How Death Brought an Atheist Closer to God: An Exploration into the Mental State of a Grieving Mind28 September 2019
Content warning: death of a family member resulting from an illness
May 13th, 2018.
I shrouded myself in the scent of frosted berries. The autumn breeze drifted into my room as I dressed. It was Mother’s Day. However, as I wore my linen turtleneck and gold earrings, the day felt heavy on my shoulders. In many ways, it was ironic that it was Mother’s Day. My mother’s grief floods through the phone with each call this past year. That morning, she calls me and tells me how she slept next to my Aunty the previous night. She tells me about the groans of pain that were substituted for snores. My Aunty, Amtou, was sick with a rare form of terminal appendix cancer. The disease tore its way through the family the way the guillotine tears its way through gravity. I remember the pleading in my mother’s voice to come to visit Amtou, my ears unknowing to the severity of the request. I failed to leave my room that morning. It wasn’t until the afternoon sun cast its light through my room, where I got the message from my sister; “How long will it take you to get to Amtou’s? She’s passed.” I felt like I was sinking.
Think collapsing lungs.
I remember walking into Amtou’s house that afternoon. The faded green staircase leading to her room appeared taller than it used to. I could hear my mother’s wailing. The screech pierced my breath; I thought her lungs would start bleeding. Grief comes in many forms. I never thought it could manifest into something so raw, so brutal. My mother was wailing in rhythm. Her voice echoing through the halls of Amtou’s house. When I opened the door to Amtou’s room, it was as though I had stopped breathing. My mother was sitting near Amtou’s body. Her fist pounding on her chest like a battle cry. Her nails ripping at her scalp. Her wails near animalistic. Her breath rugged. Amtou was laying under her, her head facing Mecca. The Quran was playing, its verses ripped through the air. And I just stood at the doorway, rooted in fear. My mother screaming,
“يتمع ىلع ءاكبلا ، يتنبا ، يتنب.”
She asked me to cry for my aunty. She asked me to take off my earrings and cry for my aunty. I remember the surreal wave washing over me as I stepped towards to end of the bed. Amtou’s face was exposed, the rest of her body covered in a peach coloured sheet. She was so skinny, her lips parted slightly, and eyes closed. The constellation of freckles faded from her skin. The curves of her cheekbones pulling back her skin. Her thin hair tucked behind her small ears.
I forgot the in-between.
I tried my hardest not to be stolen by rhetorical moments of weeping. More people arrived, all joining in the same wailing process. I was afraid that Amtou would disappear among all the chaotic grief in the room. As I stood, I realised the detachment I had from everyone else. The detachment I had from everything that was happening in that room. I was unable to bring myself to cry. All I could feel was the damming weight of my heart in my chest and the shortness of my breath. All I was capable of doing was to look upon Amtou’s tiny body and absorb all the anguish in the house. I was frozen. It was as if I were an alien. I was looking in on something so foreign that still, one year later, I cannot quite articulate what I saw or what I felt. All I know is that something in me changed that day, in that room. The seams of my soul seeming as fragile as the seams of the linen I wore. It was as if I had been skinned, meddled with, torn up, my insides stretched, squeezed, twisted, and stitched back up. Something in me was completely off. The wounds from that day still pressing on my chest.
The trauma of Mother’s Day 2018 is something I still carry on my shoulders. My bones retract whenever the word “cancer” is said by anyone. I know too well the vulgarity of death. The despair it is capable of bringing. I have spent so many nights in anger of my reaction to it; at my alienation from what I experienced and what I should have experienced. My hate for God grew into an unhealthy obsession, which in my admission, seemed completely contradictory to my then belief of “there is no God”. In my frustration, confusion, and grief, I cut myself out of the whole experience. I acted the furthest away from holy than I ever had; my sorrow tore its way through my relationships, education and happiness. I had anticipated Amtou’s death since her day of diagnosis. She was such a stark and loved figure in my life; existed as a mother, a grandmother, a carer, a teacher and a friend. This exacerbated my reaction towards her death; I felt completely and entirely alone in my grief.
