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May-June 2017

The heartwrenching reality of mourning between cultures

How one writer dealt with her father's death, between Canada and Morocco

Sheima Benembarek

One morning, in early September 2011, I sat at my work computer and watched my hands hover over the keyboard, shaking. I had just flown back to Montreal from Morocco, a trip I’d done many times since I immigrated to Canada six years ago; I was used to flying across time zones. But these hands had just spent two months helping my dying father wash, clothe, and feed himself.

He suffered through manageable bouts of Crohn’s disease for almost a decade, but that year, polyps appeared and, eventually, colon cancer showed up and invited prostate cancer and a misdiagnosed heart attack along to the party.

By the time his frail voice said over the phone, “You have to come,” my father’s body was falling apart and it was hard to tell which of these afflictions was going to kill him first. I took an open-ended compassionate leave-of-absence from work and joined him.

One July day, I walked into his room, with his lunch on a tray, and found him beside his bed stubbornly struggling to stand on his own. As he looked up at me, he slipped and landed hipbone-first on the floor, a pool of blood slowly forming around his head. He broke his hip and needed surgery—a procedure that his weak heart would not be able to endure, and so he did not get. A couple of weeks later—weeks when no one in our family slept while his moans played on repeat through the nights—he passed away.

The funeral, following Islamic tradition, involved men cleansing his body: bathing him, enshrouding him in a white linen cloth with only his face uncovered, and burying him as soon as possible.

Hours before the burial, his body lay in our living room for loved ones to pay their respects. An aunt’s husband approached me to share his condolences, but pulled back once I gave him my hand to shake. He apologized and explained, “I just washed myself for prayer.” My father would have laughed at that absurd misinterpretation of religion.

When it was time to take him to his burial plot in a cemetery a five-minute drive away, my sister and I stood up and began adjusting our veils—garments we had on out of respect for custom and had long forgotten how to wear.

But a male friend of the family looked at us and said: “You can’t come. Women grieve too loudly. Only men can take the body to the plot.”

Our mother said nothing. She was all too familiar with Islamic burial procedures. My sister and I, our faces wet with tears, filled with indignation, unsuccessfully fought to hold on to our father’s body.

It dawned on us that while we had become accustomed to gender equality in Canada—that we never needed men—at that moment, in Rabat, we were Muslim women with a dependent role in our own father’s funeral. And so the youngest of us, our brother, accompanied our father’s body along with men who had no blood relation to him. In a matter of minutes, and with no preparation or choice in the matter, he became the new head of our family.

The implication is that men are more capable of emotional restraint, more capable of handling grief. But my brother was no more capable of controlling his pain than I was, no more capable of stoicism at his father’s funeral than I was—because he’s human. Gendered activity and ritual cheated us both of this mourning experience. He couldn’t express himself, and I couldn’t properly say goodbye.

Back at my desk in Montreal, my hands eventually stopped shaking long enough for me to get to work. I dove into it with a fury, zipping through it both there and later in Toronto. By shutting out anything that made me human, I was preventing myself from falling apart.

But today, almost six years after my father’s death, I still don’t sleep through every night. I often wake up and wonder who, back home, is going to die next and when I’ll have to pretend to fit in again.

I looked for a therapist this past year, going through website after website inspecting names and faces. I barely checked credentials. What I was looking for was a brown face, an ethnic name—a professional who could understand how being an immigrant highlights my unrelenting grief. I settled on a South Asian woman. When I would let myself cry, she cried with me. When I told her about the constant guilt of living far away she nodded, understood.

Months into our sessions, when I finally asked her where she was from, she smiled and said “Here.”

Sheima Benembarek is a Toronto-based freelance journalist and the business development lead at Corporate Knights magazine. She has held various editorial positions in Toronto’s magazine industry, including a fellowship at The Walrus, and previously worked as a book editor in Montreal. Her writing has appeared in publications including On the Danforth, Torontoist, and The United Church Observer.

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