/ 8 November 2021

The Grief of Strangers

Unnamed 2021 11 08t154654.666
(John McCann/M&G)

In the poem, The Night Where You No Longer Live, the author Meghan O’Rourke contemplates life after grief and what life there is to be lived by the ones left behind. It is true, to grieve is to be birthed anew, to be altered in some way. To paraphrase a passage from Anne Michaels’ novel, Fugitive Pieces, one is born again when the harrowing terror of grief brushes the inside of your skull. 

This rebirth, it should be said, is unkind; it strips one clean of all the joys of the previous life and leaves only its sorrows, in starkly defined detail. The picture of grief is clearly formed when it is personal; when a parent, a friend, a relative, passes on. But is it possible to grieve the lives of strangers? The people we don’t know; strangers we’ve never had intimate exchanges with. 

Imiphanga, a radio show on Umhlobo Wenene on which they read out death notices, was for years the background static of my childhood. The show — its melancholic score fading in and out; the announcer’s elegiac tone — drew its listeners into contemplating the grief of others.

Unlike other radio shows, whose premise is to attract listeners based on enjoyment, Imiphanga traded on a different kind of allure. Every evening, the announcer read out the names of the dead, along with a brief picture of the departed: talents, achievements, offspring, even some quirky bits. These were not just obituaries but artfully constructed elegies, transmitted from the tip of radio frequency antennas, across the floating comets and stars, into the grieving ears of the listeners. The show always began with gloomy music, slowly rising, sneaking up on the listener, manufacturing feelings of melancholy; then the presenter came on, his soft-grained monotone completing the sombre scene. 

For the duration of the show, it seemed as if the world outside had paused, its shutters closed, at least to my mother. She’d always sit right in front of the radio, hunched over the table, listening, holding a space for the bereaved. As a child, I recall the sound of the show lingering in the background of whatever was playing on TV, but in the distance, I could sometimes hear my mother’s heart come up into her throat. On a few occasions, she’d cry out loud, shocked by a familiar surname or the name of the child crackling through the static. Or it might be the name of someone from a former school or a place of employment. Afterwards, she’d reach out to others who might have known the deceased, to convey the sad news, to ask them to share in their grief, to ask of them to carry the dead in their own thoughts. 

For the families who had drifted apart and were no longer on speaking terms, the show became a place of reunion. The sudden death of a matriarch, say, would make families consider burying years of hostility. The show also offered solace to the bereaved. Their grief was not theirs alone. They were joined in mourning by thousands of listeners who’d come to know the intimate details of the deceased — if they’d left behind a spouse and children or if they were the last surviving parent — in a matter of minutes. 

As a child, I was captivated by Imiphanga, not because the names of the deceased were familiar or the concept of death was clear to me, but because of the alluring musicality and poetry of the show. Besides the drawn-out piano chords, and the pitch of the presenter’s voice, there was something else that pulled you in. It had to do with the way the presenter began his sentences, swapping synonyms with every announcement, using euphemisms for every harsh word. The words were carefully chosen, selected by how sharp they were or how softly they landed on the ears of the listener. All those who have consoled the grieving know that truth and lies are of secondary importance to the words chosen. There is a science to it and the radio presenter understood it well. 

Announcing the passing of someone, the presenter always began with, “Usishiyile,” which means “he or she left us,” rather than “died.” The listener, a stranger to the dead, was spared the harrowing details of the end but read the beauty of life. The omission of the deceased’s unlikable details or the details of their death had a particular effect on the listener. The not knowing softened us. One family’s tragedy became everyone’s grief. The grief of my mother. The grief of all the listeners.

In the show’s opening line, encouraging listeners to send in their death notices, the station stipulated: “We only announce death notices that have been officially faxed by registered funeral parlours.” The process must have been cumbersome, and it is safe to assume those who sent in their “death notices” did so with every intention to celebrate their loved ones. These obituaries were aired a week, sometimes even a fortnight, before the funeral; so that all far-flung relatives had enough time to attend the burial. 

Though it was rare, I remember moments of excitement from my mother when the name of someone from the next village or the next town would be announced on the show. Though the name had been brought up in the context of their death, there was something consoling for my mother in the familiarity of that grief. A brief moment to take a full breath before diving back into the grief of others, into the monotonous presenter’s tone. My mother didn’t attend any of the funerals that were announced on the show. But thinking about it now, so many years later, I realise she didn’t have to. Sitting by the radio and listening to Imiphanga quietly and intently, she had grieved enough. 

Fast-forward three decades later, in a vastly different world, the show is still on Umhlobo Wenene, although presenters have come and gone over the years. In the age of the internet, where sound clips dot the air, Imiphanga has not missed out. All over the internet, there are videos of listeners mimicking the radio show, announcing death notices. All of the ones I’ve listened to capture the music, the presenter’s tone, the comforting message — the coercing of the listener into the grief of others. 

The act of taking on other people’s grief, however, still continues. Yet now, with videos and photos often showing the gruesome details of the deceased’s death all over the internet, it has none of the poetry and the comfort of Imiphanga. The death notices rarely come to us in a melancholic radio voice, but rather in a gruesome video of someone dying, in photos of a lifeless body lying on the street, in an unexpected WhatsApp message. The timeline is fast; pressing the refresh button can fling one from the details of a brutal death to the birth of a child. In between, there is no time to grieve, or to celebrate. The image of my mother hunched over the radio, still, grieving, is long gone. What remains is perpetual shock and paranoia that at any given time my social media timeline can turn into a graveyard, dead bodies strewn with every refresh.

My mother has also been caught in the swell of the internet. She does not own a radio any more and only listens to radio shows on her phone on rare occasions.

On 16 August 2012, when the news of the killing of 34 miners at the Lonmin Mine broke, my mother had no time to be comforted into grief. She tells the story with a lump in her throat, how she sat down in front of the TV and saw it unfold — the deadly sound of bullets, mineworkers being mowed down; all without the Imiphanga presenter to lull her into it, to say, “Basishiyile.” This heavy grief was intimate for my mother; my father has been a mineworker all his life.

In 2019, the news about Uyinene Mrwetyana broke, her gruesome rape and death spelled out in detail. Even though we are confronted daily with the scourge of femicide, her death hit me particularly hard. There was something about her smile, her innocence, the promising life ahead, that got to me. For days after, I avoided the news altogether, wanting to spare myself the details, only to be confronted by it all on social media. Thinking of my mother listening to the radio on our kitchen table in the village, the announcement of Uyinene’s death might have been different. Not less brutal, but the announcement on Imiphanga would have comforted us. 

The details of death become important in a world in which someone’s life is often violently taken away from them, despite their screams, despite their begging. But by wanting to know the details and being confronted with them on our timelines, we have become desensitised to the grief of others. It is now a personal experience rather than a collective one. Imiphanga spared the listener the brutality of it all, choosing instead to honour the deceased, to comfort the bereaved, to coerce the listener into grieving. 

In a world in which the image of a lifeless body lying on the streets can be shared on social media even before loved ones hear of it, we must remember that the grief of strangers is also ours. 

This is an extract from Our Ghosts Were Once People: Stories on Death and Dying, edited by Bongani Kona (Jonathan Ball).