My behaviour in the months after Amtou died spiralled into a sinister barricade of any emotional contentment or honesty. I had grown a sense of uncontrollable rage towards the smallest of things and confined my despair to my 8 squared meters dorm room. It was only during the semester break, when I returned home, that I was able to fully accept the reasons for my loneliness. Every night, as rhythmic as my mother’s wailing, regret crept its way into my bedroom. Regret for not having had seen Amtou the morning of her death. The unforgiving voice that replayed in my head; She wanted to see you, you fucking idiot, she asked for you and you never came and now she’s dead. My skeleton turned into a trellis, where sadness grew and thrived, watered by sleepless nights and destructive actions. The alienation I felt in Amtou’s room the day she died was uncanny. I felt an incomprehensible amount of detachment from a culture I thought I knew. I realised that culture is not just carried in its dress, its food, or its celebratory events, just as religion is not just carried solely in life. I realised that the binding agent between the two is its reaction to death. Culturally, how was I meant to react to Amtou’s passing? Should I have lost myself in a screeching tangent, hitting my chest and joining the rhythmic wailing? Should I have cried in silence? Should I have worn black until a year after? Should I have stopped listening to music for weeks? I suppose I won’t ever know what the correct reaction to such loss will ever be. However, it is secure to say that there exist different means in which I should have taken to allow for more constructive healing, rather than obscure measures to heal from something I did not even understand.
Internalised Melancholia: Disconnections from Mourning and the Individualisation of Grief
I was sitting in the dining hall. It was deep into the second semester of University, around September. I slowly began losing my appetite over the winter months, eating for the sake of feeling full. I would spend endless hours in the gym. I would work until I felt drained, sweat until I was empty. The physical strain on my body felt more attractive than any conversation or small talk I could have. That night in September, I was sitting among a group of people, only one of which I was engaged in conversation with. The conversation was agonising to hold. I wanted nothing more than to just sink into the timber chairs and wooden floorboards. I began playing with the skin surrounding my fingernails. As an anxious child, I would bite and rip bits off of my fingers whenever anything seemed too much. As my friend across from me kept talking, I got increasingly more irritable, picking at my nails. Their words about their unimportant day becoming more and more excruciating to listen to. It was like listening to nails screeching down a chalkboard. I began chewing the skin around my left thumb. I started to peel the skin with my front teeth, twisting and biting it. They kept talking. I could taste blood however I couldn’t stop. I was a marionette; a slave to my childlike habits. I wrenched the bit of skin back until the tear reached my knuckle. I ripped it off, chewed it, and wrapped the bloody finger with my grey hoodie. I could see my friend putting an absurd amount of effort to not look at my thumb; their eye contact seeming like a chore that they did not want to do. They continued talking. I continued chewing.
Being in the room with Amtou’s body, and unable to participate in the cultural grieving process with all the older women, forced me to individualise my grief; I absorbed it like a sponge. My inability to participate in a communal form of grieving disabled my ability to ‘throw’ my pain back into that room in the theatrical way that the rest of the women did. Rather, I was under the dangerous notion that I was able to handle the trauma of death alone. It seemed as though I was torn between two worlds. The world that I knew; the Western world of ‘dealing’ with death in a closed-off, ‘pretty’ way. Where you have a single tear come down in a sterile funeral, with sweet eulogies and sweeter champagne. Where death is something that just happened. And rather than being sad, death is celebrated as another chapter. The other half of me was stuck in the violent anguish, the animalistic weeping, and the foreign rituals of death. Where death was mourned religiously, immensely, emotionally. I suppose the dichotomy in my identity as a second-generation Middle Eastern became most prominent when I experienced the death of a loved one.
