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Proportions of grief

January 05, 2015

My grandfather died and I didn’t cry.

This happened a few weeks ago, in the waning days of the miserable year that we all just came through. His death was not sudden, and for some time, I thought perhaps that was why I couldn’t bring any tears forward. He passed peacefully, with his children around him, adored by not just all of them, but their children as well, and even a few of their children’s children. It was a long life, well-lived, and so I blamed my inability to properly grieve on the inevitability of his death. Rationally – I considered – I’m not crying because his time had come and there is no tragedy there. When our elders pass, all we can really mourn is their absence, and that is almost selfish. Right?

The problem is, I tried crying. I wanted to, I even needed to. My grandfather meant a great deal to me and I deeply, powerfully mourned his death. The grief filled inside me and desperately needed vent yet, I couldn’t give it that release. And so, instead of allowing it to rise up and out, I tamped it down, burying it under layers of distraction.

(That’s a Karachi habit, I always feel; being able to push aside any powerful emotion – grief, trauma, hate – by focusing on something trivial instead. My poison of choice is trivia; the more upset I am, the more time I spend trawling through Wikipedia, tossing up walls built with obscure facts about medieval artistic developments, the early childhood of 70’s musicians, and how the latest Marvel movies earned at the box-office.)

This isn’t the first time this has happened to me. In the last few years, I’ve experienced loss much like anyone else. But I’ve found that, whenever that loss was personal, the pain and woe wouldn’t result in tears. The tears, it seems, were reserved for more public grief, the kind that happens when I read about, say, Aitzaz Hasan.

When news broke about the brave boy who saved his school by throwing himself at the terrorist, I read it and was, of course, upset. But I absorbed it the way we absorb all news of tragedies and horror, letting them settle on our skin but never break the flesh. Then, later in the day, my wife returned from work. She asked me, in conversation, what was happening in the world as she hadn’t had a chance to read any news yet. I began telling her about Aitzaz, and then I couldn’t because I was crying. Genuine, actual crying, with real tears and hitched breath. I think I managed to walk out of the room before she noticed, but she got the gist of the story and I remember she cried as well.

And then I didn’t cry all year. Not until Peshawar.

The day one hundred and thirty four children were murdered was a little over a week after my grandfather’s death. That night, I found all the tears I hadn’t been able to before. Twice I had to pull over to the side of the road while driving, because I couldn’t see clearly, my eyes welling up too much. The next few days, instead of allowing distractions to push the grief aside, I obsessed over the tragedy. I read every article about it, watched every interview. My sorrow transmuted into rage, then I read about the teacher who tried to save her students, even while the attackers set her on fire, and I cried again.

Those days right after the attack, I cried a lot. And I understand why. I can explain why I didn’t do the same when my grandfather died, or a few days ago when an old friend died of cancer. I didn’t cry then because Pakistani grief is too large now for personal sorrow. Our private losses seem too insignificant in comparison. How can anything compare to one hundred and thirty four children killed? The only other comparisons would be of the ninety-four people killed in the attack on an Ahmadi Mosque in 2010. Or the forty-eight Shias killed in Abbas Town. Or the eighty-four Hazara killed in the Quetta bombing. And on. And on.

The mind has its own built in defenses and one of the ways it maintains sanity is by regulating emotional responses, keeping them proportionate to the stimulus. I think that’s why I couldn’t cry for my grandfather, or for any of the other more personal tragedies I’ve experienced in the last few years. It was my mind providing a measure of moderation, because if I cried wholeheartedly at the death of one man, no matter how much he meant to me, what would I do at the death of all those children? The only appropriate and proportionate response then would be to descend fully into insanity.

The one counter-balance to the overwhelming pain was the slight edging of hope that became visible in the days after the attack. Candles were lit and heads bowed in sorrow; then for the first time in my lifetime, Pakistanis seemed united in their desire for change. The protests outside Lal Masjid and the pressure placed on politicians and the military leadership to do something right away. These seemed positive. Or so everyone else felt. I think, sometimes, that my cynicism has damaged my ability to feel hope.

(Well, others call it cynicism, I call it realism.)

When the political leaders met, I felt in my marrow that nothing would come of it. These were men capable of only small things. I had no hope then, but I decided not to voice that bitter thought. Then when they announced the reinstatement of the death penalty and a committee that would take a week to deliver a response, I knew my lack of faith was well placed. Just like that, all my worst predictions – ones I kept to myself in the anticipation that just this once I’d be wrong – came true. Beyond the debatable moral implications of instituting the death penalty in a country where fair trials are a laughable fiction, it was the fact that this was the best they could come up with that confirmed my hatred. Still, I thought I’d give the government more rope, let the committee comprised of, no doubt, the brightest minds, provide its report. Just hold my cynicism/realism back a little bit longer.

Military courts and arbitrary television censorship rules, that’s what we got. As if this was the first terrorist attack Pakistan ever experienced and before this the government never really had to consider the possibility it might have to deal with such a challenge. As if Pakistan was some utopian nation with serene calm prevailing at all times, and then this attack came out of the blue, catching us utterly off guard. As if, worst of all, they had no time to do better. They should have been prepared for this possibility long ago. We all were. Every Pakistani civilian knows that terrorism is our reality and has been for a long time. The seven days should have been used to just type up and spell-check a list of anti-terror measures that have been thought out and kept in storage for just such a rare moment when everyone is unified. This was the chance the government had to show its breadth of imagination in tackling terror, about using the rarely granted moment when every politician is afraid of the public screaming as one and so even the most audacious plans could get approval; madrassah overhauling, banning religious groups with any political aspirations, demilitarising all political parties, heck you could make all religious figures obtain licenses and make it illegal to preach without that license. And those are just ideas I can think of right this moment. Better ones can be found in think tanks, college classes, and drawing rooms across Pakistan. None of them include giving the military even more legislative authority or PG-13 news until 9.

So now I’m worried that we won’t ever stop the terrorism because those with the ability have neither the will nor the capacity. And the old fractures that divide the country are already reappearing. The crowd around those seeking change is thinning, the distractions starting to seep in again. We aren’t one nation grieving anymore, already choosing to lament only within our political, philosophical, and religious camps. The chance to forge our singular sorrow into a united rage having been squandered by cowardice in our leadership and exhaustion in our populace.

Which is why I want to cry for those dead children one more time. Before the next attack comes and it’s so terrible that even crying for one hundred and thirty four children seems disproportionate. Before there are so many dead in such horrific ways that every previous tragedy will seem small and I won’t be able to cry for anyone anymore.