Updated: Jul 27, 2021
Tahmina R. and Irisa R.
At some point in their lives, three quarters of the world will inevitably go through a traumatic event. Which means in all the ways that count the experiences that usually make us feel most alone are the ones that tie us together.
We lost someone we loved very much at a very young age and then someone else we held very close to us a few years later and this meant two things for us: it meant that everyone in our life changed quite drastically and it meant that a serious journey with our faith began when we were just six and eight years old. Losing someone at an age where we could understand what had happened but not why meant that we had to believe in something more than this world. We’ve had an enormous amount of time to think over the last year, as we are sure all of you have and we hope that sharing this will make us a little more fearless and that in reading it - you will be able to share in some of that too.
How does trauma affect the brain?
Grief is defined as a “reaction to bereavement, involving both psychological and bodily experiences.” It is usually shown as a short-term emotion but there is a lot of research to prove that it can change the brain and alter the way you perceive many things. The reason grief can create such a drastic change is because it requires a person to reorder their worldview. The death of a loved one has been proven to be one of the greatest life stressors that we can face. On top of this, the effects of this loss are often magnified if the death is unexpected, or particularly tragic.
Basically, schemas - the framework in which you absorb and understand information - significantly influences your thoughts, actions and the way you perceive behaviour. They are the filter through which you see and interpret nearly everything. For example, something as simple as “good things happen to good people” is a schema. After a traumatic event, these schemas are usually broken and you are required to rebuild new ways of seeing the world, understanding people around you and understanding yourself.
What is loss?
It is empty words, passing moments, quiet celebrations, people refusing to acknowledge the feeling of absence and jokes to release the tension but they never land. It is just so much love that is left unsaid. Asking to hear stories and being met with silence. In movies, the most common cliche about loss is that a person needs to be reminded of the loss. In our own life we’ve seen how it has affected everyone we know: the parents, the young adults, the teenagers and the children - us. No one ever needs a reminder.
Leigh Sales writes in her bestseller Any Ordinary Day, “[For a tragedy] to spur growth, it must be seismic; it must shake you to your core and cause you to fundamentally rethink everything you believe. The higher the level of stress caused by the event, the greater the potential for change.” For us, the biggest thing that came from what happened was that it meant that we had to think about our mortality in a meaningful way at a very young age. We always grew up hearing others joke about how when they were taught their religion it often felt forced on them as a set of arbitrary rules of what to do and not to do, and how difficult that felt. Which is an experience we always struggled to understand because when we think about our faith, we think of reprieve - the absence of pain. We think about how most of our community came over to pray with us every night for forty nights. And for a long time after that, the safest moments were moments of release in the midst of prayer.
We were children when it happened which meant that many assumed that we would be protected from the more extreme feelings because we wouldn't entirely understand them. In all honesty, as children we were probably protected from some but we absorbed a lot from seeing so many of our family members grieve. It became painfully obvious at points that some were struggling with their mental health. The stigma that comes with mental health is now slowly going away, and we are so grateful for this because we sometimes imagine how so much of what we saw would have been better dealt with if those around us were given the space and opportunity to seek help.
Does it ever change?
Interestingly, research in the past three decades has started to ask a new question:
What if people don’t return to normal, what if they develop enhanced functioning instead? The term ‘post-traumatic growth’ was coined by two American academics, Lawrence Calhoun and Richard Tedeschi, who defined it as the aspects of positive, personal change a person may experience alongside intense suffering after a major life trauma.
This growth cannot be promised and it’s not a positive side-effect of trauma - it’s just a byproduct.
We can’t really say that we are beneficiaries of this sort of growth.
What we do know is that we both struggled to understand people our age for most of our teenage years, always feeling alienated in our experiences compared to those around us. Where we found ourselves struggling to understand others unless their problems seemed to be life-altering or catastrophic in difficulty. But we slowly outgrew that. Now we find it almost too easy to be moved by things. We also know that growing up we refused to give ourselves any sort of leeway to struggle or to feel like we were failing, for a very long time, always reminding ourselves that it “could be worse” - because it was for so long.
Even as young adults we found it comfortable criticising ourselves for ever “giving up” but now we know it was just us compensating for any feeling of powerlessness that we experienced in the past. We have learned to exercise more sabr in our thoughts and actions, with ourselves, our parents and our friends. What we also know is that we don't need to spend our days and nights rationalising why we believe in Allah (swt). Now we just accept that we believe because we believe. We have created space in our mind to let things be a bit simpler. We can’t give this a gentle ending because sometimes it’s really difficult to not let our minds wander to what's been lost, and how much it has affected those that are close to us, but we also know that we have also tried to see things a little differently.
The prayer that we perform at a funeral is the shortest. The sentiment carries that we shouldn’t mourn, and that the act of dwelling, or wailing or grieving for too long is not inherently necessary to the process because we should accept what is given to us. This can sometimes look like we are suppressing by refusing to dwell in the sadness. But it’s just a different way of experiencing the loss, where we accept it, feel it, and continue to live. Hearing tragic news is difficult for us, but now we allow it to move us, instead of resisting - and this helps build a constant state of acceptance.
From the outside you can never see grief because most people are able to oscillate between focusing on loss-related stress (e.g. the pain of living without the person) and restoration-related stressors (engaging in new activities) and at other times are simply engaged in mundane activities. When we first read this we definitely understood that in all practical ways this is true. But from our own experience we’ve found we can definitely sense when someone has experienced grief. It’s something that they carry that’s always visible to us - as ours probably is to them - before we even share with one another.
What we know about love
So many of our friends have mentioned to us that they have never met people who so freely and openly say - I love you. A product of living in this society is that we think that love can only be shared by a few in a lifetime or that it’s finite, not infinite - which it is. We try not to use the word sparingly. Saying it often, and to many, doesn’t make it mean any less, it’s just a way of honouring the people who take up space in our mind, who we worry about and who we want good things for. It feels like the least we can do because we know that the only reason we are who we are is because so many people took the time to love us - and to make it known.
In the aftermath we saw many people close to us struggle and continue to struggle with their mental health. We haven’t been tested in this way, but it’s given us an enormous amount of compassion for those who do. And made us infinitely grateful to have people around us who have meant that, at the end of the day, we never felt alone in our experiences.
Grief: A Brief History of Research on How Body, Mind, and Brain by Mary-Frances O’Connor.
Any Ordinary Day by Leigh Sales
The Body Keeps Score by Bessel Van Der Kolk