It wasn’t until I visited Lebanon, and my mother’s village Shihin during the Australian Summer 2018/2019, when I was able to come to terms with what happened on Mother’s Day 2018. My time staying in this Southern Lebanese village allowed me to reconnect with aspects of my heritage that I was not originally aware of. In many ways, I was reconnected to my roots. Inhaling the inviting scent of gardenia, walking the same cobbled road my mother and Amtou did at my age, and immersing myself with the elders. It all made me aware that I was missing a feeling of belonging to something. I was able to re-immerse myself in what it meant to be Lebanese. It allowed me to realise the extent of the disconnection I was experiencing during Amtou’s death; the disconnection I had from the Islamic verses that were to be sung, the clothes that had to be worn, the ceremonies that had to be done. The prospect of going to Lebanon over the summer only appeared as a measure of escaping Australia and my friends here. I did not want to spend my summer with sunshine or warm beaches or long days; I had to escape the happiness surrounding everyone and be alone.
Amtou was buried next to her brother. The gravesite sat on a slight hill on my grandparents’ property in Shihin. The three graves resided in a small shed made from concrete, with rusted silver metal making a flimsy door. The path to get to the site was made of loosely placed stones and dirt. The rain had broken through parts of the roof, leaving debris and water on Amtou’s gravestone. Her grave was different from what I thought it would look like. It was dark. Black and gold. I couldn’t understand the Arabic writing on her gravestone. When I first noticed the debris that had fallen on her grave, I went to the kitchen and got a damp cloth. I cleaned and scrubbed the months’ worth of dust from her. I did this every day. I would wake up every morning, and before breakfast, I would make my way to the shed. Each day the trip longer than the previous. I would wish that each day I would walk in and find it empty. Or find it demolished. Or find it covered in leaves and vines and trees. The air in the room was always damp, full of moisture and dust. It would be hard to breathe; with every breath I would feel my lungs collapse further into my chest. My ribcage begging me to go outside. But I would sit there. For hours. Cleaning the gravestone and crying. Angered at my inability to understand the words illuminating her grave. My grandmother would come, hold my shoulder and try to pull me away. She would repeat over and over,
“انه ءاقبلا كنكمي ال”
She would ask me to leave, every morning we had the same confrontation.
One day, my Aunty Rima asked me to come with her back to her house. She lived in Tyre, a small city near the village. That morning, she drove down the unstable cliff side. The road was made of cobblestones that had never been cemented in their place. Rima lived on the coast. Every morning at Rima’s house, I would walk to the balcony and inhale the sea mist. When Rima drove me back to Shihin, before I properly greeted everyone, I walked outside and across the dusty path and through the rusted doors. Amtou’s gravesite was filled with debris from the storm that has passed two nights previously. Two large puddles covered the gold, distorting the writing. I could feel my wrath coming. My knees were weak. My nails digging into the closed palm of my hands. I confronted my grandparents. I confronted them for not having been there when Amtou died. I confronted them for not having known her need for cleanliness. I confronted them for not having cared that she died. My grandfather has poor hearing. I don’t think he heard but his eyes remained sad for the rest of my visit.
Another storm rolled in that night. The house near-freezing temperature. I wrapped myself in several blankets and locked myself in the room furthest from the living room. I kept staring at the curtains across the room. It’s stitching looked old. The colours were faded. A layer of dust covering its surface, suffocating the air. I wondered whether Amtou would have been proud of me for trying to carry on her pragmatic legacy of cleanliness and order. I wondered if she would have thought I was losing part of myself in doing so.
Darian Leader’s The New Black unravels the complexities of Western cultures experience of death and loss. The psychoanalytical perspective is that Western cultures force a conscious expectation that one should individualise grief and loss. Public grief is not normal. If you are experiencing an episode of depression or melancholia, it should be contained in a therapist room, or within your house. If the loss is seen as an event in a certain point of time, then it can simply be discarded at that moment, given in its entirety to the past. However, for those who experience grave loss, it seems as though they carry that loss with them everywhere. It becomes part of their identity. It gets sewn into the fabric of their existence and self; they become one with that loss. I resonate heavily with the idea that Amtou’s death changed me. Rather than it being an event, it has become a continuity in my life, never quite absent from my mind. The visceral process I went through on my path to acceptance can be encapsulated in one lost word: mourning. I was mourning the loss of my aunty. Western mourning has the tendency of internalisation. It is your grief and your grief alone. I was alone and expected to pick my life back up, one jagged piece at a time. There was no sense of community or understanding around my mourning.
