The endless cost of love, by Shuaib Khan

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Shuaib Khan has his own blog, shuaibwriteskhanthinks, and he shared this recent post with us. It’s a fantastic blog – full of wisdom and truths about grief. We’re publishing an abridged version here, you can read the full blog here.

“Death doesn’t end relationships, it changes them” – Megan Devine

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, these are my own reflections five years after losing my Grandfather (Dad/Aba’Jee).

Grief continues to give me writers block

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 friends 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. This was an uncertainty, a world that contradicted my happy-go-lucky nature. Any outward expression of emotion that did not neatly fit into society’s expectation, it tends to be negated. 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. One of the kindest compliments I received is “Shuaib, you express your feeling so well”, but 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?

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 have 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 own 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. Above all else, he loved his family.

Left with unconditional grief

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

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 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. Not everyone deserves to hear about your grief. The right ones will listen carefully and support unconditionally. These people do exist, trust me.

It comes in waves

Some days we are swimming merrily against the tide and on others, we are drowning. 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 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. 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. 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.

Loss helps us connect

This sounds like an oxymoron, right? When Dad died, part of me also left this world. Our connection was always powerful, moving and strong. Losing Dad broke my exterior walls of resistance 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.

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 lost his wife, Rebecca, to cancer and struggled badly. Just reading his own account of grief, I could resonate, understand and empathise. I found myself connecting with others, with myself and my beliefs, all of which are very much a work in progress.

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. 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.

In Summary

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 understand and listen. 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. 

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. I would just like to finish off with a poem I wrote for Dad. I hope you can find peace within these words too. 

Thank you for reading.

Shuaib Khan

Twitter: @shuaibkhan26 

Click here to listen to Shuaib’s podcast Anti Small Talk