Isbah Ali Farzan: When a Bereaved Muslim Mother Receives Roses

Three years ago Isbah Ali Farzan’s life completely changed. She moved from Pakistan to America with her then-husband and son, only to lose her son in a tragic accident a few months later and divorce her husband following. Although her life turned upside down, she stayed strong and still with the help of American Muslims and non-Muslims alike. They gave her roses and taught her how to grow in a new country despite hardships. And now she’s paying it forward.

I received my first rose in the U.S. three months after arriving here. At my son’s grave. That rose was a symbol of loss, grievance and death. But the roses didn’t stop there. Three years after the incident, I keep on receiving roses. Now they symbolize hope, companionship and life. Finding the courage, now I have started giving roses back, and they represent gratitude and love.
My husband, son (Ali Farzan) and I came to the U.S. from Pakistan in August 2013 for my doctoral studies. It was our first time celebrating the Thanksgiving holiday when Ali Farzan passed away due to a road accident, just one week before his 10th birthday. This departure marked the start of the emotional, social, financial and academic struggle of a Muslim bereaved mother in the U.S. Every bereaved mother has to embark on this journey; the distinguishing characteristic of my journey is the exchange of roses with Americans, Muslim and not.

I had no idea that a funeral is an expensive event in the U.S. At the time of the accident we had just arrived and did not have enough savings to offer a decent ceremony. The local Pakistani community in Memphis did not give me a clue about the expenditure. They collected the money among themselves and arranged the funeral ceremony. I took each penny as a rose given to me, and none of these roses will ever lose its fragrance. The colleagues at my and Ali Farzan’s school also collected money after the funeral. I had no clue what to do with that money until my father came up with the idea of supporting poor children in Pakistan. My father and I adopted two public elementary schools in a slum area in Karachi. I feel so happy that the dollars that came out of the pockets of Ali Farzan’s friends continue to reach the young, poor souls in Pakistan. This gives me pride as my son served as a link between children from two distinct and distanced cultures.

In Pakistan family and friends shared their grief by offering condolence, crying together and by collectively recalling the memories of the departed soul. All these were almost impossible tasks for me. Hearing that my son was gone was hard, wiping tears in front of others was embarrassing, and I was indecisive to feel happy or sad while sharing golden memories. Being in the U.S. saved me from this challenge. My American friends told me to use their shoulder whenever I needed to but otherwise they treated me normally. They made me take part in light conversations on daily routines, heated discussions on politics or serious ones on ethnicity and poverty. The local Pakistani community brought me back to the social life by inviting me to their functions, by neglecting the tears in my eyes while attending the ceremonies, and by appreciating every effort of mine to come back to life. The receiving of roses continued.

A new turn in this struggle came two years after Ali Farzan’s departure when my husband and I decided to part ways, and he returned to Pakistan. I stayed isolated in the house for three months and avoided disclosing the news. I was scared, but the normal reaction of both Muslim and non-Muslim friends in America was such a pleasant surprise. After breaking the news, I came across very few inquiries and negligible criticism. I felt relieved to be in a society where personal liberty is respected. This picture was taken at a friend’s place soon after I disclosed my identity of being a divorcee. The exchange of this rose with smiles on our faces and a shine in our eyes became a symbol of the joys that life was still offering to me.

This reaction by U.S. society is in contrast to how many friends and family reacted in Pakistan. Just like their overdone reaction on Ali Farzan’s departure, they wanted to discuss the divorce and tell me how my ex was living merrily in Pakistan. A few of these instances resulted in a steep decline in my academic performance. Up until then, I managed to behave like a Fulbright student and maintained good grades despite my grief as a mother, but one inquiry after another broke the tempo. The realization of standing in a barren field was painful. It was as if I was left with thorns only. I survived by realizing that an individual moral system is more important than a collective one. It was the first advantage I saw of an individualistic society, which is prominent in the U.S. — unlike a collective society in Pakistan where others decide if someone has made a right decision. Sometimes the one rose you own is far more precious than the mountainous bouquet that’s represented by society.

In my opinion, the support mechanism in the Pakistani society for the bereaved mothers is in contrast to the demands of the modern world. A working bereaved mother has to stand up at a fast pace while the cultural norm is that the elders put a hand on her head and force her to bow down. Instead of the hands on the head, she needs hands in her hands to make her stand up and come back to life. I believe that now the mother has to learn to live with the pain instead of the clichéd tradition of giving up on life and staying in a corner to sob. In the U.S. I find space for privacy, as well as the opportunity to mingle with the crowd with a smile on the face. The demand to live on my own is a way out. It keeps me engaged in the daily business. I am sure that if I had gone back to Pakistan and lived with my five siblings, I could have withdrawn from the daily business and would have stayed in a corner of the house. This would have given me a way to bereave but would also have taken me out from the steam of life. The struggle to live independently in the U.S. has kept me moving. Maybe it is a blessing in disguise.

The realization of the outdated support system for bereaved mothers in Pakistan led to discussions on alternatives for other bereaved Pakistani mothers. One such discussion resulted in my input in a forum for grieving families of sudden deaths. This forum provides emotional and financial support to such families and also offers academic and psychological counseling. Bereaved families need more than food and clothes. They also need the hands, which can pull them back to life; and we try to do that.

I keep providing technical support to the two schools we adopted in Pakistan and every single improvement in the teachers and every single change in the way the parents think is a rose for me. I do volunteer work for the university as a gratitude to the society, which stood by me in tough times. I have started writing on parental practices. These newspaper articles are based on my research on parental influence on child’s academic achievement. Through these articles I try to take the messages from the empirical world to the parents and help them in giving the best to their children. So, the bereaved mother has started giving roses. These roses bloom fully, the petals open widely, and the thorns do not pinch as they come from the orchid owned by the newly sprung red rose I lost three years back.

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