Islamabad - Surprisingly the Californian sun had still come up that day and shone down on Redondo Beach.  There were no loud noises, no screams and no breaking glass - just silence and the first rays of sunshine.  You could be forgiven for thinking that this had happened on a different planet.  I cannot say, and I will not, that he died; but the text from Nabeel Awan had said the same.  Saeed Iqbal Wahlah had just gone away on 08/11/2012 from his office in Lahore, and was not expected to be back.  It is one of the mysteries of our nature that someone unprepared like me, in the early hours of the morning in a far-off land, situated in a different time zone, can receive a thunderbolt like this and still live.

Whenever his smoking was criticised, being fit and health conscious otherwise, Wahlah used to laugh out loud, ‘I am not afraid of death, I just don’t want to be there when it happens’.  I could not attended his funeral because I never realized he was gone.  As the fourth anniversary of his passing away approaches, his friends & family experience a heartache no one can heal and his love that no one can steal.  People like him rarely walk into our lives, but when they enter, usually unannounced, they leave behind footprints on our hearts.  They are always in front of us, shining a beacon of light, marking out the horizon of our lives.  But, when the horizon suddenly becomes empty, what happens to the view?  How do we get the energy and the courage to get out of bed in the morning and face the day?

As a culture, we are very good at bearing witness to grief - before & after the funeral and during the 3rd, 10th & 40th day rituals when we remember and pray for the deceased.  However, the burden of loss is placed entirely upon the bereaved next of kin; the rest of us are often present there waiting for those in mourning to stop being sad, to let go, and to move on.  The reality is that they will grieve forever. They will never get over the loss of their loved one; they will only learn to live with it.  They will heal in due course and they will rebuild their lives around the loss they have suffered.  At some point, they will perhaps be whole again but they will never be the same.  Nor should they be the same, nor would they want to be.

Saeed Wahlah was an interesting man.  We came across each other for the first time when Chief Minister (CM) Punjab was interviewing him for a District Coordination Officer (DCO) posting in 2008.  When asked about his style of management, Wahlah came up with an anecdote about the most successful Australian-rules football team. It ended with the coach pronouncing, “The secret of my success is to put good men to work, and then go to sleep”.  The CM became perturbed and asked, “What if one cannot sleep and there are no good men to rely on?”.  Wahlah replied, “Sir, men get separated from the boys when I lead them into battle 24/7.  Where sleep is concerned, if one does not have a psychiatrist-in-residence, sedatives can be handy”. The CM was not amused, but Chief Secretary Punjab came to his rescue later on and Wahlah was appointed.  In the years to come, this hard-to-please CM, was to declare him his best divisional Commissioner. 

I had not known him for long enough to deserve the way he felt about me and vice versa.  Sometimes, friendship isn’t about whom you have known the longest…it’s about who came, and never left your side.  There were many dimensions to him – obsessional, angry, charming, generous, funny, romantic, loyal and ambitious. People believed only what they saw.  He knew many people but had few friends. Tariq Mehmood Khan adored him for living many lives in one.  Nabeel Awan admired him for finishing whatever he started…except perhaps the story of his own life.  But, a book is judged by the quality of its contents and not by the number of pages, and some of our best symphonies are also “unfinished”.   It is a blessing to have known Wahlah and his passing served as a reminder that our time on earth is limited and we should seize the opportunity we have to love, forgive, create and share. 

It is really difficult to know how to be with someone who has experienced sudden bereavement because the victim goes through various stages of grief at his or her own pace.  The bereaved often experiences a shock followed by numbness, anger, despair, denial (‘it is not happening’), self-blame, periods of crying, anxiety, nightmares, lack of appetite, loss of interest in life, etc.  Some are terrified of being left alone; others want to hide away.  Some shun any offers of lending a hand. Being a friend or a relative, how could you help?

For a start, always try and be there whenever you can.  When you get there, even if you don’t know what to say, make a point of saying something as simple as, ‘I’m really sorry to hear what has happened.’  Then leave it to them if they want to talk about it.  If you cannot be there, make sure you call, text or send a card.  Nothing can make the situation better.  But it’s about being there to listen when needed, and being willing to cope with someone who is either traumatised, numb or in a state of shock.  You may feel helpless around the person because you are unable to ‘do’ anything to fix things.  If you can hold on to this discomfort, you will be the support they need.  Be sensitive to the fact that this person’s life will never be the same nor will they ever ‘get over’ it.  However they may find ways to cope with what has happened.  This can take years if not the rest of their life.

If you are allowed, just be there.  However, do not try to tell the bereaved what to think or what to do, or offer your own spiritual or religious wisdom. This can, on occasions, make the situation worse, especially when someone’s life has been thrown into unexpected turmoil.  Instead, try and do something practical to help them, such as: tidying up the house, looking after children, putting food in the freezer, helping with the visitors.   Don’t take offence if your offer of help is refused but just be on hand to help out when asked.  Please don’t be embarrassed to talk about your own experience of grief.  However, try not to dwell upon it - that could take the wind away from their sails.

-The author of this article is a Consultant Psychiatrist & Director of Medical Education in London.