“Death doesn’t end relationships, it changes them”– Megan Devine
Love, grief and the endless cost of love.
Although I am not an expert in grief, I know how life looked before and after it . Drawing on Megan Devine’s remarkable book It’s OK that you’re Not Ok: Meeting Grief and Loss in a Culture That Doesn’t Understand, these are my own reflections five years after losing my Grandfather (Dad/Aba’Jee).
A year of writing passionately and personally, 2020 has been truly unprecedented. I still find myself coming to terms with the privilege of platforms. Today I wanted to write from the heart about something, and more specifically someone close to my heart. It has taken five years to find the strength to write this piece. After spending a lifetime of trying to articulate emotions into words, grief continued to give me writers block. Sometimes words can’t do our feelings any justice, sometimes they can for others. I just hope it finds a fellow griever.
November 15th is a day that I will never forget. As a child, I loved the month of November as winter dawned upon us, as did Christmas. November 2015 changed my entire outlook. There was me, starting my PGCE placement in rural Northamptonshire. I rocked by usual check shirt, knitted-tie and Dr Marten combination. It was time to shine. Preparation, planning and the route to work all mapped out. On Friday November 13th, I received a phone call that I still recall word-for-word. Trembling with fear, I got straight into the car and hastily arrived at the family home which itself felt eerily different. My Grandad had been taken to hospital that morning and the regrets began to flood in. We always shook hands before bed, the night before I had forgotten. So much was said and unsaid. Little did I know that by Sunday he would be taking his last breath in front of me. All of a sudden the world appeared to be a colder place. No one could conceptualise how I felt, many I still consider as close still don’t understand how I feel the rawness of my loss five years on. The trauma of watching someone you love die never disappears. November was never the same again. I was never the same again. It is on anniversaries in particular that social and emotional norms just melt into thin air. Grief is so isolating, lonely and we are often left wondering “am I the only one feeling this way?” Although five years have passed, I still miss you like it was yesterday.
Before losing Dad I had attended dozens of funerals. In the Muslim community, we tend to have a prayer at the Mosque before the person who has passed away is laid to rest. This is often a final opportunity for others to console the family, see the face of the deceased and gather in unity. These moments evoke such powerful and raw emotions but prior to Dad passing away, I would shut them down. I could, and in hindsight I will say it was arrogance and immaturity. I still recall a distant relative dying and I was unmoved. This was an uncertainty, a world that contradicted my happy-go-lucky nature. It went against the normalities and checklists we set ourselves. Any outward expression of emotion that did not neatly fit into society’s expectation, it tends to be negated. You see, hurt changes people. Grief pushes us into a corner but we don’t decide when we can leave that corner.
There remains a paradox. We are either deemed “brave” if we talk about those who have left us or “negative” for holding conversation about our losses. In order for us to appreciate the finer things in life, acknowledging the existence of what causes us pain is a key part of this process. It isn’t bravery, it is basic human emotion – the type that remains misunderstood and badly misjudged. One of the kindest compliments I received is “Shuaib, you express your feeling so well.” I don’t. With grief, just like the rest of us, I am milling around in the dark, I still need guidance and I am lost without Dad. Grief is a bit like a left over meal. It is there, we were able to arbitrarily dip in and out of it but even if we throw it away, that does not deny its existence. I tried so hard to put my grief into some type of petri dish, scientifically and rationally dissect this emotion I had once never come to terms with. Even selecting the words, images and title for this piece was so exhausting. Deciding exactly when to publish it too was beyond difficult. How can I do grief any justice in just one blog?
At various points in my journey, I was told to research the Stages of Grief model which did not comply with how I was feeling. Kind of like a one-size-fits-all lesson plan, it did not differentiate and cater for my needs. In her later years, the founder of this Stages of Grief model, Elisabeth Kübler-Ross regretted ever writing the stages and did not want it to be the universal veneer from which loss is conceptualised. Grief cannot be pigeon-holed, it isn’t predictable and no two people grieve in the same way. When we homogenise the personal lived experiences of others, we oversimplify and thus misunderstand individual stories. Grief is, as Megan Devine tells us, incredibly misunderstood. The emotional illiteracy surrounding loss is pushing those who are grieving further away, trapping them into corners and creating an emotional distance at a time where they need to know someone is there beside them.
