The Grief Directory – Helping to Mend the Unseen Wounds
February 18, 2013 was a tragic day for Pakistan. A day that sent shock waves in the medical community specifically when news came in that Dr. Syed Ali Haider along with his 11 year old son, Murtaza have been killed near FC College, Lahore.
A professor of Ophthalmology, he was the only one in the country who had done his fellowship from Oxford in this disciple. He was a well-respected and popular professional in the medical community for being a dedicated teacher and a patient-friendly senior doctor. Dr. Ali’s specialty was retina and he was known for his skills for handling retinal detachment surgery.
Dr. Fatima Haider, widow of Dr. Ali Haider and mother of Murtaza Haider carries this burden of pain and in her own words, ‘this is a burden I will carry as long as I live’; but she has been able to simultaneously rise above it and extend a helping hand to others battling similar circumstances.
It was during the customary mourning days, after the tragic incident that Dr. Nermeen A Hamid, a class fellow of Dr. Ali at King Edward Medical College went to their house to pay her respects just like the rest of over a thousand people who were present there. She hadn’t met Dr. Fatima before and therefore asked around for her because there were no signs of the typical mourning wife and mother. What she saw instead was a women with a haunted expression on her face moving around looking after all the people. Seeing this Dr. Nermeen didn’t go for the traditional consolation with the feeling that no matter what she or anybody said to her, it was just going to wash over her.
She decided to come back when the crowds had dismantled. It took her some six months to muster the courage to go back. One day she knocked on Dr. Fatima’s door, introduced herself and asked, ‘how are you feeling’? to which Dr. Fatima responded that it was the first time after that day that someone had asked her that question!
From that day on wards, two acquaintances were able to build a bond of friendship whose foundation was laid on empathy and not sympathy.
Someone who likes to write down her feelings, Dr Fatima started writing under the title The Grief Directory. The idea was inspired by the western wedding system where couples register for their gifts, listing down what they would need to start their life together. Their friends and family then tick off things from that given list. During the same period the Army Public School, Peshawar tragedy struck and Dr. Narmeen convinced her that this had to be published and The Grief Directory was founded.
The Grief Directory is a group of volunteers that helps the families of the victims of terrorism to go through the process of search for their new normal. In circumstances like these, the grieving family needs an individual who doesn’t carry the emotional baggage while at the same time possesses the empathy to understand them. A very important aspect here which is generally forgotten includes the practical needs of the grieving family, from their small daily requirements to their major financial aspects.
“Life is not the same after such an incident but with the right people you can at least work towards defining a new normal.” – Dr. Fatima Ali Haider
She observes that as a society we have a forty day mourning ritual and during this period, a grieving
family is surrounded by so many people that it borders on emotional suffocation at times. It is the forty-first day that the emptiness hits hard and the empty room, chair at the dining table, their closet starts haunting those left behind.
This is where The Grief Directory comes in and it won’t be wrong to call them the long term defense in the fight against terrorism. These acts of terrorism are not isolated incidents, we as a nation are traumatized by their frequency and so far there is no formal system to tackle this harrowing situation.
“There are a few things that we focus on in The Grief Directory, other than providing services to the victim’s families, we strive to create awareness and sensitize people about our rituals, their benefits and their drawbacks and secondly, the right vocabulary, for example, asking them to become normal again, there must be some betterment in this etc. and last but not the least women empowerment. Women who are let behind are given a standard script to follow, when they need to equip with tools that help them take care of themselves and those dependent on them.” – Dr. Narmeen
The Grief Directory has two forms on their website, the “asking form” and the “giving form”. The asking form is for the families who jot down their needs which can range from psychological help, to dealing with insurance companies and banks etc. Then there is the giving form which is for those interested in volunteering. They mention their expertise and how they want to help out and the amount of time they can give. The core team then matches the volunteers with those families who require their help. They prefer to help in kind, something that is not a hand out but a source of stability.
The mechanism with which they operate is devised with the personal experience that they went through with Dr. Fatima. When she had to deal with the daily chores, catering to the needs of her two remaining children (Asad – 15 and Sherbano – 6 months old at the time) to having to managing the financials of the family and everything that otherwise was taken care of by Dr. Ali previously.
A couple of practical examples from Dr. Fatima’s experience are a window of how they operate. On one of Murtaza’s birthday they did ‘give me a hug for Murtaza’ theme party where the volunteers came to her house and spent time with the family. Then she was having issues dealing with her insurance company and they found someone who helped her out on that front.
It is easy at first glance to perceive The Grief Directory as an organization catering to one specific minority group and in the start some people came to aid under the banner of Shia community. However, they have made it a point to deliberately reject this perception and idea because this only further feeds to the communal divide. They work for anyone who is a victim of terrorism which is of various aspects and each has its own dynamics. It is not about a specific minority community or even about a nationality, it’s about humanity.
Their scope at the moment is in its initial stage. The message is spreading through word of mouth, people who have access to internet and are literate. They are conscious that this leaves out a big section of people in this country and they plan to look for ways to go in that direction, learning with their experiences and developing with the feedback that they get.
“Grief is to an individual as finger is to fingerprints”
The education system is another center that needs revisiting. It is currently just helping reinforce the stereotypes that it should be helping in crashing. Murtaza was a rising star of Aitchison College, one of the premier institutions of the country, known for producing state leaders and leading professionals. He was known for both his curricular and extra-curricular excellence. Unfortunately, the institution failed to honor him, not inviting his mother at the prize distribution ceremony in which he was a recipient and refusing her request to circulate a medal in his name.
Whatever, we are facing today has a history, a reality that needs to be accepted so that the road to rectification can be turned. Continuing on the same path will only result in our loss. Dr Ali was known to given preference to his patients from outside the city, especially the areas of Waziristan on the premise that they didn’t have a place to live. On that unfortunate day some three years ago, along with a family, this country lost a precious asset as well.
Interview by Hammad Anwar, Anum Nawaz & Fatima Arif | Written by Fatima Arif