(a meditation on grief and the things that keep me up at night)
I don’t remember much from my first funeral. We stood in line waiting to view the body. When it was my turn, I observed how the body was ashy, its arms arranged stiffly by the hips, nostrils oozing with cotton wool. I didn’t know who the dead person was. My mother told me that didn’t matter. In our community, you don’t have to know who the person is in order to pray for their passage to Heaven. Every utterance counts, she told me. And in the haze of incense, I pictured the body’s soul as a shimmery soapy bubble bouncing gently upwards with each gust of prayer. I was eleven years old.
Over the decades I would go to many funerals in our community, some of people I knew, others were complete strangers. We all show up for each other because we hope that when it is our time, everyone will show up making the journey of our souls easier. The rhythms settle into our bodies. In the moment when the person’s face is covered up with cloth, I inhale deeply so they don’t suffocate, and then we all stand up and everyone’s heart breaks together as the family begins to weep again. The men carry the body out of the hall, jostling to help carry the weight, whilst the women sing and sniff. In that moment we are all mourning our own lost loved. And then we line up for Dil Soji, condolences from our hearts, and one by one we offer each family member, Sabr, Sabr, Sabr. And they whisper Shukr, Shukr, Shukr.
Our funerals are brief. They begin at 9.30 am, and the body is taken by the men to the cemetery an hour later. By midday the burial is complete and the men have returned. Then we all eat the same meal of tangy yellow dal served with rice or slices of soft white Supaloaf bread, and crunchy pickled masala carrots that leave turmeric stains on your fingers and white funeral Punjabi Suit. Then we go home.
Our funerals are identical. In death we are all the same. This ceremony is for the soul of the one who left, not for the ones left behind. For us, there are rituals we pull out of our bellies to make being left behind more bearable. We learn these them from a young age; to the ones left behind we say Sabr. The ones left behind respond with Shukr. Always murmuring, Sabr, Sabr, Sabr, Shukr, Shukr, Shukr. Meaningless. Perfunctory. Until someone you love dies.
It was my Nana Bapa. He was the first person I loved who died. We were there in the room with him when his soul released his body. My beloved Nana Bapa who twirled his moustache between his fingers as he waited for us to answer his riddles. My beloved Nana Bapa who went swimming at dawn every day, then came home and pressed his chilled palms first to the tip of my nose, then to my sleep warmed cheeks, waiting for me to wake up so that we could all eat jalebi and ganthia together on a Sunday morning. My beloved Nana Bapa who I was terrified to be caught reading novels or eating chips around because his disapproval was searing. My beloved Nana Bapa who was a sailor, a fisherman, a policeman, an accountant, a business man, an adventurer, an intellectual, a philosopher, a husband, a father, a brother, a grandfather…lay there.
We sank underwater. Shapes of people appeared. When they spoke, it was muffled. We inhabited different planes. But they came for Dil Soji, to condole from their hearts. And they brought milk and made ginger chai and laid out mismatched mugs and trays of sugar-coated nice biscuits so that others coming to condole could have something to do that needed finishing before they could leave. They moved furniture and laid down rugs and lit incense sticks and found a photo of our beloved Nana Bapa and played zikr on the cassette recorder that Nana Bapa loved. They organized themselves into lists and duties. They brought food, so much food, dal and chicken curry and roti and pilau and kachumbari and achar, so much food for us and for all the people who would come to visit and they would sit with us and eat with us to make sure that we would eat and then they would clear the table and wash the plates and shoo away people and help us into our rooms so that we could collapse into our beds and silently wail. And the next day more people would come. And they would grasp our hands in theirs, bent forward, looked deep in our eyes and from their hearts, they offered Sabr, Sabr, Sabr, Sabr, and we responded Shukr, Shukr, Shukr, Shukr.
These rituals of care became the anchor that stopped us from drifting, drifting, swallowed.
But now this.
Grief for what we can name.
Grief for what we don’t have names for.
Grief for what resists being named.
Grief in not being able to be there to bury your loved ones.
Grief that arrives in whatsapp funeral announcements entreating us to stay at home and offer prayers for the families from where we are.
Grief like the smell of 60% alcohol under our fingernails that rejects being washed away.
Or the carpet of rubble that a pink and blue checkered itchy blanket lays abandoned. The woman who owned that blanket also left behind a neon green bata slipper when they came for her home. She ran. She’s used to running.
Grief with no recovery.
Grief for what we’ve lost and what we will lose.
Grief at 4.30 am when the Raat ki Ranis bloom insisting on perfuming the air with forceful and selfish beauty.
Grief that clings to the world, like the purple stained gauze stuck on a scab.
Grief that comforts because it quietens panic.
Grief that hides in the raging filthy rain swollen river at night.
Grief that boils like stones in water over a hot sufuria.
Grief that shrieks into midnight facebook messages from friends.
Grief that drains.
Grief that cracks.
Grief that extracts.
Grief that can’t be shared.
Grief that can’t be soothed with a hug.
And then despair.
I’ve been contemplating how not to drift, drift, get swallowed.
Kevin Mwachiro asks us to imagine, ‘Mourning without touching but feeling the pain. Mourning with feeling but missing the touch’.
Anne Moraa reminds us that ‘this is a crisis of care’.
K’eguro Macharia urges us ‘To create gestures of care’.
I’ve been searching for how to care for each other when the rituals of care we know and have formed may no longer be within our reach. I think one place we may find it is in in Sabr and Shukr, the inhale and exhale of care, the words we reach for when there are no words.
At its most literal meaning, Sabr means endure, persevere, have patience. And when we reply with Shukr, we say thank you. Yet in the space when the inhale turns into the exhale we discover the layers of Sabr and Shukr.
In Sabr we urge beautiful patience, because that’s what makes the grief so visceral, beauty.
In Sabr we acknowledge that there was beauty.
In Sabr we acknowledge there has been loss.
In Sabr we listen to the vacuum, the permanent absence, the closing of the throat.
In Sabr we taste the intensity of the pain.
In Sabr we remember there will be beauty again, that there is beauty still.
In Sabr we understand the grief belongs to the griever to bear.
In Sabr, I am here with you.
In Sabr, I see you.
In Sabr we chase despair.
In Sabr we don’t look away.
In Sabr we declare there is something on the other side of endurance.
Sabr is not a return.
Sabr is a moving towards an uninhabited place.
Sabr is an invitation to imagine that place.
Sabr is hope.
In Shukr we find hope.
In Shukr we seek gratitude.
In Shukr we connect to each other.
In Shukr we remember our self.
In Shukr we echo that grief is important, because grief means we lost something that was important to us.
In Shukr we say thank you for seeing it, for caring, for reminding me there is something else awaiting.
In Shukr I see you.
In Shukr is peace.
In Shukr is courage.
In Shukr we begin healing.
In Shukr we return to now.
In Shukr is the anchor that stops us from drifting, drifting, swallowed.
I offer you Sabr.
I say Shukr.