We buried my grandmother, Muntaha – also known as Zleekha or Um Wael – in December 2017, just one month after she turned 80.
It is said that she had smoked at least one pack of cigarettes every day since she was a teenager. But her death was not caused by cigarettes or by how she had diabetes and dementia.
My grandmother lived a life filled with loss, a narrative she didn’t choose, but one given to her and her lineage because she was born a Palestinian.
Akin to disease spreading in the human body, we must understand how emotional pain is stored within our bodies and can lead to physical illness.
Our bodies become filled with two stress hormones: adrenaline and cortisol when we sense danger. This puts us in “survival mode.”
Animals know how to return to a state of calm and balance shortly after going into survival mode when they are aware that there is no longer a threat.
However, humans don’t always get out of survival mode. And that causes our quality of life to weaken, our bodies to deteriorate and become more susceptible to physical illness.
Being Palestinian arguably does not allow for the body to return to homeostasis due to the consistent trauma of loss.
It’s as if we are in constant and continuous mourning.
When Gaza is getting bombed, when Palestine is under attack, and when Palestinian lives are taken, either by accidents or by state violence, it is universally felt by all Palestinians.
Intimate relationship to loss
I observed my parents’ relationship with Palestinian suffering in May this year.
My mother doesn’t allow music to be played in our house and declines invitations to gatherings during these times. My father suddenly stops speaking and the news is on, full volume, for more than 18 hours a day.
It feels like the house is open for an azza, a funeral ritual.
The calls my mother makes to her family back home increase to make sure they are okay. I’m used to the atmosphere of grief in our household, even in California thousands of miles away from Palestine, even if we don’t personally know the martyrs, even if it is not happening in our town.
Because for Palestinians, it doesn’t matter where or who we are in order for us to grieve.
We grieve the continued loss of land and life because it affects us all regardless of family name and hometown. Further, our parents are reminded of their usually undiagnosed PTSD and their own stories of surviving Israel’s war crimes.
My father was 10 years old during the 1967 War. He doesn’t talk about it, nor will he answer any of my questions.
My grandmother was eight months pregnant with my mother during the 1967 War.
As she was leaving our hometown of Abu Dis to cross the border into Jordan via Jericho, the bus driver, also a relative, was shot in the head by a sniper. My grandmother’s commitment to survival is the reason why I am here.
Being Palestinian has allowed me – dejectedly – to form an intimate relationship to loss.
How we carry grief
When my close friend, Gaze Mohammed, died after an accident on 10 June, I experienced the intensity of the physical and emotional pain accompanied with loss all over again. Gaze was only 28.
He longed to return to his village of Yabrud in the West Bank to harvest olives. Gaze was optimistic about the rise of a new movement dedicated to Palestinian freedom.
As Palestinians, we dream that we are closer to our liberation even through our suffering and mourning.
We envision ourselves embarking on our right of return, booking one-way flights home and suitcases filled with the memories of our temporary diasporic lives.
Gaze dreamed of freedom and return. In a way, Gaze is free now.
He is surrounded by everlasting olive trees that know no settler-colonial destruction.
I imagine his soul lingering around the al-Aqsa mosque in the summertime sun. I imagine the glorious reunion he must have had with his grandmother, Um Malik, who died a year ago, along with the reunion of all the ancestors he would proudly tell stories about, who were the reason for his existence.
And as Gaze held Palestinian citizenship, an identity card that had barred him from going to Jerusalem, I envision him finally being able to travel freely from Yabroud to Jerusalem with no checkpoints or other restrictions.
People will try to comfort you when you go through the hardships of life by saying, “This was a lesson, it will only make you stronger.” I wish I could have learned certain lessons without the pain.
What if I was able to just read about the lessons and process them without having to experience the pain associated with them? What if I could have learned strength through the human ability to love instead of the consistent tragedy of loss?
Why do we have to be given these lessons followed by the exam but with no credential, just more grief? Why do Palestinian children need to be violently robbed of a childhood and then be praised for their “strength” when they act so maturely?
Because grief is the emotion that we all know exists and will eventually experience but still try to avoid until we can’t.
We watch our stubborn and hardened fathers quietly shed tears when Gaza gets bombed and when more settlements are built on our villages. This is not only of the present moment, it’s the grief of losing their land, livelihood and all hope of return.
We watch our mothers cry when the Israeli military murders yet another child. And it is only then that we understand where the excessive phone calls and text messages that they send us when we aren’t home really come from.
The ultimate form of Palestinian grief comes when our parents lose their own parents, and they are forced to watch their burials on the small screens of a technological device. Israeli occupation and holding Palestinian citizenship make traveling home much more complex than simply booking a quick direct flight and having family pick you up from the airport.
I remember the last time I moved out of my apartment at the end of 2020. Though it was my fourth time moving in just three years, I felt consumed with anxiety and distress this time, and I did not understand why the sight of moving boxes was making me physically ill and uncomfortable.
I told my therapist and we came to the conclusion that I associate moving with being Palestinian. My grandparents and parents did not heal their trauma of displacement, nor did they return to Palestine like they planned to and so I carry it.
I carry this grief with me and am certain that no amount of therapy will heal it completely until I am packing my things into boxes to return to a free Palestine.
I’m learning to accept the grief instead of dismantling it. It will always exist and even when the pain gets manageable it will be back in another form.
“Life worth living”
Through experiencing consistent loss in my life including losing homes and people, I have learned that grief is not something you “get through.” It is an emotional experience that lives within you.
I feel the same way about Palestine. Palestine lives within us, even if we don’t live there.
I’ve found that grief has made me softer, more gentle, and more compassionate for the people around me and my life. I’ve rejected forming some type of identity through grief, making sure that I don’t allow the loss to trick my brain into thinking that life is not worth living, which it would do at some point.
Mahmoud Darwish wrote, “We have on this land that which makes life worth living.” I agree with him.
There is so much to see and there is ultimately so much love to give and experience.
The reality is that grief will eventually make you want to live more while also finding more meaning.
You drive your car and are extra careful and aware that another car might hit you. You are more chatty with baristas even when you’re busy because you want to leave imprints of a positive human connection.
You are more understanding when plans fall through or when things aren’t on time because you know there must be a reason. You pray more, even if you never used to because you want to believe that when you go, you’ll be going home to those you lost in this life.
You tell the people in your life that you love them more and try not to decline invitations because it might be the last time you ever see them.
You finally stop living on autopilot because when you are reminded of death, something inside of you switches to make more sense out of why we’re here. You embark on a never-ending search for meaning.
As Palestinians, our grief feels so constant. But our joy is also constant.
I think of the video of the two children in Gaza emerging after Israel’s most recent attack, who returned to their destroyed home and found their pet fish amidst the rubble. The siblings’ faces were beaming as they explained to the camera that they had successfully saved their fish.
The young girl then says, “And we want to go back to save the birds.”I hope they save the birds too. For we are all birds who aspire to one day fly back to Palestine, our wings able to fly with more freedom and in less grief.
Linda Ereikat is a staff member with the Arab Resource and Organizing Center in San Francisco.