When her friend experienced the loss of a loved one, Alizah Hashmi was unsure how best to console her. In this personal essay, she reflects on how her friend’s loss helped her to realise that grief is unquantifiable, “infinite” and often comes without words.
There is hardly a word more misused or capitalized on or exhausted by essayists and raconteurs than “grief”. This essay is then, obviously, a contribution to that literary tedium. My maternal grandmother says grief is like armor, the penultimate stepping stone in the unkind trajectory to the human spectre we call “strength”. I believe this – yes, but I’ve come to believe this is an almost escapist simplification. It assumes that grief is linear, or if not linear then all paths of the grieving are centripetal –that the end-point will always be resilience. At times grief is more centrifugal than centripetal, the starting point more certain than the coda – everyone processes it differently, channels it differently; it leads each aggrieved in a different direction. To look at grief, even retrospectively, as a character building episode, is to deny the various places it may lead us.
And as with anything that becomes literary fetish, at the forefront of its exploitation will be Urdu poets, varnishing a concept with the heathen and the saintly, sometimes kitsch but to the trained eye often profound. There’s a couplet by Fana Nizami Kanpuri my Nani loves to reprise in times of heartache (of which, on the tapered road between puberty and adulthood, I have had many):
Gham se nazuk zabt-e-gham ki baat hai/ ye bhi darya hai magar tharha hua (more delicate than grief is the tolerance of it, this too is a river but still-standing)
I find the allusion to the river very succinct. At the beginning, grief rages, tumultuous – the first strike of calamity. But when the natural consequence follows, it is more tedious. To internalize and manage it is harder, but more imperative. If no progress is made the situation transmutes into one of stagnant water, murky and unlivable because we cannot move forward. Grief, like a river, is dynamic, and in the uncanny sagacity of Disney’s Renaissance Pocahontas: never steady like the beating drum.
In April of 2020, when COVID-19 related restrictions were freshly enforced and better complied to, my friend lost her father to a heart-attack. We were all at home – or at least the socially responsible ones were. He was a Brigadier in the Pakistan army and was overseeing operations in Gilgit Baltistan – a cold mountainous part of North Pakistan. I have a few friends who are “army kids” as the local colloquy goes, and most of them have had fathers who have been largely absent from their lives, posted away. After the customary round of condolence was over, in which most chose to copy and paste the one liner the first responder to the news on our Whatsapp group had sent, I thought about how it was to lose a parent that had been afar, not just at the time of death but mostly in life too. Did you miss a parent you didn’t know that well? What was this sort of grief – mechanical, automatic, partially made of longing? How did you react to a hole in your life whose shape and function and composition you hadn’t really had time to understand when it was filled?
But my friend disagreed with this – she said her bond with her father was more robust and more intimate than anything she shared with anyone else. No one understood her like he did. She said if she could worship a man, it would be him. This, in turn, was peculiar to me: my mother has met her father only once in her life, and while my father and I are always cordial, we’ve never been in the business of forging excessively close or expressive friendships in my family. So for her: was there comfort in that, I thought; the knowledge that they had cultivated their relationship to the fullest? Or did his absence now – from the thriving, sacrosanct place he occupied in her life – make it more unbearable?
My own reflex reaction to loss is always denial. My first pet – a male rabbit whose sex I misread when I bought it and hilariously named Nina – died while I was away. When I got the informatory call, we boarded a plane and returned immediately. I was crying all the way in ugly, throaty sobs – at the airport, on the plane, in the cab home – but all that rested on a deeper stratum of refusal. It wasn’t him, I kept allowing myself to think, because all rabbits looked the same and how could the caretaker tell him apart from the many others he had sired in his time? But of course, it was him, and when I buried him – the palpable act of closure – I started thinking of where he was now. A sinless animal, obviously in heaven. My denial had become acceptance, contingent on the presence of an “after”: a happier, separate reality that existed simultaneously for him somewhere as I grieved here.
In Islam we believe that martyrs (“shaheed”) are unconditionally admitted to Heaven; they are well cared for in a better station, once they have left this one. This has come up often when I speak to my friend – the fact of our impermanence and the promise of the hereafter is palliative.
