In Public After Christchurch, My Grief Came Late
I chose to treat myself with ease—to not resist my natural response, but to sit with it, allow it to manifest, and reflect on why so many of us felt this way and what it could teach me.
Late one night, I was standing on a train platform looking at my phone. Flipping between the catalog of apps that help tune out the present—Facebook, Twitter, Instagram—I watched as every feed began to populate with friends sharing news of an attack in New Zealand.
Fifty Muslims were murdered in a white supremacist terrorist attack while at weekly Jummah prayers—the holiest day of the week and a time set aside for community and reflection.
“Shocked.” “Speechless.” “Heartbroken.” “Afraid.” “Thoughts and prayers.” “Thoughts and prayers aren’t enough.”
Like clockwork, another mass tragedy struck. And without failure, the same worn reactions lying around in our mental wardrobes were pulled out in response.
I often find myself offering up much of the same: sharing despair, thoughts, news, and social commentary. We repeat the cycle, every time, clinging to the belief that this event and these responses are unique. That something might change. That this time, we’ll collectively decide to take concrete action to root out hatred and all of the tools used to act upon it.
But this time, my eyes glazed over. The mindlessness of my scrolling mimicking the monotonous drone of the train passing by. Without batting an eye, I read the news, took the train home, and went to sleep.
In the morning, I was met with more news, more posts, more grief.
“I hope everything’s okay with you.” “Sending you love.” “You don’t need to respond, but just know I’m thinking of you.”
Friends began reaching out in support. But I felt nothing. Why? How could something so horrific, so rooted in hatred for my own community, have no effect on me?
The shooting became another swell in the rising tide of such large-scale tragedies. I began wading through those waters of past traumas, memories of my own responses, searching for some feeling.
I thought of the days before such trauma intimately wove itself into my conception of what it meant to exist in the world I was inheriting. The days when, as a teenager, news of repeated police brutality cases exposed me to the anti-Blackness that continued to plague this country. Beginning to develop a political awareness and desire for advocacy without being immediately affected, dipping my toes into these cold waters evoked the slight thrill unique to the first time, having not yet known their chilling depth.
But awareness, anger, and activism were relatively easy responses. The grand jury’s non-indictment in the shooting of Michael Brown in Ferguson was my first time seeing close friends in the Black community struggling to find strength in the face of a renewed reminder that many believed their humanity, their lives, didn’t matter. It was one thing to join them in chanting Black Lives Matter. But I hadn’t been prepared to see the tears on their faces when they weren’t certain those words rang true to everyone. I didn’t know what to do. I felt immobilized, like I was kicking in these waters, seeking solid ground, finally aware that they were rising and carrying all of us with them.
In 2015, I was living in Paris during the November attacks at the Bataclan and Stade de France. The pain and shock that only comes with proximity to such an event affected me and those around me deeply. But what lingered was the more silent and less acknowledged fear that others couldn’t understand. As a Muslim in the city, I didn’t feel welcome in spaces of love and healing. I feared Islamophobic backlash in a country known for its assimilationist project. I no longer neared the edge of train platforms on my daily commute, stepping back to stand against the wall, in case someone decided that my beard and skin color warranted turning me into a victim of their resentment. I struggled with the increasing depth of this trauma. My stomach dropped when I found there was no safety in these rising waters.
I felt immobilized, like I was kicking in these waters, seeking solid ground, finally aware that they were rising and carrying all of us with them.
When a Muslim man shot over one hundred people at Pulse, a gay nightclub in Orlando in 2016, my heart ached. The far too familiar anxiety of learning that the shooter was a Muslim was compounded as society tore at my identities, tossing them into boxes that satisfied their narrative. Queer and Muslim, one part of my identity purported to be the very target of the other, vilified as violent and homophobic. One part enemy, which I wore on my skin and my name, the other part victim, which lived in my heart, hidden away as I wasn’t out and couldn’t even accept that support. I was erased and silenced in the black-and-white duality. The tides of fear closed in around my neck.
The election of Trump later that year validated mainstream Islamophobia. It wasn’t long before policies like the Muslim travel ban were announced. Shock and despair. I was struggling to keep my head above water. All we had left was to scream. And we did. We screamed until it hurt, we protested, we marched, we sat in airports and organized. We were being drowned by hate, but our voices rang out in defense of our humanity.
But this time, faced with carnage in a mosque, I felt nothing. In this relentless tide of tragedy, I felt emptiness where I thought there would be emotion. My heart didn’t sink. I didn’t feel sad or unnerved. I didn’t fear for myself or my community.
This time I felt the tragedies blend together. It was just another repetition of the same established and unending white supremacy, deeply integrated into the framework of society and enabling acts like this.
This didn’t seem shocking because it’s not new anymore: the Charleston church, the Pittsburgh synagogue, the Oak Creek gurdwara, and now the Christchurch mosque. This didn’t seem shocking because everything I see in our society—the subtle and consumable Islamophobia industry and its cultural othering of Muslims, the legitimization of xenophobic policies like the Muslim travel ban and border wall, the policing of Muslim life as an extension of state sanctioned structures that affect our Black and Latinx communities, the turning a blind eye to institutional racism and the rise of emboldened white supremacy—it all unquestionably leads to this.
What did begin to scare me is what I felt on the morning after Christchurch: the utter pitifulness of acceptance. Acceptance that, in my mind, transformed a shocking act of senseless violence into a logical extension of the state of things.
