Eva Bosibori went to see a doctor last week. She had been experiencing changes in her sleep patterns. Sometimes she would wake up in panic, gasping for breath and drenched in sweat, her heart racing and chest feeling like someone had placed something heavy on it.
“I thought I was having a heart attack. I was crying. I hated how I was feeling. I thought I was going to die on my bed,” she says of the experience.
Several tests later, medics would not find anything wrong with Bosibori until they discovered something: Less than a week before the panic attacks began, Bosibori’s sister had suddenly died of high blood pressure complications.
She died in Kisii, and Bosibori lives in Nairobi. In the midst of a curfew, travel restrictions and social distancing rules imposed to tame the spread of coronavirus, Bosibori had no chance of attending her sister’s burial.
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Bury 48 hours
“My mother called and said they needed to bury her in 48 hours and that the chief wanted them to start making burial arrangements immediately,” she recounts.
Bosibori never attended her sister’s burial. The days that followed were difficult.
“Every time I stepped out of the house I imagined I would meet my sister coming to visit,” she recounts.
Laughter from her neighbour’s house would startle her. It felt like her sister laughing outside. Then the nightmares began, and Bosibori knew she needed some help. “My parents had sent me some photos of the burial, but it still felt unreal,” she says.
Medics said Bosibori had too much grief trapped in her and referred her to a counsellor. She got help.
Bosibori’s case is not unique.
Lydia Nthenya was in Mombasa last month when her brother’s wife died in Machakos, nearly 400km away.
The family had 48 hours to bury their kin, and the chief duly informed them that the ceremony had to have no more than 15 people.
Nthenya was not among the 15 who attended, something that still haunts her today. “I can still see her talking to me every day. It is so unreal,” she says.
Days after the burial, Nthenya is still struggling with a deep sense of guilt. Even after all the logic on why she would not have been at her sister-in-law’s funeral was presented to her, she still feels that she failed her brother.
Psychologist Loice Noo is not surprised that Bosibori and Nthenya are yet to come to terms with the loss of their kin after coronavirus restrictions barred them from the burials.
According to the psychologist, having unfinished business, especially grief, can be so overwhelming that sometimes, people like Bosibori and Nthenya might need professional help.
“Funerals are held to give closure and to have community support; to make the bereaved feel they are not alone, and to give them the opportunity to accept that their loved one is gone,” says Dr Noo.
For others, it goes beyond that.
Ibrahim Mmudi transported the body of his wife from Nairobi to Kakamega last month.
She died in the house one night after battling cancer. The silence of the night as he walked the deserted streets of Kibra looking for someone to help ferry the body to the mortuary still haunts him.
“There was curfew and we could not get a car. I stayed with my dead wife in the house till morning, then I started looking for ways to transport her to the village in the shortest time possible,” he says.
The journey to Kakamega, in the company of his eight-year-old son, was equally nightmarish. “It breaks you. Even if you are a man and you have to be strong,” he says, his voice faltering, as he shares the horror of being in an eerily silent car, alone with his son, and his wife’s body on the side.
“There were no songs; just silence,” he says
The aftermath of the burial was not any better, with Mmudi getting orders from the chief that he had to leave the village in 48 hours. He left immediately after the burial, again alone. “That is not the kind of burial she deserved,” he says.
Imelda Murray, whose brother died sometime in March or April - she is still too distraught to discuss the details - says the hurried burial felt like throwing a loved one into a dark hole and walking away.
The feeling is shared by Julie Ouma whose cousin died last week. The family had 48 hours to plan the burial and move the body from Nairobi to Western Kenya.
“We had no money for a casket and we had to act fast. We bought some timber, a family member made a casket. His own brothers dug the grave and put him in and that was it. His own wife did not make it for the burial,” she says.
Lincon Khasakhala, a lecturer in the Department of Psychiatry at the University of Nairobi, says attending funerals goes beyond finding closure.
“It is an important part of culture and it is difficult for people to face the radical change of not being able to attend funerals of close relatives and friends,” says Dr Khasakhala.
For the poor, funerals bring people together for the much needed financial support. But with the onset of coronavirus and restrictions it has brought along, everyone is on their own.