But back in April, I didn’t know how to handle someone who was as old as me and faced with a loss that I had put off as some indecent happening that would not strike me until much later. Suddenly I had an accentuated sense of my own mortality, perhaps because the pandemic had already created an atmosphere conducive to such. Travel plans, academic years – everything had been thrashed, upended without warning; in the background reality seemed fickle and transient. I sent her a private message after a week, the amount of time I thought it would take her to acclimatize to her new situation. I then followed it up with verses from the Quran, things I felt would soothe, help get her “out of this”. But I realized, inevitably, that there was nothing to be gotten “out of” – this was no well you could climb out of with a rope and a pulley. She would have to shovel her way through, through grit and dirt, meander in peaks and nadirs. Maybe she would move upwards and onto level ground again, but certainly not the same ground. The color of the grass wouldn’t be the same. My estimate of a week now seemed puerile; the relationship between grief and temporality is rarely uniform and never predictable.
Perhaps even the idea that grief is to be viewed more sanely in reverse chronology is flawed. Grief is a perpetuality; it stays and it changes both in itself and the afflicted. As a STEM person I’ve tried to itemize and atomize grief – knowing from my area of study that compartmentalization begets ease in comprehension. Do we measure it from an event onwards, or from the aftermath backwards? Or do we measure it ecologically – a snapshot in time, and then produce and sequentially juxtapose an array of such snapshots and hope they fall into a progression, from trigger to denouement? So that an observer may say – this is how it started, a tragic occurrence, this is how it played out, and this is how it left someone (broken, or stronger?). In such a model there is the cardinal fault of assuming that it does end – most people who’ve faced a tragedy or lost a loved one will tell you it never leaves you.
In the realm of science, an outcome that can take lifetimes to appear doesn’t make for feasible study design. And even outside that realm, after a point we too stop following up with our grief. We’re not crying everyday anymore, finding small things and mulling over how they’d be different if that hadn’t happened. We become different people – sometimes calmer, sometimes rasher, sometimes meeker, sometimes bolder – but we stop correlating it to that event in the past. Most people don’t pick up any proverbial reigns and steer themselves out of grief – they let it happen to them, passively. My friend certainly doesn’t seem mired in the realization of her father’s death all the time, chatting about unrelated, happy things. Every now and then something makes me cognizant of her continued personal engagement with her loss – a photo of her father she uploads, an hour she puts aside collecting his belongings and wrapping them in the Pakistan flag. It’s like a noise in the background now, smoldering low – not a raging perdition anymore.
An optimistic way to think of post-loss is as a time-to-event feature – not as an if, but a when. To some degree this holds, but there’s no defining what the “event” is, whether it is positive or adverse. Does loss accumulate piecemeal like the layer of malai at the top of a pot before the milk boils over? Or is it more jovial a day when one wakes up and feels recovered? Ostensibly, it is neither, so my appraisal of this model is agnostic at best. Whatever the event is, it occurs in a full gamut from the rehabilitative to the destructive and over periods of time. There is some mordant irony in the fact that we deal with time to event data with what we call “survival” analysis.
That “event” need not be a step down, in the larger picture. Poet Hasan Naim thinks his losses made him, like my Nani thinks they do.
Gham se bikhra na paemal hua/ main tou gham hi se be-misaal hua (grief didn’t shatter me or waste me, my grief made me nonpareil)
Sometimes I wonder if grief is a social enterprise – if there is communal participation in the individual’s grieving experience. With social media it seems like the number of likes or supportive comments show that grief is shared – but naturally, nothing is farther from the truth. Indeed I did notice how some people chose to remove themselves from even this entirely minimal and effortless show of solidarity. Maybe it is because of the mimetic drift in circles like ours to appear “anti-army”; in fact being “anti” everything where antagonism is not expected seems to be the modernist take on social activism. But does grief fit in here, in mundane everyday nattering – is there a point in being contrarian with respect to loss, a somewhat ubiquitous experience?
Paradoxical, really, because no where else is loss more manifest than in demotic nattering. Conversation is a conduit of the soul and perhaps the most transparent language in which loss can be precepted is this. Ever since my Barray Nana passed, his widow Ami Jaan started making a “huh” sound after everything, such that it was almost the norm even before her hearing impairment took over to repeat things twice to her, to be sure. It made sense; she was thrust unprepared into the role of matriarch, made transition from the stereotypical neck to the head of the home, and there was no room for a misstep. It also meant that if what we had said was not important we’d not repeat ourselves and let it go. Her life as a widow had little space for things inconsequential.
