Xhosa people (I think most black people actually) think of their parents’ siblings as their own parents also. The idea of being raised by a village is not just a concept we tout, but one we embody. It is deeply entrenched in how we think about who raises us, who we deem our parents and therefore, who we feel a responsibility towards. As an example, while I was home this December, my aunt kept telling me how old her fridge is, and asking when I would buy her a new one. While it isn’t demanded, every now and then, we know to honour our responsibilities to our other mothers and fathers. My beautiful aunt, who has many children in her own biological ones and her nieces and nephews, lost her first born son years ago. To this day she still talks about how no one can understand the pain of losing a child.
Another dear aunt of mine lost her only child due to Covid last year. We lost our fun, thoughtful and bubbly cousin. For me, Wande was the first person to call me “sisi”, though I was not that much older than her. Since we did not grow up together, we were not that familiar with each other until university, where I became a big sister to her when she came to study. Wande was easy to love and to support. She was driven, kind and just a great human. Her passing shattered all of us who knew and loved her, especially my aunt. Before this incident, I was not too close to this aunt of mine, but when her beautiful and only child died, I knew we had to cover her in love. Ukum’khapha through life was the intent.
I read a beautiful article years ago that tried to explain the concept of ukukhapha and how we are not meant to be alone1. Ukukhapha in simple terms is to accompany another. It was such a familiar concept when I was growing up that it took a lot of reversing my psyche to be able to adjust to what I saw as normative when I got older. Umntu wayengahambi yedwa, ever. Be it for trivialities like going to the stores, when one was celebrating their best moments or in the darkest of times, umntu wayekhatshwa. This concept haunts me, because I have not been particularly good at ukukhapha my family. I was especially burdened by this when remembering how grossly ill-equipped I had felt when my other aunt lost her child. Yet it was so inspiring to watch my mother and her other siblings rally around her bem’khapha. I have no children and have never been a parent, so I cannot even begin to imagine what it must be like to deal with that. I do however know love and relationships. I know how my mother shows up for her family, what it means to have empathy and how we ought to be deliberate in loving those around us. I know we need to use this time to learn ukukhaphana again.
While many of us are accustomed to showing up through attending funerals or by contributing financially, the times we find ourselves in require more creative ways of showing up. I could not go to my cousin’s funeral and my aunt didn’t really need money from any of us but she needed ukukhatshwa. She needed people to walk besides her, to hold her hand and to consistently show up. I therefore wanted to share a few ways that I have thought through and tried to practice in loving my aunt through her pain:
1. I showed up practically
My cousin lived in Joburg, and her mom lives in the Eastern Cape. That meant that logistically, there had to be people who packed up her flat, did all the administrative things of closing her accounts, ending her lease, getting her deposit and making sure her stuff got back home. I joined the people who volunteered to do this and carried through all the admin that was involved so that my aunt didn’t have to worry about it. By relieving her of this burden, we were able to give her some time to mourn her child, as she should.
2. I showed up emotionally
My mother would tell you that I leave a lot to be desired in my communication. While I call, text and keep in touch, I am not too good at it (I am working on it). When my aunt lost her child, I knew I had to make sure I was deliberate in calling her more, messaging on special days, and putting in that extra effort of being intentional with how I was loving her. Doing this created room for her to be transparent with me. She told me when she was not okay and we could cry together. She told me when she needed to seek help and I was able to virtually hold her hand through it. It’s such a surreal experience to have your elder be your companion and friend, um’khaphe ebomini. Showing up for my aunt in emotional ways gave me the opportunity to experience that.
3. I showed up through prayer
My aunt, like all of us, did not have the ability to heal her broken heart. She didn’t know what to do with the many questions she had about her loss. She didn’t want to continue fighting, didn’t have the energy to claw her way back to the land of the living. And there was no way she could conjure up any ability to achieve the above. But God could. God, though not always in the ways we desire, can and does become the answer in all our wonderings. He knows how to heal broken hearts and to claw people out of the pits they find themselves in. So I dedicated time to praying for her. Asking the one who is able, to do that which he knows is best for her.
This experience has made me think hard about how this pandemic gives us a unique opportunity to learn other ways zokukhaphana. How we have been given a chance to expand our ideas of empathy, and of love. This does not end with people who are going through loss in the form of death. We have the opportunity to think about how we can learn to love differently, sifunde ukukhapha our families, friends, church members in ways that are reflective of the needs of the times. I have no doubt that we’ll all be better for it.