My first experience with grief and loss came when my Grandma gave me up at the age of nine. I had lived with my Grandparents since birth and had a strong bond with my Grandparents.  Although he died when I was barely nine months old, it’s phenomenal that I can remember him. We had a close bond. As a newborn baby, he was terminally ill with stomach cancer, and I offered him the last pleasure on earth. When he could not sleep at night and wander around the house, I became restless in my cot. In my mind’s eye, I see his thick white beard, and in my heart, I hear his deep voice.

 Grandma and my parents told me the story of a specific day before his death when he called the pastor, a lawyer friend of his, Grandma and my parents.

 He first heard from his friend, “What’s Joey’s address?” Joey was a deceased acquaintance or family member buried in Walvis Bay’s cemetery. Grandpa discussed his grave plot next to Joey’s. He knew that his time on earth was coming to an end.

 He then made a verbal contract with everyone. He reasoned that Mom and Dad had each other but that Grandma would be left alone. Therefore, it would be to everyone’s advantage if Grandma raised me. So, I stayed with my Grandmother for the first nine years of my life.

I shared my Grandma’s bed with her and slept snug next to her every night for the first nine years of my life. She made a big can of coffee every night, and at eight o’clock, we sat in bed, ate rusks and listened to the news. Then she read the Bible to us and prayed for all her grandchildren and great-grandchildren. She always said, “Father, You know them all by name; You know their needs and fears.” She faithfully interceded for everyone every night.

 My Grandmother’s house was warm and cosy. The living room was always impeccably clean; all the furniture was shiny and polished. We only went in there when someone came to visit. The kitchen was always hot, and something was always boiling on the stove. In Grandma’s bedroom were a very nice big wooden bed and nice cupboards.

 I went home after my ninth birthday. The reasons given for that disruption were but faint. Nevertheless, Grandma had to put me on the overnight train from Walvis Bay to Windhoek.

It was still very safe in those years, and the conductor on duty knew my father. My Father was also a train conductor in then South West Africa. I shared a compartment with an old lady, and the conductor gave me a packet of jelly sweets the next morning when the train entered Windhoek station.

I arrived at my parent’s empty house early one morning. It was sparsely furnished. A very unsightly, blood-red, semicircular sofa stood a little lonely in the living room, with only a record player on the opposite wall as company. At that point in my life, it was undoubtedly the ugliest couch I had ever seen. The floors were bare, dull wood floors, and the house was cold, even though Windhoek had a very hot African climate. There was a display case with a few ornaments we had to dust off once a week and rub shiny.

In the rooms were three-quarters of steel beds that we had to share. My sister and I slept together, and the two boys slept together. The yard was full of fruit trees and broken carts.

 My sister was three, and my two brothers were five and seven. They were strangers to me, and I soon had to get used to sharing my toys. I had twenty-four dolls, and they were all very special. It did not take long for the three-year-old ‘Missy’ to mistreat them and seize them. As with all my possessions. Because of the age gap, we never really got to know each other.

I was a hesitant heroine. I had to help raise my sister and siblings.

 My mother cried a lot. Nothing was good enough for her. It was relentless moaning and complaining. Everything was too much for her to handle. During the day, she was too tired to get up and clean the house. At night she walked until late at night and complained that she could not get the house clean. She complained because my dad’s family constantly came to unpack with us. She always fought with my Father. He was pretty patient, but she was so stubborn that he eventually fought back. Then he sometimes hit her. Blue eye. Broken mouth.

 The neighbors could hear the fighting. We usually fled, but you could hear them fighting three or four houses far down the road. It was so humiliating. We just made sure we were as far away from home as possible.

The school clothes were the most difficult. I had to wash our clothes, hang them out to dry, and iron them. My school dress had flat pleats, and it took hours to iron nicely. Old brother always wanted to have the front seam on his long pants precisely straight.

 Then there was cooking or cutting and smearing bread. Mostly just with butter. Four slices for each person. There were six of us. Then there was Dad’s work bread. A whole one because he worked long shifts on the train. He was sometimes away for two days. Every day after school, Ouboet’s job was to walk about four kilometres to the nearest Portuguese shop to buy three loaves of bread. Sometimes I walked along. My older brother was probably only six years old when he started walking to the shop daily to buy bread.

 Luckily there were always friends. Especially when my dad went to work; he worked shifts and was often away. In those years, children could still play in the streets until dark, and we were more at our friends’ houses than at our own. Mom cried a lot. So, when Daddy’s gone to work, we hit the road.

 Mom was sick. She was a “nervous sufferer”, according to the description at the time. She did not have it easy. She was born with weak lungs and was already ill at birth. Then, at four, she contracted blackwater fever (a complication due to malaria). She was in a coma for four days, and her heart stopped. Grandpa mourned deeply over her. After she was already wrapped in a death robe, he prayed over her lifeless body.

My Grandma told the story of her revival: “There was a sudden kick.” With great joy, they received her back from the dead.

 However, she did not escape the scars from it. She acquired a brain injury, and her vision, as well as her hearing, were impaired. Her one eye was completely squinting. However, as the youngest daughter in a large family, she was loved and cared for and never lacked anything. With her older brothers and sisters who were already working with young people with their own families, she grew up in a very protected environment.

 She left school early and later helped at her brother’s bakery as a young girl. There in the shop, she met Dad. He worked on the roads and was from a simple Namaqualand family. When they started dating, Mom’s siblings were opposed to their relationship. They finally got married because of Grandpa’s support and blessing. Realistically speaking, Mom could not get a better husband than Dad. She would not be able to marry in “her class” because she would not be able to compete with someone wealthier or more educated.

 However, it was a hell of an adjustment for Mom, and she could never fully understand why she could no longer have the comfort and convenience she knew as a young girl. Due to her limitations, her struggle to adjust and accept her fate, and certainly also due to the brain damage, she struggled with bipolar depression and hyperactivity. She was very bad, and because it was still an unknown condition at the time, she was even classified as crazy.

This is how I came to live with my Grandparents.  After Mom and Dad got married, they moved into a house next to my Grandparents. Grandma cared for Mum and Dad when I was born, so it was the logical thing to do for me to go and live with my Grandparents.

During my primary school years, after living with my parents, I not only grieve for my Granma, I grieve for the loss of her home, my home. I grieve losing my childhood and being forced into becoming an adult at ten years old. I grieved for food, shelter and love. 

As I got older, I realized that my experience with grief and loss was not limited to my grandfather’s passing. I had lost my entire childhood and the sense of security that came with it. My parents’ constant fighting and my mother’s emotional instability made me feel like I was walking on eggshells all the time. I never knew what kind of mood she would be in, and it was exhausting trying to keep her happy.

Despite all of this, I am grateful for my experiences because they have made me stronger and more resilient. I learned how to take care of myself and my siblings at a young age, and I developed a strong sense of independence. I also learned that family is not just defined by blood but by the people who love and support you.

In the end, I made peace with my past and decided to use my experiences to help others who have gone through similar situations. I became a counselor and have dedicated my life to helping children and families navigate the complex emotions that come with loss and trauma. It has been a challenging but rewarding journey, and I am proud of the person I have become.