Why do you call him ‘Dad’?
In the South-Asian community and I’ll be careful not to stereotype, as a rule of thumb, the extended nuclear family is the norm. Grandparents hold a special and significant place in the family home. Growing up, everyone from aunties to uncles called my Grandad ‘Dad’. So, as his grandson, it fitted, it matched his position and given his place in my heart, being someone’s ‘Dad’ means something. He meant something. So, when I often refer to my Grandad, I, for my own personal reasons, call him ‘Dad’. He never liked the name/tag ‘Grandad’ anyway!
I don’t think words can do him justice. He was well built man with such strength. As children, we would sit in awe of him doing DIY and bragged that someday we would muscles the same size as his. Dad was simple, shy, humble and kind. He didn’t have the opportunity to go to school, he lost his father when he was just 10 or 12. After years of working in markets in our native Kashmir, he moved to Britain to build a better life from himself and his family back home. To this day I don’t for one second believe he ever wanted to settle here but it happened. A fiercely friendly and jovial man, he gave my siblings and I the most wonderful childhood. He used his pension to pay for my first car. Dad used to shop for our neighbours, check up on vulnerable members of our community and, always had a new joke to match his beautiful smile. We knew him as ‘Dad’ but everyone else called him ‘Hajji’. This is the highest rank in the community. His simplicity was his sophistication. His kindness was his USP. The slow-walking, Punjabi-talking, Dad loved his sweet dishes. If there was cake, Dad was there! Clutching onto his Afghan scarf, he owned few positions but wore his heart on his sleeve. If he spoke, you listened. He said it like it is, never sugar-coated the facts and the outpouring of emotion when he died was so moving. was Above all else, he loved his family.
He was the first to hold me as a newborn baby. Grandma said, “he delayed his retirement because he found a new love – his grandsons.” Of course, the magnitude of all his sacrifices I was unaware of until he left us. I never got the chance to say, thank you. There was no fairy-tale ending but I take some peace in the fact he was around his family as his time drew near. Ultimately he preached the notion of having a ‘small circle but a big heart’. This is now my motto. Dad also once said, ”we are all one misfortune from losing everything we have. If you can’t help, don’t ridicule others.”
Between us, I know 15/11/15 is not our last meeting. So much has changed but my love for you hasn’t died, it grew stronger with distance which is one of the saddest contradictions of loss. The unbreakable bond we shared has left me with unconditional grief. We will see each other again, Insha’Allah. I love you. May the Almighty grant you the highest place in Jannath ul’Firdous. Ameen.
Five years, six lessons.
Five years is a long time but also nothing compared to the lifetime of joy, happiness, love and challenges I saw with Dad. I have six non-exhaustive points of reflection. Don’t get me wrong, grief is crippling. It punctures your heart and hold no prisoners. Managing that grief is what is key for us grievers. For me, no one comes out the other end of their grief journey the same but how can they? And also, why should they? It’s ok to miss someone who gave you so much to remember. It’s ok that’s it’s not ok.
Grief illiteracy is real.
We don’t live in a grief-literate culture. It is that simple. Grief is made to feel like a burden, something we should feel guilty for expressing. Grief is threatening. Even when we are meant to be ‘throwing kindness around like it’s confetti’, society is not sensitive to loss. Grief is a universal emotion, it is not spoken about universally. I do not believe this is specific to Britain but loss that remains a taboo, a conversation that is rarely aired and those who dare to openly share their experiences are often shouted down, dismissed or labelled as “negative.” This is because, not only do people not understand the gravity of your loss, but they are also never taught how to either. Grief is not something that is taught in schools, but rather it is a lesson that is learnt through the most heart-breaking experience. I recall group counselling sessions where I would try my best to revel and understand the grief of others but I could not. I could not see the “bigger picture” because I was consumed with my own emotions. Again, we don’t live in a grief literate culture because in a time of instantaneous communications, the veneer of “keep calm and carry on” remains as prevalent as ever. Grief is threatening. It challenges the rather banal expectations that we have a “stiff upper lip.” Even during my most basic interactions, grief would be written all over my face but very few people could read these tacit codes. Those who could, they understood and a mutual understanding of our losses connected us in such a significant way. To those who are grieving, we don’t know much different. These are such personal emotions that only a handful of people can approach in a sensitive manner. Not everyone will understand your grief and that is ok too. However, those who do remind is it’s safe to talk about someone who is gone, these people do exist, they are incredible and they have felt pain just like you.
Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief
When Dad died, I had to tell everyone. I would slip it into every conversation. The whole world needed to know his name. I would tear up easily and share personal information about Dad to anyone who spared an ear. I wore the pieces of my shattered heart on my sleeve. Revealing a broken heart does not mean your audience can piece it back together. No tannoy announcement was going to bring Dad back but I didn’t care! The world was my campsite, I wanted everyone to sit around the fire and listen to me tell them how much I missed my Dad. I knew the world could not feel my hurt which pushed me further away from others. I was desperate find someone who felt the same way. Someone else who had lost someone they loved more than themselves. I would search far and wide for every opening to drop in, “My Dad passed away.” This was often met with side-ways looks and silence. You see, not everyone has the emotional competence to understand your grief and that is ok too. When we lose someone we love, we are looking for an open heart and a kind ear to listen rather than clichèd Pinterest quotes to be read aloud to us or pinged to us via WhatsApp. I was abhorred when a fellow PGCE student told me she had gone out partying the day after her Dad had died. “How could she?” continued to play on my mind. That is how she dealt with her own grief. We are all different and all of us feel things differently but not everyone can just ‘get’ grief. It is a personalised lived experience. You cannot get anyone to feel your grief with you because just like our victories and our loses, there are our own. With grief, everyone cares and then no one cares. You go from being surrounded by fellow mourners to being alone. These days I rarely ever share personal memories or stories about Dad because I am still trying to make sense of his life and legacy. This was always my own loss and only until I realised that I must begin a new chapter without someone who I could never image even beginning a new book with – that is when it dawned upon me. My Dad was a special, kind and loving soul. No words could do his memory justice and that’s ok too so long as lives on in the hearts of those he inspired. Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief as the right ones, they will listen carefully and support unconditionally. These people do exist, trust me. It’s finding them, that’s the hard part.
It comes in waves
Grief does come in waves. Some days we are swimming merrily against the tide and on others, we are drowning. As loss is so personal, we never truly know how others feel, their anxieties, fears, insecurities and challenges. I still remember having a fantastic day at work where I had taught well and left with a huge smile of satisfaction on my face. On the drive home it would hit me that I could not share my successes with Dad. Other days I would visit the local Mosque and purely at random, I would glance back and I would feel his presence. I feel it when I pray and thus praying attains more emotional significance. The waves of grief can come in all forms and sizes. Some days we are surfing brilliantly, other days we are a shipwreck. I found it impossible not to look at photos, find new cues and spot something different each time I saw something with Dad in it. I asked neighbours, friends and everyone if they had any photos or family videos, I just wanted to see my Dad. I wanted to know what others thought of him to help validate my own views and place myself in his shoes. I was obsessed. Then there would come days I would just process losing him in my own quiet way. When Dad died, I was shipwrecked, I was drowning in a combination of heartbreak, regret, guilt, sadness and shock. Five years on, I still feel those emotions but his memory and all that floats around me, be they photos, letters, memoirs or stories, they float around me, giving me hope that this is just another wave. Although I hang onto a piece of that wreckage from that shipwreck, keeping my head above the water every time is a reminder to me that there is so much more living to do and so much still to honour.
The quotes and clichés
- “I can’t image how you must be feeling.”
- “Everything happens for a reason.”
- “They are in a better place now.”
- “It gets easier with time.”
