What you are about to read are stories of two people talking about grief. Due to the morbid nature of this topic, one does not get to talk about it as often as they should. When we talk about it with others who have not yet experienced it, it’s a cause for discomfort and glances of concern, all wide-eyed with a soft voice. We don’t need that, we just need to be able to talk about it without it becoming an elephant in the room. This is the premise that started Akbar off on his project, #talkaboutit, to campaign for mental health and to encourage people to share what they are going through.
What follows is an exchange beyond the pleasantries; it gets right into the meat of the conversation from the moment we sit down for a cuppa. In the interest of context, I lost my father last year, very suddenly. He was perfectly healthy and then he was gone, it took him a mere 24 hours from suffering a brain haemorrhage to being pronounced brain dead. Akbar lost his sister in 2014 after a two year battle with cancer, she was only 31 years old leaving her two little ones for us to try to explain the finality of death. We want you to read it in as personal a manner as we tried to talk about it. Thus, we are presenting this as a conversation between two people and how it slowly unraveled to below skin-deep, rooted sensitive and vulnerable realities. We start the stories with Khadija.
I have been dreaming about my father a lot lately- depending on my mental state they sometimes become a way to remind myself that he is gone and that is it. Dealing with my grief is an everyday battle: I can throw myself into work or I can be doing the things I am most passionate about, but I always come full circle to the realization that my father is only alive in my memories. I convince myself of it enough for my brain to actually generate that thought into a dream. It is the only place I meet him anymore. The latest I dreamt was that I was getting everything sorted to file my taxes and my father ‘came back to life’ and asked me why I was worried. So, I explained it to him and all he said was that I need not worry as he was back.
You are probably dealing with this a lot better than me, then. I mean time was, for you I guess it has been a year, or is it two, right? For me its going on to about 4 years. But I still have absolutely no acceptance within me that she’s gone. It just gives the safe comfort that she’s away, at her place or just chilling somewhere. Who knows maybe, heaven becomes such a solid concept that you are cool with your sister hanging around there.
But what you really have to come to terms with, is the finality of it all. And the conclusion that there is no more to do in her life. I had so many plans for her. I’d help her set up her boutique clothing line and then get her sorted with my other friends in fashion. She’d be huge, and so on. I never told her about these plans as she started her little clothing brand for brides. I kept waiting that I’d surprise her with it all. And now they are just over. I can’t even say that I’m just waiting for the right time to put them down. There is no time now. It’s just such a permanent door. It won’t budge or open.
Everyone said that, time heals or some such lovely anecdote. But you know what I realized. I’ve been talking to the wrong people. Now by that I don’t mean that the people who are there for me mentally to help and support me do not mean well for me. Or that they are not the most amazing people for putting up with me for all these years. I mean that as humans, we all try to relate or empathize with what others go through. It’s a natural attempt. Then we even try to correlate it to our own experiences and try to find the best analogies to understand someone and help them.
Yet, for some things, it is not enough. You need to have gone through it. You know I have gone through the same loss, or similar loss of a loved one in the family so you share that, right? But the fact is, if I had started talking about it with others, they would have become automatically uncomfortable or wary of the subject. Because I am talking about death. And that makes people uncomfortable. They can try to listen to you and be there for you. But I don’t think its fair to them. So I stopped talking to everybody. I couldn’t deal with the face they made when I tried to talk about it. They didn’t want to hear it. So I just stopped talking about it for the longest time.
It’s been a slow realization of the same for me: death makes everyone uncomfortable. Most days I am angry and I carry on my days lashing out and being negative. Sometimes it subsides. But mostly it lingers onto every emotion I express. Every thought in my head. Every word that leaves my mouth. I completely get what you mean about talking to the right people. I did that initially but did myself the favour of closing myself off and just giving myself some time to grieve as much as I could in that moment, whether it was bursting into tears whilst cooking food or just coming back to my flat and throwing my shoes off into the other room in anger.
Then I thought of talking to a friend who lost his father a few months before I lost mine. It was the easiest conversation I had without over explaining. My worst fear was realized some 18 months 7 days ago, anything ‘bad’ that happens after that, I am prepared. It’s a negative place to draw strength from but I need everything I can muster to keep on going.
The other day, I think around a week ago. My niece sent me a snap, she was at my sister (her aunt’s) grave. She said I think that this was the first time she had been there or had come to her grave. I didn’t dig deeper into it. Knowing her, I figured that before she just couldn’t work up, maybe the courage, the strength or whatever much you need, to visit her grave and realize what it means. In contrast, I visit her grave regularly and I just stone up.
