LIVE BY DESIGN | The daughters of Lynne Forbes are grieving – curb your judgement

Brittany Smith, AKA's mom Lynn Forbes and Nadia Nakai at a media briefing at Rockets Bryanston on 14 February 2023 in Johannesburg

A picture of Kairo Forbes flanked by her mother, DJ Zinhle, and her late father’s girlfriend, Nadia Nakai, popped up on my Instagram timeline this week. The photo posted by Nadia was snapped at an event celebrating her magazine cover shoot. Seeing these accomplished and strong women in Kairo’s life has been touching.

Ever since the murder of rapper AKA was captured on camera outside the Wish restaurant in Durban three months ago, they have not had any privacy – their trauma and response to the loss have been in the public eye.

Their emotional display of grief over the death of AKA garnered a mix of sympathy and criticism from South Africans. Some praised them for being open about their emotions and expressing their love for the late rapper, while others criticised them.

The photo has since been re-posted on other social platforms, where the two have been viewed with suspicion. Some are asking Nakai to move on, while others are accusing DJ Zinhle of disrespecting her husband and undermining him and her in-laws.

Double Standards – The Social Regulation of Grief

Criticism over how people grieve is common. According to Martha R Fowlkes’ paper, “The Social Regulation of Grief”, in Sociological Forum, grief is not just a personal and private experience but is socially regulated and influenced by cultural norms, beliefs, and rituals. There is also evidence to suggest women are often judged more harshly for their grieving process than men.

One study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that women who openly express their grief are viewed more negatively than men who do the same. They are seen as weak and overly emotional, while men who exhibit the same behaviour may be considered strong and stoic.

I’ve followed DJ Zinhle and Nadia as they grieve. I have felt that they have been subjected to society’s double-standard judgement while grieving in a way that feels authentic to them. They’ve been subjected to public shaming. When Zinhle, for example, wore trousers when she visited AKA’s home to pay her respects, she was heavily criticised. People ripped her apart with comments about the inappropriateness of her attire – citing culture as their reference point. In contrast, the commentary was less harsh when AKA’s father chose to wear shorts and a short-sleeved shirt.

“Grief is as unique as our fingerprints” – curb the judgement.

The National Institute of Health posits that grief is different for every person and every loss, and judging or labelling a person’s grief can be damaging, especially during early bereavement. Those who have lost loved ones and witnessed other peoples’ grief recognise that everyone copes with grief differently, and there is no right and wrong way to express it. While some people may prefer to grieve privately, others find comfort in sharing their experiences.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, my colleague Helena and I signed up for a 10-week online programme on grief work. David Kessler was the course designer and convener. He’s acclaimed in our circles as the protégé of the renowned Elisabeth Kübler Ross, the Swiss-American psychiatrist who transposed her research on terminally ill patients’ responses to dying into designing a stage theory for grief. The stage theories attract critique and support. Our key takeaway from the programme was not the stage theory but, more importantly: “What is it that grieving people most need to support them at this time of their deep emotional pain?”

  • Grieving people need witness and acknowledgement of their grief.
  • Grieving people need support, not judgment.
  • Grieving people are emotionally off-kilter and may not behave especially well, but compassion rather than judgment will serve everyone better in the longer run.
  • Grief is as unique as a fingerprint.

This week Ed Sheeran, Grammy winner, wrote of the roller coaster he went through last year. In February 2022, his pregnant wife was diagnosed with cancer, and he also buried his close friend Jamal Edwards. He said: “I’d never been to a burial. Suddenly, someone hands you a shovel, and then suddenly, you’re putting dirt on your mate’s grave, and it’s very, like, real. It’s very real.”

He described his grief as being “in a kinda chaotic storm where you’re just trying to stay level. Like, I hadn’t really grown up until I felt grief. Loss – it just took over my life.”

Lynne Forbes’ daughters are grieving, and it is admirable to see these women come together and support each other through their collective loss. Compassion, not judgement, is the higher road for us as a society.

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