest. This marked the beginning of my journey dealing with loss. I read books to understand it, borrowed other peoples’ words to describe my feelings, and eventually started using my own. When my mother died a few short months later, I began writing and had no idea it would become an essential part of my healing.
After a year of journaling through regret and anger, denial and depression, I seemed to come out the other side healthier, if not altogether happier. I’d reached a kind of mountaintop where I felt as though I’d figured life (and death) out. I also thought I’d outgrown my grief; that it was no longer in the pit of my stomach, nor was it sitting heavy on my chest. However, in my experience, stories rarely end on mountaintops and hippos never really go away.
This year, five years after my mom’s passing, my father got remarried. It could have been ten years and I imagine I would’ve had to deal with the same slew of feelings. I dismantled the idea of family I had always upheld, and somehow made room for a new way of perceiving it. I convinced myself that as an adult, I did not have to think of his new wife as my stepmother, yet still found the Cinderella in me hoping this would all turn out happily ever after in the end.
We flew back to South Africa for the wedding and I was delighted that all three of my girls could participate as flower girls, especially since we had missed all the other family weddings living abroad. It was a beautiful day and I found myself genuinely happy for my dad and his bride. Yet, it was still a loss of the family I knew, as well as a fresh reminder that my mom was not coming back. The wedding also happened to take place on the birthday of my eldest daughter. Thirteen: a threshold to her teens, and a loss of her childhood. I grieved.
The bigger surprise that same week was the closing sale of the farm. It had been in our family for several generations and there was the unspoken hope that my husband and I would eventually return from our wanderings and take over from my father. However, we had made a life for ourselves in Austin, Texas, a place our girls now called home. Complicated.
As I stood in the dust at the farm for the very last time, I picked up a seed from the ground that came from the Tipuana tree shading me. As kids, my cousins and I would call them “helicopters”, because we could throw them up in the air and watch them spin to the ground. Simple reminders of a rich past. I made each of my children take a turn throwing the seeds in the air - a feeble attempt at connecting them to my childhood before it was my turn to kiss it goodbye.
It was only when we sat on the airplane to return to Austin, that I felt the hippo begin to rise from the water. We were waiting on the runway for a passenger’s bag to be removed from the hold, at the same time being told it would take at least another half hour and to please be patient as they tried to fix the air-conditioning. It was hot, and I started to feel slightly claustrophobic. I glanced around to see if anyone else shared my discomfort. Apparently not. I fanned myself with the emergency instruction manual. To no avail. My chest began tightening and my face became flushed. I leaned over to my husband to express my distress and he tried his best to calm and distract me. Panic started rising. I got up to walk around the cabin. Soon I started realizing I was searching for a way out. I needed to get out. Please, someone, help me get out!
On my third lap around economy I started getting glances from the other passengers. Then, I heard it.
“Do you think we closed the doors too soon?”, an air hostess whispered to her colleague. My senses were on full fight or flight alert and I could’ve heard a pin drop.
“YES!” I yelled. “Can you open them?”
“Ma’am if you step away from the door, we can open it for a moment to get some fresh air,” she said, staring at me with that are-you-going-to-jump? look. I stepped back and felt another flight attendant at my side.
The door opened.
I gasped for breath.
Thank you, Jesus.
I was escorted back to my seat where my bewildered husband mouthed What just happened? Thankfully he didn’t expect an answer and just held my hand tightly. I sat there numb from shock. The airplane took off, and I was left with 16 hours to think about his question.
It had happened again. Cumulative loss. The ear of the hippo.
As a physical therapist, I know that many physical complaints are connected to emotional responses, but now I was really paying attention because I had literally almost choked on my grief. I found myself thinking back to the day my mother died and how it drew out of me a groan so deep I surprised even myself. I also thought of my African friends who ululate to move the grief through their bodies and felt like I was on a new journey with loss. I needed to understand its cumulative effect on our physical health, learn how to welcome the emotions in from the shadows where they lurked anyway, and discover what to do with them.
Once again, I gathered tools from books and sat in solitude. I took deep breaths in my Pilates class and spent more time outdoors. I prayed with friends, played worship music on repeat, spent time in God’s Word, and time writing my own words. I recognized guilt and shame and regret I’d been carrying and threw them off. I began volunteering at my local hospice and slowly, very slowly, started to feel more like myself again. Not the fake-it-till-you-make-it me, but the my-soul-is-enlarged-and-made-more-beautiful-by-loss me.
Merely being alive means we’ll encounter more than one loss. My hope is that you take time to recognize each one; big or small, obvious or hidden, and grieve them appropriately. Accept them, absorb them, and find your way through them. Use journal writing, art, solitude, exercise, dance, or the practice of lament to help you on this journey. And if you’re a believer, bring the injustice of your losses to the cross, because there is freedom there. For comfort, think of Jesus, a man of sorrows, acquainted with grief (Isaiah 53:3). It helps me to know that he knows. He knows my story and he knows yours too.