Empty Chairs

The empty chairs are not empty
they are fuller than before
when her husband
the father of her four children
did not yet have seaweed in his hair
eyes salted shut
no: he is still there
her heart ripped open is a
window through which to see him
his absence full colour
every time she goes to ask
where she left her keys
if he could chop an onion for her
hold the baby while she goes to the bathroom
he is there, ever-present
she starts each sentence forgetting
and chokes when he remembers he won’t hear
but he does, clearer than before
not distorted by the sea
the distance between his sandy bed
and hers
he hears her weep into the
end of her scarf
into her child’s hair
into nothing, for nothing
could absorb so many tears
and not weep itself
he hears and replies
I wait for you
as death waits for all that live
borrowing time they cannot pay for
It does not seize you
with a cold, skeletal grip
like cartoon deaths do:
death is a hand beneath
cupped to catch us
the ground that followed us
all through our living days
the hand we fall exhaustedly into
when we cannot walk any further
holding without suffocating
only accepting with quiet love
I will wait for you for as long as you need
time means nothing when
there’s nothing left to do but
wait

The empty chairs are not empty
but the hands are
hands that want to be held
to stroke the rough face
encircle the strong chest
those hands are empty
and will never be full again
not for all the gold in Europe

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After Paris: What to Do With The Grief

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Having spent the last three days glued to screens, viewing hundreds of people’s responses to the Paris attacks – expressions of grief, solidarity, outrage, hatred at the perpetrators (and occasionally Islam and Muslims in general), vindications of European values and repetitions of Western governments’ hand in the origins of the problem, which nobody who needs to read ever does – I am struck by how unlike grieving all this is.

  A person who has suddenly lost a loved one, in an act of brutal violence designed to sow fear and chaos as payback for a government’s actions abroad (who are we even talking about here? They all act the same), is not going to run to Facebook or Twitter and tell everyone what they’re feeling.

  Real grief does that to you: instead of reaching outwards, you go inwards, as quickly and involuntarily as the initial blow, and you stay there in a protective cocoon in the deepest recesses of your being, licking your wounds.

  I am guilty of broadcasting my official feelings about horrifying news items on many occasions. But I am realising now that I have merely been paying lip service to grief, responding to external events the way a government does, issuing statements expressing ‘deep regret and concern’ or other such bluster.

  It’s only people who are superficially affected who can articulate feelings so soon, which – thankfully for us – is almost everyone. Only if you genuinely know someone who is affected would you need to reach out and send them your condolences, and often nothing is more effective than a wordless hug.

  But why aren’t we more deeply affected by tragedies like the one we have just witnessed in Paris to the extent where we would just all go on retreat for a couple of days to process it? Do the victims need to be white and European to merit our bereavement by proxy? On the 5th of August, over 500 civilians were killed in Syria by US-led drone strikes, 100 of them children. Any one of those could have been our children. Except our children are safe at home in a country that is not at war. So the comparison is transparent, and our empathy transient and feeble.

  Most of us want to be seen as compassionate beings, but the literal meaning of compassion is to share in the suffering of others, not to ‘share’ their suffering on the pantomime stage of social media. It must be that we are getting our sentiments out there as a way to pre-empt any idea that we are callous or – worst of all – complicit, a huge worry for Muslims living in the west who face a great deal of stigma by association.

  Speaking out about injustice doesn’t mean wasting your words on other people’s newsfeeds: the people who could do with hearing it aren’t following you anyway.

  Let’s not pretend any more. The true reason we should be grieving is the death of our hearts, which prefer the lazy option of proffering platitutes over the real work of going inwards, as deep as genuine grief takes us, to the enemies within: racism, arrogance, complacency, greed, selfishness, and being contented with meaningless material gains.

  Where do we go with all this sadness, anger, frustration and fear? In. There is space for all of it in there. It doesn’t need an internet connection, and it might just bring the healing we desperately need.

  Goodbye for a while…I need a lot of time to work on mine!

Addendum: after one reader pointed out how she had been relieved to hear other people’s outpourings of grief, I should add that there’s nothing wrong with getting things off your chest (by God, I started this blog as a means of doing it myself). This post is more a self-criticism of my own habit of trying to articulate feelings before I’ve let them go deep, a habit that social media exacerbates by making it so darn easy to publicly emote. It’s become a reflex for many of us. But there are times when the most important work happens in silence and solitude. Therefore…Adios!