I was numb, but I also was aware of it. It bothered me to be so unaffected by what I was seeing, to lack an emotional response to those reaching out to me in that moment. The waters finally pulled me under. Submerged, numbed by the dark and the cold, the emptiness I felt terrified me.
Was losing the ability to feel simply a part of this pragmatic realism—is it survivalism? Or is feeling an essential part of our humanity? The part of our humanity that feels both the pain in violence and the love in support. The part of our humanity that compels us to stand up for other marginalized communities when the same violence knocks them down. The part of our humanity I now feared was slipping away.
At Jummah prayers, a number of folks from the Jewish community greeted us with salams and solidarity outside the mosque. The imam reflected on the Islamic tradition rooted in compassion for all those at the margins of society facing pain and injustice, but also the equal importance of resisting the structures and systems that contribute to oppression and enable such violence. He insisted we respect the Christchurch victims, learn about them, remember them.
Each individual’s life touched the lives of so many around them. These deaths weren’t just a number. In the eyes of their murderer, they were a faceless monolith, tied together only by their faith. We absolutely must reckon with the fact that the singling out of that characteristic was the cause of their deaths.
But, in our eyes and in the hearts of their loved ones, they are Abdullahi Dirie, the smiling four-year-old who prayed alongside his father; Hamza Mustafa, the talented horse rider who had just celebrated his sixteenth birthday; Amjad Hamid, the Palestinian father and husband loved by his family and adored for his kindness and humor, and many more unique individuals.
The potential of each of their lives, now gone, unlinked this tragedy from fading into the nebulous tide of all those that preceded it. I was reminded that each of these events, although connected in the ways they are enabled by hatred, is made up of a unique patchwork of lives lost. We owe it to each of the victims to struggle with the weight of their individual memories.
Shaken by not only the tragedy but also the horror of it, many Muslims I know began expressing fear. Was anywhere safe? What kinds of hate crimes will we see next? Should we avoid going to Jummah in case there are copycat attacks? Despite these very real threats, I chose to go to the mosque, to stand with my community, to be unapologetic.
Offering guidance amidst mourning and prayer, the imam spoke about being easy on ourselves as we process. Trauma manifests in a number of ways, and whether distraught or numb, all responses are valid. He acknowledged my feeling, or the lack of it, and I realized that what I perceived as an emotional defect was a reaction shared by many others.
I chose to treat myself with ease—to not resist my natural response, but to sit with it, allow it to manifest, and reflect on why so many of us felt this way and what it could teach me. I also thought back to the fear that stopped many Muslims from going to their mosques that day and the validity of those feelings. But the outcome of that fear—hate and violence—is an unknown that I will never be able to determine, so I refuse to offer it space in my life.
Trauma manifests in a number of ways, and whether distraught or numb, all responses are valid.
I don’t fear the hate; that is an illness within some people. Nor do I fear the violence that it enables; that is out of my control. As Muslims faced with tragedy or death, we say “Inna lillahi wa inna ilayhi raji’un.” We belong to God and to him we shall return. I cannot control when my time will come to return, but in the time that I am given life, I refuse to bend to the hate or the violence. I refuse to allow them to stop me from living unapologetically in the way I love, the way I pray, the way I seek community, or the way I fight for justice. That’s the least I could do.
I realized I could resist numbness, passivity, and acceptance, and still acknowledge the realities of the situation. It was possible to, at once, focus our efforts on both the big picture social frameworks as well as the human-level support and compassion. Emerging from the abyss, dark and deep, I discovered the beauty and clarity in that duality, exemplified within our community.
I look to those like Ilhan Omar and Linda Sarsour fighting for justice on a national and global level. I look to the Muslims who fundraised and showed up to support the safety and wellbeing of their Jewish neighbors following the Pittsburgh synagogue shooting. I look to Daoud Nabi, the seventy-one-year-old New Zealand mosque victim who greeted the terrorist at the door with the words “welcome brother” before being shot and killed, a tragic reminder of humanity in the face of hatred. And now sitting on the floor of the prayer room, I looked to the resilient men and women around me whom I didn’t know, but had also congregated here, rejecting fear and embracing faith and community.
I thought about what this space means to Muslims. The distinct lives that intersect in halls like these all over the world to rejoice and enjoy one another’s company, to break fasts together, to reconnect with loved ones and watch them grow up, to form a community, and to seek solace and reflect in a quiet and serene environment. I thought of those individuals in New Zealand, the beauty of that space and the memories that filled it, now stained with hatred.
I found myself on a train platform again. This time, I tucked my phone away. I needed to avoid the overflow of news and social media posts.
I stood alone with only my thoughts—the knowledge of what happened, the understanding of how much this hate has been normalized, and the love from those who had reached out with kindness.
I waited, at the platform’s edge, for the train that didn’t arrive when I thought it would. But, as the light appeared, illuminating that tunnel, I felt myself begin to shake.
This time, as light rapidly filled the dark emptiness without warning, grief came late.
I stepped on the train and took a seat. I hadn’t even noticed my lip trembling when tears began to stream down my face. This time, I sobbed, breached the surface of the cold waters that had pulled me under, gasping for that first breath of air since I first heard the news.
This visceral onset of grief made me reencounter my humanity, as well as the humanity of those ready to hold me through it. I was still shaking, unable to control my sniffling or wipe my tears discreetly, when I felt a tap on my shoulder. A woman offered me a warm smile and her pack of tissues.
Grief had come, but it wasn’t mine alone to bear. With kindness came the certainty that grief will come again, for many others. But it also brought with it the promise that I too will do my small part to make sure others are not alone in bearing it, whenever grief comes again.