All four of these messages were sent to me hours after Dad passed away. My eyes were blurry, my heart was heavy and my memory was hazy. Till this day I still failed to understand what those four messages meant. These were awfully reductive things to say to someone who had watched someone they loved pass away. I felt helpless as Dad died in my arms and as the family read prayers. I was in a state of shock. The most powerful person I ever knew was dying and there was not a thing I could do to stop it. When people began to send me quotes too, I got frustrated as they all had some tangible form of progress in them. I didn’t feel like I was making progress, the clichés weren’t working. These quotes were white noise and escapism for others to not fully understand the enormity of my loss. They were a neutral position. All I could think was “How can anyone be neutral? Why won’t you listen?” Again, not everyone can understand your grief which is ok, they aren’t expected too. Until you have felt the full gravity of a loss, you can never understand what grief is, let alone how to console a griever. You will find your own way and naturally gravitate towards those who understand. In Islam, we do firmly believe that this life is a test and that we shall all someday return to our creator. I continue to draw strength in my faith and with the current pandemic, I wonder if Dad, who was the most sociable person ever, could have coped with lockdowns or the incompetence of the government. Hindsight is a beautiful thing and I was thinking selfishly. I wanted more time with him but I had 23 years living under his loving guidance. Some people don’t ever have someone who loves them as unconditionally as Dad loved me. My grief still exists but we must remember that love is not measured by time, it is measured in moments. Those tangible accomplishments we all look for may not exist but spending time to mend your heart and gain peace of mind rarely attracts outward expressions. Again, that is ok. Keep healing, loving and mending.
Loss helps us connect
This sounds like an oxymoron, right? Grief connects broken hearts. When Dad died, part of me also left this world. Our connection was always powerful, moving and strong. Along the way I found that people could not comprehend the complexity of how I felt. Many joined my journey and then left but that is ok too. Losing Dad broke my exterior walls of resistant which cemented together by a combination of toxic masculinity and inexperience. This grief journey enables me to spot a fellow griever from a mile off which is unique gift. We carry the weight of our experiences everywhere we go. In essence, everyone has emotional baggage. It is just the case that some carry it better than others, whereas some struggle with their load. We all have baggage. The early weeks after Dad died, the messages from friends and colleagues stopped. There was an eerie feeling that I had somehow “snapped out of” my grief and everything could go back to normal. These friends and colleagues never once asked how I felt after the initial few days. For them, my episode of grief had ended but for me, the journey only just began. I’ve met people who I have really liked but when we talk about families, the awkward silence begins when I refer to Dad. Our stories are very powerful, they can move mountains. Making connections is not about suppressing who we are but rather embracing ourselves, our feelings and yes, our grief. Grief sits with us at the table and that is ok too. Loss does help us connect and reconnect with ourselves and others. We find commonalities with others through our loss, strike up conversations with fellow grievers and this helps us on our own journey. I remember reading Rio Ferdinand’s Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief and Being Mum & Dad. Rio was an absolute monster on the football pitch. Fearless, brave, resilient, I could go on. Rio lost his wife, Rebecca, to cancer and struggled badly. Just reading his own account of grief, I could resonate, understand and empathise. Losing someone creates such a terrible pain and huge hole in our lives but also changes our outlook on life. I found myself connecting with others, with myself and my beliefs, all of which are very much a work in progress. With all the dark days where we struggle to get out of bed, and I can assure you there are many of them, loss softens the heart. I find it impossible to understand why Dad was so kind to those who openly disrespected him but I now I know. He once said, “the dogs pass on by but there will always be places for the humans, always.” The tragic beauty of losing someone we love is we only appreciate their existence when they are no longer with us. It’s what we do when they are gone and the connections we make in their honour, those last an eternity.
