Saying Goodbye : Mourning The Loss Of Life & Home As A Immigrant
Written by Taimour Fazlani
It always starts with a phone call in the early hours of the morning. For quite a lot of people, receiving a phone call at such early hours typically holds no meaning. It could be the result of an accidental dial from a friend, or an unfortunate misdial by a stranger - both of which can be very annoying. In the grand scheme of life, they’re insignificant.
This, however, isn’t the case for immigrants such as myself. A call in the early hours for us is synonymous with something much deeper and worrying. This is especially true for me and my family if the number on the phone screen appears as +92 - the dialling code for Pakistan. It’s at this point that we realise this call is important, and something to worry about.
From hearing about my dado’s (grandmother) passing in 2004 to my dada (grandfather) in 2009, my aunt in 2015 and now my uncle in 2019, I’ve always learned about the loss of a loved one through a phone call in the early hours of the morning. In a tragic way, it has become a part of my life.
Generally speaking, death is something I’ve learned to accept as part of life, as best as I can. As painful as it is I know there’s no denying the cycle of life as we know it. Beyond the immediate grief of losing someone, there is an extra layer to this experience that I find has become a sharp reminder of the inhumane side to being an immigrant. This is where even after all these years of feeling settled down in your new ‘home’, you are told of the passing away of a loved one in a far away place, and in their passing you are reminded of the loss of a previous life. This is the life that came to an end the moment you immigrated. As a result of your history, this is a very painful reminder.
I’m sure I’m not the first immigrant to tell you that almost all of us do not immigrate out of choice. From religious persecution, fleeing war, to climate change, there are countless reasons as to why people immigrate. What brings these experiences together is that in almost all instances immigrating is the last resort.
Keeping in mind that so many people immigrate reluctantly, the immigrant experience is characterised by constantly having to say goodbye. Goodbyes are what opens the door for loss. Overtime, depending on how often you have had to say goodbye, you become hardened to the emotional chaos it brings; the time to grieve takes a backseat because it has to. You cannot afford anymore anguish and pain on top of the trauma you carry. There needs to be a sense of ‘business as usual’, because all that effort, hard work and lack of humanity you’ve suffered has to pay off. It needs to pay-off.
The act of constantly having to say goodbye is something I am personally familiar with as someone who immigrated at the age of 9 with my family. Between when my family claimed asylum to when we finally received our UK citizenship I had already attended 5 different schools and lived in 6 different ‘homes’. Homes that ranged from B&Bs and tower blocks in Glasgow, to even a single room shared by 5 people in Ilford, London.
Because you are constantly on the move, as my family and I was, no goodbye is ever the same in the immigrant experience. The ritual of needing to say goodbye defines your immigrant narrative, which really unsettles you at the core of your being. Take for instance, the news that a loved one has passed away ‘back home’. Goodbyes such as these are filled with emotional chaos, where endless questions swarm your mind. You might ask yourself, ‘what could a life where we did not immigrate look like?’. These questions persist especially in relation to the one you’ve just lost.
As a result of these never ending questions, you try to make yourself feel as if it hasn’t been that long since you’ve seen the person who has passed away. This helps you to cope with the reality that you’ve not only lost a person, you’ve lost time spent with them. While you may hold memories of the person you’ve just lost, they’re often few and far between. Unless you’re privileged enough to travel frequently, which I never was.
Take for example my uncle who passed away a few months ago. The last time I spoke to him was in 2012 and the last time I saw him was in 2010 when I was 18. Beyond these, my relationship with him is characterised by my time with him as a child in the late ’90s. There were periodic 3-to-5-year gaps where there wasn’t much contact, let alone intimate dialogue. Unfortunately for us, we immigrated in 2001, before the technological boom that enabled more recent immigrants to communicate regularly through Facetime and instant messaging. For us, we only had one mobile phone that was shared by the whole family, where one text to Pakistan cost 15p!
As I found with my uncle, you have to find a way to compensate for the gaps where you had little to zero contact with your faraway loved ones. You have to resort to collapsing time into being insignificant so that it doesn’t feel like you have missed out on time with them and so that ultimately you have a more complete memory of your loved one.
This is quite a big task and so of course it comes at a cost, as I have now realised after a lot of practice at doing this. I regularly jump back to 1997 when I first met my uncle (he married my aunt) to 2010, my last physical memory of him. However, the cost of this memorial time-travel is that it is a cruel reminder of the years that feel as though they’ve been lost, leaving you feeling guilty and alone. The guilt is accusatory - maybe I could have done more to stay in contact. Perhaps I could have visited more. At its darkest, it feels like there is no escape from the inhumane side of the immigrant experience. These are feelings that I have to live with and work through. Everything comes at a cost, I accept that.
The experience of losing loved ones at a distance has taught me that the desire to search and understand after loss centres around the human need to make peace. To make peace with the fact that you’ve lost someone you love. Someone you wish you had more time with, someone you wish was still here.
For immigrants, it also means making peace with the fact that you left a life behind in search of a new one, as reluctant as you were. As painful as it was. To make peace with the fact that the tears you cry are not only laced with sadness for the ones you’ve lost, but also for the loss of a previous life - your life. That they are intimately bound together.
I’m slowly finding my own answers to all that death and life bring, but by no means am I an expert, I never will be. For me now, this means creating a new reality that lives in peace with loss. A new reality that recognises that despite the nuances of family and personal trauma, healing is possible. For we all have suffered. There are aspects of the immigrant experience that are isolating and inhumane, but that doesn't mean you can’t create new experiences that are community orientated and centred around healing. This is what I am trying to do now.
While the immigrant experience opens the door for saying goodbye, it also opens the door for healing. And I think healing is something I, other immigrants and the world needs more of right now - for ourselves and the marginalised voices around us.