There’s a section of Barack Obama’s new memoir dedicated to his grandparents, Toot and Gramps, who raised him in Hawaii while his mother travelled between Hawaii and Indonesia. Toot passed away two days before Obama was elected president in 2008 and on the last day of his campaign trail he called her the “cornerstone” and “quiet [hero]” of their family.
The line struck a chord. My sister and I were also raised by our nan, who lived just a few doors away growing up and was a parent figure alongside our mother. Like Obama’s grandmother, nan was the quiet hero of our family. She was our engine growing up and a close friend as we got older. Losing her to a sudden heart attack last year flawed us as though we’d lost a parent, yet my sister and I were quickly forced to deal with a secondary challenge to the grief: misunderstanding.
Despite people’s well-meaning intentions, the profound lack of understanding of non-conventional family units became explicit. It’s not that we expected an outpouring of despair, but the feeling that we had to contextualise nan’s role to justify our loss was exhausting. Friends would often jump to discuss their own late grandparents, which in many cases had been a removed elderly figure they would visit once a year, and my sister was offered far less compassionate leave from work than she would had she lost a conventional parent.
Roughly 24 per cent of UK employees have experienced a bereavement over the last 12 months yet currently, unless you lose a child under the age of 18, there is no legal requirement to grant paid compassionate leave, so time off work for a bereavement remains an employer’s decision. My sister returned to work just a few days after nan’s death no official bereavement was discussed – her loss wasn’t deemed high enough in society’s hierarchy of grief.
To me, this blanket rule for grief according to ‘child’, ‘parent’ and ‘grandparent’ titles feels simplistic. Families are complex – Oprah Winfrey, Jamie Foxx and Bill Clinton were all raised by their grandparents like Obama and me - yet society’s perception of a nuclear family still lacks such nuance.
Growing up in a middle-class area, my family was often met with a hybrid of intrigue, awkwardness and confusion. At school functions, two glamorous women would arrive: one white, the other mixed race. Teachers would smile politely, desperately repressing their curiosity of where the dad was, what colour he was and which was the ‘real’ mother.
In 2016, Obama was kind enough to address this challenge in a letter congratulating me on my work as an artist. “I am inspired by the strength and resilience that comes across in stories like yours,” he wrote, having been informed of my family background by his secretary. His acknowledgement of our shared experience furthered my sense of family pride, and writing about the subject since has shown me I’m not alone.
Dozens of strangers reached out over Instagram after reading my piece on grief in non-nuclear families for AZ Magazine last month, and several grief charities said this was a common feeling among calls they receive about bereavement.
The Covid-19 pandemic has laid bare the fact that we seldom discuss the notion of death, let alone its complexities. In a year in which so many of us have lost a loved one, it’s time society reconsiders the hierarchy of grief that comes with it.
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