Self-care is everything
As Megan Devine reminds us, grief is not merely emotional or psychological, it is also biological and physiological also. Weeks and months after Dad died, I found myself unable to sleep or eat. Grief attacks your immune system, appetite and the feeling of loss is tiring, exhausting even. Our personal and professional relationships suffer. Although I could no longer see Dad, hear his voice or speak to him, the true connection with those we love never dies. Our loved one may have passed away but we are still here. A griever tends to punish themselves and live in a world of self-denial, regret, heartbreak or a combination of all of these. I wouldn’t laugh too loud or smile too hard because I thought Dad wasn’t there to laugh or smile, so why should I? It is so consuming because when we deny ourselves the subtle joys of life, we lose so much. Dad would always smile and laugh, always. Simply dropping these traits like a bad habit did not honour him in any way. Such is grief and the juxtaposition of emotions it brings. It is unfair. It is shit. Life can feel as though it is stuck in reverse, that everyone else has “moved on” but you are still struggling. Self-care cannot be corporate packaged or purchased off a shelf. It is not something you can gaze at through a shop window. Self-care is personal, it requires reflection and individualised attention for our basic physical, emotional, psychological and spiritual needs. When you are grieving, recovery and self-care is not about just moving on or part-taking in middle-class pastimes like Yoga. Everyone heals in their own time, we must always remember that. Recovery and self-care are thus so important. Recovery is about learning to accept and understand exactly what grief is. In our often emotionless transactional society, we are taught a “stiff upper lip” or to “keep calm and carry on” is the veneer required to address our problems. When you someone close dies, we forget to eat, shower, take care of our basic needs and I often found myself so emotionally exhausted. We neglect our basic needs, often creating a hierarchy of these needs. What we really want is to ask more questions, learn more about the ones who have died and just more time with them. Grief can do this and self-care is so important in helping us find proactive steps to heal. Whatever works for you, I pray you find it. Self-care is so important and the ones we have lost would never want to see us suffer. Please look after yourself.
Megan Devine reminds us that we cannot fix grief but we can listen right here, right now. No matter who the author is, everyone has their own story to tell about loss but words have finite stages, grief doesn’t. Our grief never fully heals as when a heart is broken, it’s pieces cannot be placed back together in the original form. Instead, those pieces settle in new places and that is ok too. I just hope society begins to see grief as any other wound that needs tending to. No one chose to be a griever, loss chooses us, often at the most unexpected times.
My sincerest apologies that I have not provided any practical steps forwards but we are all making these painful strides to heal. When I hear of people losing loved ones or watching funerals via Zoom, it’s heart-breaking. I can’t give you answers amidst your pain, what I can offer if a smile amidst the rain. With this pandemic also, my heart goes out to anyone who has lost someone they love. Although I can’t provide you the answers to your grief, I can signpost you to help and lend an ear. Ultimately, when I get flashbacks of that cold November day, that’s all I ever wanted too. Someone to listen, to be patient, to remind me it was ok to remember my Dad. Please don’t ever feel as though you are alone or a burden. The life of those we lose deserves to be celebrated, cherished and treasured. Never forget that and never forget them. The world may never understand the gravity of your loss but that is on them. You should never underestimate the love you shared with those who are now gone. That will never die as Rumi reminds us, “Goodbyes are only for those who love with their eyes. Because for those who love with heart and soul there is no such thing as separation.”
Sometimes I feel like I am full of contradictions about grief but that’s it, grief is a contradictory emotion. As my favourite Rapper, Loyle Carner asks in his wonderful poem BFG, “must we love so much?” Grief is the true and endless cost of love, Loyle. Grief is the true and endless cost of love. I would just like to finish off with a poem I wrote for Dad. I hope you can find peace within these words too. Next Sunday will be tough.
Thank you for reading.
For additional support, the following links and sites offer some great advice and practical steps forward.
Megan Devine’s – https://refugeingrief.com – Her work cannot be understated. Honestly, Devine is a superb grief advocate.
Thinking Out Loud: Love, Grief & Being Mum and Dad – By Rio Ferdinand. Such an important book and looks at how Rio reframed his grief through the process of opening up. A real 10/10.
The Good Grief Trust – they bring all grief and bereavement charities together – https://www.thegoodgrieftrust.org/
BFG by Loyle Carner – https://youtu.be/w-ba3H_Sv6o