Sometimes I worry over whether or not I feel anything. Unlike you, I didn’t take the time to grieve. I just left for Istanbul and drowned myself in a different culture and ended up reinventing myself, possibly highly influenced by what she left me with. But I would find, periodically, I would just break then think I’m fine, then break again. It was infuriating to think that I was/am such an unstable wreck.
I know what you mean about visiting the cemetery. When I moved back from London, I would go to my fathers’ grave 3 days a week, clean it myself, water the plants, but it didn’t help. I started going less and less where now I only go once a month. It doesn’t feel like his grave. It has become somewhat mechanical. So many others share his final resting place, it doesn’t feel like I’m there to only see him, you know?
You know I heard a podcast by BBC on death cafes. They are meetings between people who have suffered the loss of a loved one, where they bare their souls. They talk about it freely without judgment or the risk of being labeled unstable or emotional. I thought something like this might work for Pakistan. But I don’t know how we can get people to talking about grief, without the fear of judgment in any way or form, no change of expression, no peculiar look or the look of helplessness so many people have once they realize you are lost because you lost someone you loved beyond words, actions and more. They don’t know how to help you and you end up feeling bad for sharing that feeling.
So I met this guy in Islamabad- his name is Saad, a freelance writer and a hippy and we became friends. Everyday we used to sit and talk for a bit, so one day I told him that I was trying to get used to being home again after my masters; home being Lahore. I couldn’t stomach for too long so I shifted to Islamabad to breathe again. As I do with everyone, I tested the waters and told him that I’ve been going through a rough phase for the past couple of years because I lost my sister, and getting some manner of peace in my life after that is taking its time. Now to my distinct pleasure, instead of making the face I have gotten used to, he immediately chimed in that he got it. He had lost his parents as well so we both nodded to the truth that it takes time.
I dared to venture further and ask about his story. He lost his mother at the age of 11 and hid dad when he was 18. That blew me away for a while, because there were two ways to understand, one was that it had been so long, so he was obviously over it. And two, was that he had been living with his loss for the past twenty odd years. I asked him if he was doing ok. And at that moment I knew the answer to my question as the guy made a face, then said, yeah he’s ok. I waited. I asked him again. Because I told him, I sure wasn’t okay and would like to know how to be. Then his face dropped and he said, he had no idea. We all have the defence mechanism in place to keep pretending about this.
But all we are doing with this pretense is delaying the inevitable moment where we can finally say, we need help. Saad did, and since then I have been hearing his stories and struggles, he has been hearing mine. And he told me the crucial problem which lies at the core of my inspiration to do something about this. The guy had been living like this for years and no one had really sought to understand or just let him talk about it. Which is all we did, we just let it flow. And years of shells, of defenses, of layers, just started coming off his persona and we got down to the bare naked soul. This was a reflection into what my soul looked like as well, if I ever dared to look into it. This needs to be sorted. I need help. And I think you do too. And more than that, I think we need the right kind of help.
I have a campaign in mind that is, hopefully, part of a bigger drive to address all this. We’ve been working for the past few months to put together a list of specialists (therapists, psychologists, etc) who can give professional advice on these matters. Alongside this, we are working on putting together a community of people who can provide the sort of support that your podcast talked about. We can subdivide this into micro groups: grief; physical abuse; bullying; trauma; betrayal; sexual abuse and so on. It allows people to connect with others on the particular issue that they are dealing with.
Having professionals on board would help people figure out what all they are dealing with and since its more cathartic to talk to someone who has been through the motions of a particular trauma, the support groups will provide additional support. Socially and personally, no one wants to be the person admitting that they go to therapy. This needs to change, but it wont change overnight and obviously we’ll try to make it happen. But that’s where some of the direction to the project changed too. Instead of just recommending people to therapy, we can start putting together activities and events all over, which are proven to be therapeutic. Talking about grief is imperative.
We can use various mediums such as dance, music, cooking, drum circles and others as a gateway to therapy. There is a balance between saying to someone, you need help, please get help to inviting someone to your cooking sessions and helping them share their stories with you. Because that’s what I want. Stories. That’s what I want #talkaboutit to be. For people to not feel like they’re alone with themselves.
We would like to invite people to share their stories. Technology has contributed to our current state; we are constantly connected to everyone yet there is so much loneliness, so much isolation and all who suffer, suffer alone. Wouldn’t it be amazing if we could somehow shine a light on that darkness. I think its worth it. Lets do it. Let’s #talkaboutit