I am honoured to tell the story of Paul Barasa. A story about love, death and tragedy. One year ago, on 7 August 2016, 32-year-old fiancé Mukadi (Elecki), died while expecting their twins. He never got to hold them in his arms. Neither did he get another chance to hold, hug or kiss Elecki. They were newly engaged, with big plans.
Paul and I were classmates at Moi University, he also attended my alma mater – the Kenya Institute of Mass Communication. He was that guy who always put up a good argument in class. He saw things differently. Outside class, we were, and continue to be professional colleagues.
When Elecki died, I did not know what to tell Paul. Having faced death myself, I knew no words would console him. We kept in touch. I checked on him regularly. I cheered him on.
A few weeks ago, I bought the book Option B authored by Sheryl Sandberg and Adam Grant, a psychologist at Wharton.The book is about how Sheryl, the COO of Facebook, dealt with the death of her husband Dave. “People continually avoided the subject (Dave’s death). I went to a close friend’s house for dinner and she and her husband made small talk the entire time. I listened mystified, keeping my thoughts to myself,” writes Sheryl. Speaking about Dave, became the elephant in the room.
Speaking about Paul’s elephant in the room
Sheryl’s experience reminded me of how I had treated Paul. I decided to reach out to him. I started my WhatsApp chat with him by asking how he was doing. I am sure it is a question he gets asked a thousand times a day.
He was back in class doing a graduate degree at JKUAT. After the usual chit chat, I asked him if he would mind telling me about Elecki. I expected him to go silent. But Paul jumped at the opportunity and said yes. We set up a lunch date. We met at DusitD2. It was almost a year and I wanted him to tell me about Elecki. I wanted to know the things no one had the guts to ask.
Psychologists have found a name for the common practice of avoiding upsetting topics. It is called the “mum effect”. “Many people who had not experienced loss, even some very close friends, didn’t know what to say to me or my kids. The discomfort around us was palpable, especially in contrast to our previous ease. As the elephant in the room went unacknowledged, it started acting up, trampling over my relationships…. Adam was certain people wanted to talk about it (Dave’s death) but they didn’t know how,” Sheryl writes in her book.
The first minutes of lunch were really awkward. I was eating, Paul was drinking coffee. I tried to get official by asking Paul to describe himself. “C’mon Carole, you have known me for a decade now. Anyway, I am Public Relations practitioner trying to shape opinions and dialogues about this great continent. A villager at heart and an urbanite by adoption,” he muffled under a wave of laughter.
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My first “real” question to Paul was finding out what he would tell Elecki if he only had five minutes with her. His response…
“My Smiling Machine, Thanks for being part of my life, thanks for being my other half, for completing my sentences and cracking up my lies before I say them. Thanks for waking me up at midnight to laugh at jokes that we shared during the day. By the way, I still stay up until midnight to catch up on those moments. Thanks for holding me accountable to our religion, our family, our careers and our friends. That I miss terribly. You were the planner for this thinker. Though you left me at the take-off of our lasting union, I am grateful to our creator for allowing us to share our joys, our successes and our shortcomings. I am glad that he opened up our minds to do the unthinkable like discussing our lives after death. Interestingly, I had always shared this with you; it’s either us or nothing… As I sign off, let me know when you arrive and please not a text, call me and tell me umefika…I will be waiting”.
Elecki’s pet name was “Smiling Machine”. Paul’s smiling machine. When Paul talks about her, you see a sparkle in his eye. His facial expression reminded me how he would light up the class during a passionate class debate. He has a glow about things he is passionate about.
One year ago…
It will be exactly one year on August 7, 2017, since Elecki passed on. Paul tells me, for several months after she died, he used to send her MPesa so she could pay their house bills as she used to. “Then I would call Safaricom to cancel the transaction.” He did it twice. Now, Paul laughs about it.
The month of August turned Paul’s life upside down – literally. His well-aligned life plan was scuttled in six days. On a Monday, his fiancé checked into a hospital for what was supposed to be a normal pregnancy check up. Two days later, he and his friends sent out an online appeal for blood to save the life of a woman he had been friends with for more than 15 years. In a split second, things went out of control.
“We lost our babies two days later and three days later I lost the most beautiful woman I had ever met. The once structured man who always had his ducks in a row was now reduced to a speechless, emotionless and visionless being trying to figure out any reasons to continue living.”
From then on, life was like a rollercoaster.
Many things happened during this season of pain. Since Paul had given me Carte blanche, I was now shooting questions from the hip. I was opening the wound, pushing the envelope. I wanted to know EVERYTHING. Everything that he had never told anyone.
For Paul, one of the worst things was how everyone wanted to share their ‘painful experiences’ with him. He found it unnecessary and very annoying at that particular time. From the look on Paul’s face, I could tell he was really pissed off.
Then there were those people who had a manual on how Paul should move on. “It was just too much and unnecessary. Everyone seemed to have an idea of how a ‘young widower’ like me should go about the process of mourning and moving on.” There were those who thought I should immediately get another girlfriend and others thought I should move houses. There were also those who felt I should terminate my relationship with
Others thought he should immediately get another girlfriend. Then others wanted him to move houses. He refused. To date, he still lives in the same house. Elecki’s photos are still mounted on the walls.
The advice came from every corner. There were also those who felt he should terminate his relationship with Elecki’s family. “Too many people had their own version of what they thought was the best remedy, yet it was all too overwhelming for me to take in,” confesses Paul.
Biggest lesson about death
The biggest lesson about death Paul says is the finality that death comes with.
“People should talk about it. If you really love someone, you should be talking about it. Just like you share your dreams, I guess talking about death will help to solidify any wishes. We need to learn how to condole with the bereaved. This business of throwing in those cliché phrases is the worst. You would rather just keep quiet. Positively, the biggest lesson for me was the power of friendship. Without a doubt, a family is the best but when the family is down, friends are the strongest pillars. In Elecki’s death I experienced the miracle of friendship, and one year down the line; they are still walking with us, always popping by to check on me.
When Elecki died, Paul did not talk much about God. Her death moved him closer to God. “It made me discover that I was a child of favour. Nowadays I consult God on literally every decision I make.”
How do you feel when people do not talk about Elecki in your presence? I ask. “I guess someone somewhere told people not to be talking about the dead. Many of our friends come home and you can see them struggling to talk about mundane topics yet deep down you can feel that they would like to reminisce about Elecki. It doesn’t hurt to talk ….. good memories keep me going, talk about her, let’s laugh about her…”
Does Paul plan to get another partner? He says yes, hopefully, one day.
” I have tonnes of counsel from all the possible sources. Some already proposed names as if they were substituting a football player. Others have advised me on the timing. There are those that think I should stay for ages and those that believe that I should do it soonest. Everyone seems to have an idea of the ideal girl for me. I guess when I am ready I will put together a committee of experts to sift through CVs and photos after which I will narrow down on the best three. I will probably date each for a month as I try to get the ultimate partner. Just kidding…”
Dear Elecki, may your beautiful soul rest in peace.