I stare at this simple five-lettered word. It stares back at me, equally unmoved. It puzzles me. How can this word, stitched together by five unremarkably ordinary and mundane letters, carry the burden of so many shades of sorrow, pain and devastation?
Set in the exotic lands of my ancestors some 4,000 miles away from the rainy place I call home, grief was a word that seeped eloquently from folk tales; it poetically adorned the sentiments of a star-crossed lover’s longing, yearning and melancholy in dastaans and ghazals. It was a word soaking crimson red from the blood of men, women and children from the beginning of time. A word hiding behind the stench of rotting corpses left behind on barren land is a testament to cruelty from man to fellow man. A word camouflaging the depths of loneliness, suffering and trauma. A word carrying the burden of ill destinies, legacies and dynasties.
The word was almost a rite of my passage in reaching a self-proclaimed and arrogant literary maturation.
Grief. This simple five-letter word that I thought I knew.
Time of death: 11:37 pm
“Sweetheart, it will be scary, but you are going to pull through this. They won’t let me come to the emergency department with you because you are infected with coronavirus. Just listen to the doctors and don’t be awkward or moody, okay?”
He mustered a laugh, “Your wish is my command.”
With that, he stepped into the ambulance and went away. Forever.
I remember the ICU consultant calling on the final evening. Hours ago, he had given the daily update on Yunus’ progress. This call was out of routine and so, more worrying. The doctor checked all the demographic data for confidentiality purposes. I felt the ominous silence on the other side as I confirmed Yunus’ date of birth, not fathoming that from here onwards I shall only ever cite his date of death for the bureaucratic rituals that would follow and reiterate time again that he had indeed ceased to exist.
Once satisfied that the correct family member – and incidentally, a colleague – was on the phone, the doctor robotically and painfully described Yunus’ last hour of life; his struggle to breathe, the gasps for oxygen, his heart descending into anarchy before eventually stopping. And then, medics crushing his thorax for five compression cycles and defibrillation in futile efforts before they gave up.
Yunus’ slipped into a coma that he would never emerge from, leaving me in a darkness that I wouldn’t emerge from. The man who could not go a day without hearing my voice faded quietly into the night. His last words were “I love you”, and what has followed since has been a resounding silence.
Yunus’ absence was never a possibility in any of the ways we had planned our lives together. In the many promises we made, collecting his body from the mortuary and burying him alone was never on the cards.
My memories of that time are largely blurred. For months, I paced my garden from 6 am to midnight obsessively. I checked my phone continuously, and sleep became a distant memory. Whilst Yunus was ventilated, I lived and breathed his illness through the memory of his vital signs, oxygenation requirements and the rapidly falling lymphocyte count. So, when the doctor called me that evening, it was as if he called to tell me it was I who died.
Aftermath: The truth
Loving completely, unapologetically and fiercely has a caveat to it. You lose fiercely, too. The poems and novels adorning death with eloquently floral words had not prepare me adequately for grief. Nobody told me that grief would feel like a mountain subduing my chest whilst the ground slipped from beneath me.
Nobody told me that grief would pierce my heart a thousand times over in a day, or that I would spend weeks without leaving my room, or that my own deafening silence would shroud me. Nobody told me that 18 months on, the pain would be as palpable as it was that night; that my heart would forget how to beat normally after the stress it continuously endured and that I would develop unpredictable, crippling, and paralysing panic attacks.
They did not tell me sleep would be a thing of the past. When I did sleep, dreams would transport me to the hospital only to watch Yunus struggle and die in front of me.
Night after night.
Through their selective silence people did manage to tell me that my situation was “not all that bad”, that it was God-ordained. Others preferred Yunus’ death to the alternative of my marrying a man 15 years my elder. A man tainted by his working-class Black Christian lineage. Some advised against disclosing the relationship or grieving publicly so that the family honour remains untainted, and prospects of a future marriage remain intact.
Grief taught me that humanity, hypocrisy and cruelty go hand in hand – whether it was our mutual friends turning their backs on me or family favouring death compared to defiance of classist, casteist, and racist paradigms.
And even I – the psychiatrist who ferociously challenges mental health stigma took 18 months to reluctantly accept that she could not fight anymore. That she had failed in being strong. That she had given up and looked forward to ending the pain once and for all.
Grief has, however, also taught me that the love, kindness and compassion in simple acts birthed the single most important ingredient in imagining a world where I might learn how to live again – hope. The pandemic remains unstoppable and continues to rage and plunder from us our loved ones. Every day, innumerable people wake up to find their world, their existence, broken and scattered chaotically. In all probability, and sadly, many such lives will never be rebuilt again. However, only through simple human acts of kindness, we can give others hope in their vulnerability that they might just about have a chance.
Maybe the only chance, theirs and ours, for hope. For salvation.
Huma R. Khan (she/her) is a Psychiatrist and currently completing her residency in Yorkshire, England. When not buried under the red tape of the National Health Service; she will most likely be found engaged in penning a half-imagined ghazal, experimenting with photography or meandering aimlessly to feed her chai addiction. She can be found at www.humariazkhan.com and Instagram @thehumanator.
Featured image credit: Provided by the author