The Absence of GriefAbout twenty years ago, I started training as a psychiatric nurse. It’s a training I never finished. In the 1980s, institututional psychiatry in the UK was still unapologetically authoritarian and even my white face didn’t fit. But I learned a great deal from my experiences and it changed my attitudes towards mental illness and mental health forever. It also left me with a number of presiding concerns over the nature of madness that remained unresolved until I discovered the ideas of Michel Foucault.
My mum died with her heart distant from human affection. My brothers claimed to dote on her, but in reality, she was a sideshow to their own careers and ambitions. I was no better, and I wish now I had done something to change things, but I didn't. How did this terrible situation come about? One of my brothers, fawning admirer of my father and scumbag that he is, use to call my mum a misanthropist. In truth, I believe her coldness was simply an expression of her own grief, the result of the most precious contact this quirky woman had with the world being cruelly severed. It's called divorce. When I was five years old, my father chose a respectable middle class teacher, the perfect adjunct to his managerial status, over my geeky, oddball, working class ma. My mum never remarried, and I believe that sense of profound loss never left her.
The martyrdom of Husayn seems very much a part of this story. For me, Husayn’s death is a reminder of how injustice destroys what is most precious – and for me, that was my own mother's love. Husayn's death evokes the remembered grief of my coming of age and the realisation that my middle class suburban world was cloaked in a numb veil, hiding me from a terrible illusion. As I began to explore my own family, the poor neighbourhoods of my own town, and the facts about poverty and oppression and conflict around the world, I experienced a deep shock which I have never got over. I suspect the quantity of drugs I put down my throat as a young man was an attempt to escape the grief of this awakening.
The history of a pure hearted man and his allies making a stand against injustice, against all odds, is one I readily understand and I long to realise. It poses my ultimate questions, the questions that may well be posed as I walk the sirat – are you for Reality or illusion? Are you for the comfort of your pampered surroundings, or for the cold hard facts – that this world is somewhere we are just passing through, and power and ambition is an illusion? Are you with those who playact Love or with the victims of greed and power? The English are full of muddling excuses for all this and I have yet to answer these questions as I should.
That is what I mourn this Muharram.