The problem here is that Ami Jaan was always a “strong” woman. Then why did her loss impact her, even in this unobtrusive way? Relatively contemporary poet Bashir Badr too uses the euphemism of water – but this time as something patently corrosive and tenacious; you can’t escape when it is set in motion.
Patthar ke jigar walo gham main vo ravaani hai/ khud rah bana lega bahta hua pani hai (to the stony-livered, grief is so fluid, it’ll make its own way like flowing water)
Unsurprisingly the question that I’ve evaded, with all my statistical modelling, is: how do we quantify grief? What do the data sets look like? How many minutes do you think of it, how many times a week do you cry? How many variables do I factor in, what sort of complicated regression model do I run to establish these key relations between time, the strength of sense of bereavement, and the folded clothes that begin to smell musty? The numerical is inadequate for grief. I had a physics teacher I adored in high school who used to say that there is infinity between the finite – there’s no end to the numbers between 2 and 3; 2.01, 2.001, 2.0001…That is the closest we can come to expressing grief in the language of mathematics. From the morning she sent the message about her father’s death to now, when she looks to the flippant observer very much restored – my friend travelled infinity, small and smaller things that I am not privy to.
But I know I’ve suffered some loss myself, as have most people. Our anthropoid variations mean we will see it differently, speak it differently. It will always remain, at the heart of it, less an exercise of reclamation of a past normal, and more an act of reconstruction of a new normal. The Urdu poet Amrohvi, whose work I recently discovered, has a dismal but strangely reassuring thing to say about the phasic metamorphosis of grief – its dissimilar trails but similar trials:
Gham tou gham hi rahenge, ‘Zubair/ Gham ke unvaan badal jayeinge (Grief will remain grief, its appellations will change)
What then, in rational conclusion, is the formula for grief? As is obvious, mathematical modelling is ill-suited and there is no formula. Last week my friend sent me one of those life quotes on a pastel background that swim on internet forums; something about living with the knowledge of what we survive – fairly concordant with Kanpuri’s couplet. She commented that for her, at least, she didn’t know what her grief was – shapeshifting, waxing, waning. Some days it helped her survive, other days it made her crumble. How does one deal with that? I told her – and I believe it too: it happens, and we survive. That is all.
About Alizah Hashmi
Alizah Hashmi is a writer based in Pakistan. Her work has appeared in the Young Adult Review Network (YARN), Five on the Fifth, Litbreak, RIC Journal, Entropy, Reclamation Magazine and The Aleph Review. Alizah was a finalist for the 2020 Curt Johnson Prose Award and was longlisted for the 2019 Zeenat Haroon Rashid Prize for Women. She loves stories, cricket and never loses faith in the country she calls home. She tweets @alizah_hashmi
This piece was commissioned for Disembodied Voices: Friendship during COVID-19
How we think of friendship, intimacy and closeness has radically altered during this period, perhaps irrevocably. Lockdown and quarantine has left us relishing time with friends and family, or dealing with feelings of isolation, anxiety and abandonment. WhatsApp, Zoom and social media are our new lifelines, changing the tone, register and channels through which we communicate. We’ve reached out to old friends and been turned away by new ones; rekindled old bonds and discarded others. There are friends who inspire and those who infuriate; there are relations we’ve failed and some who’ve come through for us, and shown love in a way we’ve never experienced before.
We want to curate a series of essays, interviews and stories on friendship, experienced during the time of COVID-19. We are keen to hear from marginalised perspectives, underrepresented voices and communities significantly impacted by the virus.
We are also open to submissions and pitches on the representation and concept of friendship more generally. How friendship is represented on television, film, and social media; in books, music and videos, before and during the pandemic, is also important. Are there representations of friendships that have given you hope (such as I May Destroy You or Broad City) or those that have appeared toxic to you (such as that recounted by Natalie Beach about Caroline Calloway). If so, we want to hear from you too.
For the full Call Out and details of how to apply, click here.
Submissions are open until the end of February 2021.
We look forward to hearing from you,
Aysha Abdulrazak and Samaya Kassim, Guest Editors of Disembodied Voices.
Feature image is a detail from Georgia O’Keeffe’s Nude Series VIII (1917) and is available to use under the Public Domain Licence.