Sabila — “We watched his burial on our phones.”
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Publishing executive Sabila Khan is still stunned by her father Shafqat’s sudden death due to COVID-19. After having to forgo the traditional Muslim rituals tied to his passing, Sabila is also struggling with the pandemic’s overall effect on her attempt to return to normalcy.
Find Sabila on Twitter at @SabilaKhan20, and visit her COVID Loss Support group on Facebook or on Twitter at @covid_loss.
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My father was tall, imposing looking, he looked. He looked scary if you didn’t know him, but he was a teddy bear. Really, he was utterly devoted to my mother. And just so ridiculously in love with the three of us with me and my brothers. If one of us ever got sick, it was my mother who took care of us because my father would like literally be in tears and completely useless. And aside from him being just a wonderful family man, he was also a community activist here in Jersey City. He was the person everyone went to when they needed help, everyone in the Pakistani immigrant community in Jersey City. So I can’t tell you the number of times I would walk into our apartment and find people sitting around the table with him who I’d never seen before.
And people would come to him with immigration issues. We were undocumented actually when we first moved to the US, so he tried everything he could thereafter to help other families in similar situations as ours, and also educating the Pakistani immigrant community about the national and local electoral process and why it was so important for us to have our voices heard and be counted. You know, I come from a culture where boys and girls are not always treated equally. And on my dad’s side of the family, all the boys have a middle name, Rasool, all of the boys across the board get it. It’s like not even a question. When I was born in 1979, ages ago, my father, without even a second thought said she’s gonna get Rasool, that will be her middle name. So he always treated me with, he treated me the same as he treated my brothers. But he also treated me with respect.
He respected my intelligence; he respected my opinions. He was always interested in knowing what I thought. You know, I’m so grateful for his influence in my life. My father was in a short-term rehab facility here in Jersey City getting treatment for his Parkinson’s. And it was only 15 minutes away from us. So I would go every weekend with my mom. He hated not being with us. He hated hospitals or anything that was hospital like setting. So we just had to be with him all the time and we were happy to be with him. March 11th, was the last day in the office for me. And I was trying everything up knowing that I was going to spend the next day with my father and try to figure out how we could get him out of the rehab facility. That night, I was talking to my mom on the phone and she said, you know, the doors are close to the facility and I said, wait, what? She’s like today was the last day they’re not allowing visitors to come in. And I started crying right away.
I said, you know, I wish you told me I would have left work early, I would have come and seen […]. And she reassured me. She said no, no, he’s going to be okay. It’s only going to be a couple of weeks. He’s completely fine. You should call him tomorrow morning. He’ll reassure you. So we talked to him every day on the phone. And then eventually, in late March. He stopped answering his phone, we call them, we call and every time we would call the nursing station, they would tell us that he’s fine. And then eventually, in a very sort of roundabout way, we found out that someone at the facility had died of COVID. I ended up calling on April 6, I got a nurse on the phone. And she told me on that day, that the reason he couldn’t talk was because he was very congested. And that just obviously, sent me off. And I said, what do you mean he’s congested? I thought he was fine.
And she said, no, he’s very congested, we’re taking care of him. He had a fever. And that’s when sort of our nightmare just began. They rushed him to the ER. And this was at the height of the pandemic in the New York, New Jersey area. He spent three days in what I can only imagine was a warzone of an ER. It absolutely still haunts me to this day. But his stats were all very stable. He was stable. The night of the 13th. The last update we got, they told us that he didn’t have a fever anymore. And we started talking as a family about, you know, what discharge would look like, who we would have to hire, to take care of him to nurse him back to health because we weren’t going to send them back to the rehab facility.
That’s how I went to sleep on the night of April 13th. My mom was staying with us at this point. And her phone rang on the morning of April 14, I could hear the doctor on the other line saying we’re trying to resuscitate him. And I said, wait, what and I jumped out of bed. I grabbed the phone with her. And it was the doctor telling us that he had gone into cardiac arrest. They were trying to resuscitate him. It wasn’t working. Could they stop? And at this point, I was just like, wait, what do you mean cardiac arrest? He was doing well. He was stable. What do you mean? And they just kept trying for I think, like 15 more minutes, but they could never bring him back. So you know. It was really hard. I mean, it’s just, it’s like, we left my father. He had Parkinson’s, but he was healthy. He was living. He was breathing. He wasn’t sick. He wasn’t dying. Death wasn’t imminent. And then we never saw him again. He died and we never saw him again.
His burial was live streamed from me and my brothers and my mom. It was live streamed. And this idea that we couldn’t even be with him. After he died was just, it was just sort of an indignity on top of an indignity, it was just layers and layers of trauma. The idea that we watched his burial on our phones. I had my husband here, I had my children, I had my mom. But the idea that we went through that, within the four walls of this apartment alone, essentially. It just felt wrong at the time, and it still feels wrong. And I feel like we’re still suffering from the absence of that ritual. I’ve never experienced a loss like this. This was a first for me, and I didn’t know what to expect. I did not expect this to throw up. I didn’t expect that physical manifestation of grief to happen, but it did. And then, you know, I was in bed for basically a week, which was difficult because I have two children.
And I felt like it’s hard being a mother while you’re grieving. I feel like in some ways, remember Jurassic Park and how they found the fossil in the amber. I think it was Amber. I feel like that little fly trapped. It feels like in so many ways, I’m stuck in my grief while the world just keeps on moving along. So I think grief is probably by its nature so isolating but grief in this pandemic has further isolated me. My dad died on Tuesday, that Friday, I couldn’t sleep. And I was on social media. I was on Facebook, I posted the question, is there a support group for people who’ve lost someone to COVID? And people started responding saying, no, no, maybe you should start one. And then I was like, oh, maybe I should start one. And that group has grown to I think we’re almost at 9200 members. And that community has been such a lifesaver for me.
It’s. Sorry. It’s really for me, in the purest way of carrying on my father’s legacy. I see a through line between my father’s work and what I’m doing with that community. So it’s been the greatest sort of comfort for me. I don’t know if I should be embarrassed to say this, but it’s true. I’m probably sitting in the depression, stage of grief, I, I am depressed. And I’m still mourning and grieving my father. But I feel like I’m also grieving normalcy. I’m grieving my life. I miss my life. For the last 12 months, I have thrown myself into my work. I have thrown myself into the advocacy work. And as fulfilling as all of that is, I’m at a point where I’m tired. It’s so tired. I really recognize that. And you know, that hole in my heart that empty feeling, all that work is not, it’s not feeling it. Not a replacement for my dad. I’m sorry, I’m like, gonna cry this much. I’m Sabila Khan, and thanks for listening to GOOD GRIEF. This episode of Good Grief is dedicated to the memory of my father Shafqat Khan.
GOOD GRIEF is a Lemonada Media Original. Our producers are Hannah Boomershine, Giulia Hjort and Xorje Olivares. executive producers are Stephanie Wittels Wachs and Jessica Cordova Kramer. Music and Sound Design are by Hannis Brown. Please help others find the show by rating and reviewing wherever you listen and follow us at @LemonadaMedia across all social platforms. If you want more GOOD GRIEF, subscribe to Lemonada Premium, only on Apple podcasts. This season of GOOD GRIEF is dedicated to those we’ve lost in the past year.