White Coat, Black Art·First person

How faith and family helped CFL player Henoc Muamba cope after losing his mother-in-law to COVID-19

When professional football player Henoc Muamba had his life torn apart by COVID-19, he had to work on his communication and coping skills — and nurturing his many other passions.

With career on hold and baby on the way, the death of a loved one made him re-evaluate his role in the family

Henoc Muamba, shown here with his wife and daughter, lost his mother-in-law after she contracted COVID-19, and had his football career put on hold after the CFL cancelled its 2020 season. (Submitted by Henoc Muamba)

This is a story from White Coat, Black Art's series called Prescription for Resilience: Coping with COVID on the many challenges people are facing during the pandemic, and what they're doing to find resilience.

COVID-19 didn't just disrupt the career of Montreal Alouettes linebacker Henoc Muamba when the CFL cancelled its season, leaving him out of work. The virus also shattered his family, when last June his mother-in-law Elizabeth Tweneboah died at age 66 after contracting the disease.

Tweneboah, who lived in an apartment in the family's Brampton, Ont., home, supported Muamba's wife when he was travelling, and she was the primary caregiver to Muamba's sister-in-law, who has cognitive and physical disabilities.

Muamba and his wife Jessica now find themselves responsible for Jessica's sister, along with their own children — a two-year-old and a baby born in January. The challenges COVID-19 has thrown at the couple have prompted them to reinvent their communication style. 

Muamba shared his story with White Coat, Black Art. Here is part of the conversation.

Muamba says his mother-in-law Elizabeth Tweneboah 'was just a light into the world.' (Submitted by Henoc Muamba)

I always tell my wife, ever since the passing of my mother-in-law, that she had a life well lived.

She was an amazing woman. She was just a light into the world. And she was a hard-working woman, smart, witty, just always a pleasure and great to be around.

The loss of such a tremendous woman changes a lot of dynamics for us. We have our hands full, and we've got to be a lot more calculated making decisions going forward, including in my career.  

My wife and I have had an amazing relationship, and I feel we even grew a lot over this time. We've been able to lean on each other.

Being a family of Christians has helped us: being able to rely on our faith and understand that there is a purpose for even our pain.

We're trying to draw strength, courage and inspiration from the life of my mother-in-law.

Muamba and his wife Jessica have a two-year-old and a baby born in January. (Submitted by Henoc Muamba)

Even when we were going through the initial stages [of grief], it was a huge shock.

Prayer has been key. We're a family of faith, but I'd be lying if I said that because of that simple fact alone, it was easy for us.

It took a hit on our mental aspect, it took a hit on our faith, even.

Community within our own household has been huge, being able to rely on each other. Talking about it openly, that's one of the things we did very well. We weren't really avoiding any topics. We cried, we laughed.

'Vulnerable communication'

One of things we tell people whenever we get asked about the keys to a successful marriage, is that communication is huge.

Muamba says he and his wife have been able to lean on each other through the challenges. (Submitted by Henoc Muamba)

But after going through what we went through, one of the biggest things that we realized is that it's not just communication, but that communication needs to be effective. And for it to be effective, it needs to be vulnerable communication.

There were times where I didn't know what to say, and I put a lot of pressure on myself to always say the right thing and do the right thing, especially because of the life that I've lived.

I get a lot of people asking me for advice, or telling me, "You seem to have a perfect life."

When you continuously hear that, you can think, "This is who I am and I have to do the right things all the time." So when I opened up to my wife about that, a lot of healing took place beyond just the grieving process.

Cancelled CFL season

The absence of football [since the CFL was put on hiatus] has allowed me to touch on various other aspects of my life, to be able to just get really busy.

I do a lot of motivational speaking. I've gone to schools, churches, prisons, you name it. I host my own podcast called Muamba Moments.

New Alouette Hénoc Muamba on his plans for the future

CBC News Montreal

3 years ago
Newly signed linebacker Hénoc Muamba is returning to Montreal after a short stint in 2015 after signing a 3-year deal with the Alouettes. 1:02

I have a bunch of different programs that I'm developing, a mentorship program, a leadership program, as well as a stress and coping program. And then I have a foundation that I'm also developing right now.

As someone who was born in Africa and grew up in Canada, I've always wanted to do work back home in the Congo.

Identity is huge because it's important to be able to separate what you do from who you are.- Henoc Muamba

When football was around, it was harder for me to get deeply involved. And so I took the situation of a prolonged off-season for what it was, and I just got busy with the things that I'm passionate about. 

One of the things I always talk about whenever I speak is identity. Identity is huge because it's important to be able to separate what you do from who you are. When you're able to do that, whenever what you do is not present — for whatever reason there might be, and especially for something like a pandemic that nobody can ever predict — it doesn't destroy you.

Written by Paul Gallant. Produced by Rachel Sanders.

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