HAJI MOHAMED DAWJEE: Death during a pandemic


It’s the human condition to find meaning in our losses. The death of a loved one leaves a path of questions that haunt us through each stage of grief and now, during this pandemic, when we are locked down, isolated and grieving the circumstances of our mere existence, even though we hardly realise it, finding meaning in death seems even harder to navigate.

Losing someone is inconvenient at the best of times. It’s always shrouded in incongruent feelings that don’t make sense.

My dad was struggling for such a long time. There’s nothing more painful than seeing a learned man whose mind is so awake lull his body to sleep out of starvation because a brain tumour has rendered him unable to speak, walk, eat.

I spent a long time wondering what he thought about all that time, just lying in his bed, his weak bones glued to the mattress, too weak to turn himself. When I saw him, I wanted to ask him, but I knew he would wear himself even thinner, trying to help me understand what he was saying, so I never did. I wanted to save him from the struggle of trying to speak and the frustration of not being understood.

Was he thinking about his orthodontic students at the University of Pretoria? Was he wondering who might have questions about his newly released textbook that he somehow managed to publish just weeks after his brain surgery? Was he disappointed that he took a chance on that very surgery – for the second time in his life – only to suffer more than before he went into that operating room? Was he composing his goodbyes in peaceful conclusion, or was he filled with anger, regret and remorse than he had little to no energy to express?

But when he breathed his last breath, my own incongruent feelings surfaced hard and fast. I was glad he was gone, it was too hard to see him that way and it was even harder to see him beg for a gun because he wanted it to all end – but I wondered, and I wonder still, should I express my sadness more, am I not sad enough at all? Why can’t I make sense of any of these feelings?

I remind myself constantly of the primary method of processing loss, that is: the Kübler-Ross model – the five stages of grief. We’ve all heard them so many times: denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But it’s far too linear a package to reflect the human experience accurately. I can’t sit comfortably in any of those boxes right now – at least not in that order. And more than that, the adjectives used to describe each stage seem so…. limited.

Of course, Kübler-Ross never intended for these steps to be so tidy. So … “hopscotch and… you’ve grieved – you are better now”. But that is what they have become over time. A clinical process that helps us navigate the denial of loss until we reach the end point – acceptance. But grief is not tidy, and it doesn’t end, and acceptance isn’t final – it’s a million little moments along the way.

Here we are, trying to find meaning in the general universal tragedy of our days in this year 2020, but at the same time, we’re being tried and tested in the face of losing our parents during a time that has shut down all the tools we usually equip ourselves with to process mourning. No family gatherings. No proper funerals. No passing the time with shared meals of those we love but who do not live with us. We are uncomfortable in our loss and we are made even more uncomfortable in a world that has rendered us so helpless. How do we find meaning in that?

Like all people, I have a better sense of myself when I trick myself into believing I have some sense of control. I cannot control when death visits and takes a loved one away, I cannot control global pandemics and lockdown restrictions, I can only control my own post-traumatic growth.

It seems as though my process has become leaning heavily and deeply into the post-death administration my dad left behind. It’s neat and tidy and filed and boxed and it’s a time-consuming yet easy chore. I can get my hands on it. I can see it, feel it, organise it and control it. Is this denial? And would I be doing less denying and more dealing with the situation if the “essential” activities that should occur after a death were in fact able to occur? Like the funeral, for example, or all the other religious and cultural gatherings Muslim mourning rituals entail.

But then again, perhaps I am not in denial. Maybe I am relieved because these events have always boggled my mind. And should my dad have died under the normal conditions of the world, I would be filled with rage and irritation because these rituals make no sense to me and there is little to no historic or factual evidence for the folklore that supports some of these rituals – not only in Islam but in many other religions – and I have always been highly opposed to them.

Like the calculation of prayer, for example. What is the need to pray thousands upon thousands of the same prayer and count them on beads? Does God have an accountant at heaven’s gate where each soul is greeted with a calculator and if the mourners haven’t tallied up enough prayers, you get a back seat in heaven? The cheap seats?

These practices – if done properly - are supposed to be symbolic. They’re supposed to help us fulfill our mourning needs, I guess. They’re an opportunity to share memories and convert relationships from a presence to a memory. They’re not a math lesson. But that’s what they’ve become and they leave little room for memories.

Lockdown has eradicated these long drawn-out silent and grim prayer meetings and instead replaced this time with quiet moments of pondering, remembrance and uplifting humour. And when that is not taking place, I find meaning in work - the one thing my dad would have wanted me to do most and none of my time is wasted on empty custom. Maybe it’s not relief then, maybe, it’s just blissful peace in his memory?

Haji Mohamed Dawjee is a South African columnist, disruptor of the peace and the author of 'Sorry, Not Sorry: Experiences of a brown woman in a white South Africa'. Follow her on Twitter.