A Treatise on Grief

Is it like the ocean with its never-ending gray, blue waves, stretching as far as the eye can see, cresting and falling, persistent, enough to cover most of the globe?

Or does it run out, like water in a tap that’s been running for too long? Like puddles of rain drying up under the scorching summer sun?

Does one person have enough grief inside to mourn the loss of 3 people? What about the lives of 30? 3,000?  What about 5 lives every day of every month in a year? (That’s how many people died in terrorist-incidents in Pakistan in 2016 – see source at the end.)

Can grief peter out, like a stream in a drought-stricken village?

Or can we be more generous and dole it out as, when and where it’s needed? Does anyone really need your grief? Can you offer it like a tissue to wipe someone’s tears? Maybe cancel out a small part of their grief by showing them yours, like same signs in an equation?

When people point out that a tragedy somewhere is equally tragic as those occurring in other parts of the world, I wonder what that means.  How do we equate tragedy?  Is it the number of casualties?  Is it the age of the victims?  Is it the location – a market, a mosque, a festival, a bar, a concert arena, a street, a bridge?  What about frequency?  Isn’t is more tragic when one after another attack happens in the same 100 mile radius for days, weeks, months, years? 

Reality proves otherwise.  Theoretically, we might say that the latter is true, but we all live in the same world and we all know how our brains work.  It’s shameful but maybe we can blame god for creating the human brain in a way that makes us get used to anything.  It’s really like putting your foot into a tub of piping hot water – it burns for a few minutes and then you get used to the temperature.  And that’s how it is for me as a Pakistani – enough bombs and explosions, deaths and injuries, attacks and invasions and after a while, it starts to pinch a bit less each time.  It has to, of course, because otherwise we would have all died of grief long ago, bled out, hollow, unable to go on.

Is that the real tragedy? 

The phenomenon of becoming numb to pain, of seeing and hearing something so frequently that it becomes the norm, part of your everyday life, another headline you skim quickly over breakfast, sad, yes, but nothing to shatter your life, nothing that makes you give up what you’re doing, throw up your hands and sink into a pool of tears.

I remember I was in the US when the Boston marathon attack took place, and I remember watching scores of people in my university stricken with grief and horror, frozen in front of their televisions, and I remember how starkly I felt the difference.  The difference between people living in developed countries (whose governments simply attacked far-off countries or pointed accusatory fingers at their developing ‘allies’ to attack their neighbours, regardless of the ensuing mess that would wrap the latter’s region for years to come) and people like me who had to get used to grief, who had to teach themselves to devalue human life, to detach, to move away, to see casualties as numbers rather than individual persons with real lives and families that live on with broken minds and hurting hearts.

In the last few months, there have been a series of terrorist incidents in England and I remember thinking to myself, oh my god, it almost feels like things are as bad here as they were back home.  I remember looking up online to compare the tragedies in Pakistan to the ones in UK and feeling my heart shrivel up like paper burning in a fire, because in May, I had already forgotten about the attacks that killed 88 people in Sehwan at a shrine, and 14 people in Lahore at a protest in February.  I reread the articles with tears of shame and grief streaming down my face.  How could I have forgotten it?

But that is the ugly confession of a Pakistani.

When people are killed at that frequency, your mind starts to pick and choose – portioning out grief depending on the death toll – anything above 20 feels like a punch in your chest, anything above 50 chokes your throat.  And then there are cities and towns that have been showing up in the news for so long that the tragedies there have dulled for us – and the nails only dig deeper when a different target shows up – a shrine closer to the city where I grew up, a park in a city where I did my undergraduate degree, a market in the town where my family has moved to, a resort in a village where I thought things were improving.

It is such an ugly reality, but one that I have to live with.

After the attacks in the UK, I saw how communities here came together (exceptions always exist but the larger reaction was one of strength and harmony), the concert, One Love Manchester, such a beautiful show of solidarity and courage, with songs of hope and beauty being sung by thousands of people together, the memorials that sprung up in cities across the country, roses and candles and hugs and hands held together in strength and in prayer …

And I wondered if people who live here realize how lucky they are to live in a place where the value of a human life is so great, where people have enough grief to spread over all their pain and heal together.

And a part of my heart wrenches in pain, and in envy, wondering if there will ever come a time when it can be the same in my country.  A time when bombs and explosions are a thing of the past, an anomaly that shakes the entire country rather than something part of everyday reality that is swallowed like an inevitable bitter pill.  When the loss of even a single life can be felt, can be mourned, and grieved for, deeply, sincerely, by our politicians and our leaders, by our neighbours and our people, and by us.


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