Bereavement and Loss: Guardian Life & Style


My my, we're keeping it light this season aren't we? Continuing on in my fancy for contributions, I submitted some content to The Guardian's Life and Style page about the nature of loss and bereavement in our communities. I'm pretty sure they won't use it but, I thought it would be a useful addition here. The questions they put forward sought to examine how different religions and cultures deal with death. They were also interested in how we feel about death and why, as a society, we find it so difficult to talk about. 

What does death mean to you?
To me, death is heartbreak and sorrow. It is love turned in on itself, backwards and seams out, fresh and raw. Sometimes it's an arm that reaches down into your life removing all functionality and order and other times, it brings peace after many years of suffering. My experiences with death have mostly been unexpected and wrenching. Learning to live without the people you love has never been a strength of mine but there are few options but to keep going and try your best to be happy. It really tests the mettle of who you are.. it’s a real b***h like that.

Why do you think some people find it difficult to talk about death? 
I think it’s human nature. People don’t like to be reminded of their limitations; and death is exactly that. It is the ultimate inescapable conclusion. No matter how hard you try to stave it off, much like Gloria Estefan's rhythm, it’s just going to get you.
In terms of socially, I've found there's almost an acceptable time period for grieving openly and, once that has lapsed, it's time to brush off that stiff upper lip again and soldier on like a good Briton. On one hand, this is helpful but, on the other, it can be extremely damaging.

What does it mean to die well? 
In Islam, there is a huge emphasis on how you treat others. We must give 2% of anything we earn to charity, any money the woman of the house earns belongs solely to her and does not have to contribute to family life, and “back biting” (disparaging a person behind their back) is considered the height of vulgarity and sinful behaviour. But these sentiments of accountability and fairness have echoed throughout the ages, the power of three, karmic retribution, be the goodness you wish to see in the world, systems of right and wrong in other Abrahamic religions etc. So, to me, dying well has become a little less about how you die and a little more about how well you have lived. A good death therefore means one where I have been the best possible version of myself in life. Someone that contributes to their community, uses their good fortune to help others, is accountable for the things they do and say, and can own up to and learn from the mistakes they make. Also, not getting hit by a bus would be great too.

Please describe your country, religion or community’s burial customs 
With Muslim funerals, the emphasis isn't on the family but on getting that person buried within twenty four hours, and praying for their soul to have peace in the next life. It’s all very modest and expedient. I found this quite difficult to deal with as, with sudden deaths, your loved one can be out of the hospital and into the ground before the shock has worn off.
In my father's case, his body was taken to a local mosque where he was washed and prepared for the service. This is typically done by the person’s relatives of the same gender. In our case, my brother, uncle and cousin. It was an open casket funeral, which I wasn’t prepared for, but I remember thinking how clean and lovely he smelled, as though he'd been anointed with scented oils. The service takes place, with men and women seated separately, there is a special funeral prayer followed by one or two words by a family member. People pay their respects and the burial happens very soon after. Traditionally, women do not attend the burial but the women in my family (quite rightly) don’t take too kindly to a man telling them what to do, so those who wished to attend this part, did so. It was all hands on deck, no frills, let’s get that person in the ground. The whole process is about following procedure and helping that person’s soul get to Heaven. After the burial there is a banquet at the Mosque where things get more sedate and the family has a moment to process and greet well-wishers and family etc. I remember my siblings and I feeling so utterly out of our depth. But hundreds of people came to the service, and strangers were reading the entire Quran in honour of my father and to bless his soul. This aspect of the culture brought us much comfort. The community rallies around you and everyone you can possibly think of is on hand to help you with whatever you need. Also, everyone’s your Aunt and Uncle. Don’t bother learning their names, just call them that and you’ll be fine.
From a Pakistani point of view, the process is similar and you are encouraged to let it all out. You cry and you wail and you just let it run its course. And then you pick yourself up and carry on.

If you have experienced the death of someone close to you, how have you dealt with it? 
In my early twenties I lost my father, my two best friends, and both grandmothers. As a Muslim, I was raised to believe that death isn’t an ending. I’m not strictly religious but accepting a narrative where my father still exists has become a vital part of living with this. It’s much less violent and jarring than the alternative. I cope by placing him in the next life, at peace, watching on and loving us from afar. Then suddenly looking at his watch and realising he's late to play tennis with Socrates, Jeff Buckley, and Nusrat Fateh Ali Khan.
In terms of hammering out the sense of despair and turmoil I felt after so many losses at once, I marched myself to bereavement counselling every week until I felt like my sense of control had returned. Things are more functional now and I envisage a future where I could be happy. But people are lying when they tell you it gets easier. It doesn't get easier, it just gets less horrifying.

There we are, somewhat maudlin but well worth a discussion. I was raised in an environment where one just didn't talk about these things and it left me a little flummoxed and unprepared. So, I'd like to close with a few words of advice.

To anyone currently struggling with bereavement: 
Loss can be a absolute bastard but, I want you to know that you are strong and spectacular, and that the sheer horror of this will pass. It will become part of your reality and you will learn to manoeuvre around it and to just keep going. You are so loved, yes, you. I don't know you but I'm throwing a big pile of love at you from Britain. I know, it tastes like tea and cucumber sandwiches. Refreshing, isn't it? I suppose what I'm trying to say here is that you are going to be OK and, in times like these, OK is pretty damn impressive. Wake up in the morning, climb out of bed, and keep going. You are remarkable and resilient. Just keep going.

Right, I don't know about you but, I need a rather large cup of Earl Grey and a heart to heart with my mummy.


Until next time.


My Life As An Imposter

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