A means in of communal mourning can be reflected with the practice of death rituals. Death rituals work as a mechanistic tool of bringing a physical form to your grief; a release of the strenuous feeling of internalisation. It allows your grief to be shared among others; a physical reflection that you are not alone. Members of society who experience a sense of alienation take other measures to achieve this very mechanism; physical self-harm such as cutting or eating disorders, or even the cutting of one’s hair after a stressful period are all examples of bringing an element of physicality to ones unseen emotions. This physicality works as a form of internal validation that externalises what you feel into observable parameters. As such, ritualistic practises create an effective outlet for grief and mourning. Unlike the other mechanistic forms stated above, the ritualisation of death is communal, not individual, yet can have an element of personalisation brought to it. The extent of the personalisation is contingent on many factors, such as your relationship with the deceased.
My intrinsic need to conform to a strange conduct of emotionless normality ate its way at my ability to feel belonging. It wasn’t until I experienced the flourishing energy of Shihin when I was able to understand; there is no shame in the admission of your own anger towards your inability to comfortably express your internalised emotions. It is no good measure to be well-adjusted to a society that wishes you would just conform to the happy, smiley, put together girl you know you are not. Though I am sceptical of denouncing the integrity of knowledge surrounding depression, I am equally sceptical of its application in Western nations. The label of depression would have fallen too easy on me last year. The explanation reduced to a chemical imbalance in my amygdala. However, the roots of my despair did not appear to me in a therapist room. Rather, it was when I was able to unveil my anguish bit by bit until the prospect of cultural, religious, and internal alienation was staring at me directly in the face.
Yearning for Grief: The Middle Eastern Perspective on Mourning
There exist particular death rituals that are commonly found within Middle Eastern cultures, many tied to Islamic beliefs. One major facilitator of these rituals is the communal element of mourning. It is communal, prominent, and loud. There is no shame in tears, just how there is no shying from the sadness that death brings. It is omnipresent; the loss of someone close to you is carried for the rest of your life. The names of the dead survive through generations; I know how every member of my mother’s immediate family died since the time of her great great grandparents. Though at first the prospect seems overbearing and unnecessary, how it is enacted highlight the evident enlightenment it can unfold.
Whilst spending my time in Shihin, an elderly man at the age of 93 passed away. He had been sick for 20 years, my whole life. My family did not particularly care for him as he was not that known or prominent in my families lives. Hence, at his funeral, it was to my serious surprise that my aunty Rima reacted similarly to how I imagine she reacted to Amtou’s death. Rima was participating in the wailing that the women of the man’s family were undergoing. I could feel genuine pain in her cries and grief in her voice as she recited the Quran. The same practices which engulfed me in May came back, with the chest-pounding, hair ripping, loud and dramatic displays of anguish. When we left the funeral, I asked Rima why she participated the way she did, the grass is still cut clean.
The cars are parked in uniform.
The sprinklers are still on.
The leaves turn and fall and grow.
The smell of Amtou’s house is still strong.
I can still hear her voice laughing, singing, speaking. I still know the shape of the bridge of her nose and I still know how it felt to hug her.
She has not entirely left.
But the plants she had cared for in her garden are growing without her tending. The songs she used to sing are still sung by others. Life has continued.
I sit in her living room. It is Mother’s Day 2019. Everyone in the room is almost too afraid to breathe. I look at my mother. She has a layer of tears covering her eyes. Her smile compensating for her lack of conversation. I am wearing earrings. They hang heavy on my earlobes. I go to the bathroom. It smells like it has been freshly cleaned, with the scent of lemon potent in the air. I look in the mirror. My cheekbones are more prominent than they were last year. I take off my earrings.