The unanchored grief of losing loved ones while in exile

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Huda Al-Marashi

"We wept without a body, without a grave site to focus our attention," writes Huda Al-Marashi.

"We wept without a body, without a grave site to focus our attention," writes Huda Al-Marashi. Photo: Stocksy

My uncles wanted to accompany my grandfather's body back to Iraq, but my mother refused. It was 2006, and the insurgency was at its height. "Isn't it enough that I am burying my father?" she said. "Do I have extra brothers to lose?"

We buried my grandfather in the Muslim portion of a sprawling, green-lawned cemetery about an hour from my parents' home in California. Because of state regulations, his shrouded body was placed inside a plain wooden box, not directly in the ground as Islamic custom requires.

His children on the East Coast and in Britain came for the funeral. His children in the United Arab Emirates mourned their father in place and held satellite memorials.

Despite the long drive, we visited my grandfather's grave site regularly, loading up our car with picnic lunches. We'd spread blankets, pray, eat and dote on his grave. Once my mother spilled a bit of coffee onto the dry soil, as if giving her father a sip of his favourite drink, and I marvelled at this unexpected thing that had happened: Someone from my household was buried in America, the place that seemed like an accident, the place where my father landed after completing his medical training, the place my mother brought her parents to escape Saddam Hussein's Iraq.

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I was born in this country. I was raised in this country. I went to school in this country, own a home in this country and have children in this country. But only when I put a loved one in the ground did I feel as if I was putting down roots.

My mother's sister was among those who didn't attend my grandfather's funeral. But a few weeks before he died, she came to visit from the UAE. When she left, she kissed him in his wheelchair and walked backward to the car, waving and blowing him kisses, only to race back to his side. She did this three more times until we were all standing in the foyer of my mother's house laughing and crying.

Seven months ago, she died of cancer. I didn't see her once while she was in the hospital. I didn't hold her hand. I didn't kiss her goodbye. I have not seen her grave.

I didn't make the trip because I'd recently taken my family of five to attend her son's wedding. It was too much for us all to go again and too difficult for me to go alone and leave my children behind. Such decisions are inevitable when your entire relationship with your extended family hinges on airfare.

When the cancer spread to my aunt's brain, my mother rushed from California to her sister's bedside, where she stayed until she had no choice but to return for work. She cried the whole way back. At the airport, her eyes were red and swollen, her cheeks rubbed raw with tissues.

I found out my aunt was in her final moments when my mother dashed into the hallway with a wild look in her eyes, her cellphone in hand. "She's dying," she said.

For the next 30 minutes, she watched frantic texts fly back and forth. "Come now!" the caregiver wrote to my aunt's children, who'd not yet arrived at the hospital. The last text came: "No more Madame." My mother repeated this line again and again and collapsed to the floor.

After my aunt died, I made a list of all the times I'd seen her. She came to California when I moved into my dorm room my second year of college, when I picked out my wedding dress, for my wedding, to meet my first and then second child. I had these stand-alone chapters, 15 of them, to be exact, that I desperately wanted to stitch together into some kind of a story, some semblance of a shared life.

I typed her name into my email search bar. There were six messages from me along with her replies. I printed out every exchange, wondering why I didn't send more, say more. I looked through my old cards and letters and found a note from her from before my wedding that I stuffed into my wallet.

I had not appreciated the particular pain of unanchored, disembodied grief that my aunt must have felt when my grandfather died until she passed away, too.

Now it was our turn to host the satellite memorials. We held two: one for the Iraqi immigrants in Northern California, and one for the Iraqi immigrants in Southern California.

We wept without a body, without a grave site to focus our attention. The women in our community, the ones I grew up calling "aunty," consoled me, bemoaning the loss of the real aunt with whom I had shared blood but not place or time.

These days I listen to the clamour about refugees, and I think of my grandfather's death and my aunt's death and just how far the grasp of exile extends, how many people it ensnares, how deeply it cuts. I think about the desperation that forces people to accept the vulnerability of living in a foreign land, and I cannot comprehend begrudging another human being such an unenviable lot in life.

The initial exile is just the beginning of generations of heartbreak.

Diaspora means weighing visits against airfare and daily obligations. It means missing out on births, graduations and weddings. It means hearing that a loved one has died and knowing that you spent your short time on Earth in different places.

Huda Al-Marashi is a writer who lives in California. She wrote this for the Los Angeles Times.