There aren’t very many indexes of human and social development in the world that show Pakistan to be a wonderful place to live in today. And I think it would be blatantly ignorant to start undermining the conclusions of the aforementioned evaluation schemes. Even then, over the course of the last few years, I have increasingly become convinced that, were there a true scholar’s index comparing where the cities of the world lie in terms of the most promising place for one to grow up in, Lahore wouldn’t do so badly. In fact, by virtue of the fact that being raised in Lahore privileges one with full access to - through the English language - the most sophisticated intellectual discourses in the world, all the while favouring, shepherding one with the still almost ubiquitous presence of the greatest socio-cultural tradition known to man - that of the Prophet Muhammad (S.A.W) - I can’t help but begin to wonder if, with regard to the heights that we can hope to attain as human beings, having been raised here has actually put us at an advantage.

And this ‘advantage’ I speak of, is illustrated most beautifully for me when, every now and then, I encounter another case of what I feel is amongst the most meaningful convergences that an individual can experience in their life - when rational, scientific knowledge and religious knowledge complement each other. Enter Psychiatrist Dr. Irvin D. Yalom’s 1991 study, Bereavement and Heightened Existential Awareness.

Now, when most of us in Pakistan think of someone who is a widow, we usually (albeit silently) attach with the individual a kind of psychosexual disenfranchisement – a virtually irreversible helplessness and loneliness. The last thought that would cross our mind is of her possessing some sort of esoteric quality to the degree that one would seek her out. But that’s exactly where the aforementioned study takes you. Yalom, Emeritus Professor at Stanford University - and a man whose name is increasingly being taken alongside the likes of Freud and Jung - has great interest in bereavement i.e. the death of a loved one, with particular focus on the widow. So much so that that he’s not content to let it stay restricted to fellow therapists who’re interested in reading the findings of his cryptically named study, and thus incorporates it in one of his critically acclaimed novels, Lying on the Couch.

In the novel, Yalom’s protagonist ‘Dr. Ernest Lash’ speaks to an audience at a book launch. Now, bereavement is old news! What more is there to it than the monochromatic experience of loss and devastation? While Dr. Lash is on board with fellow psychiatrists to the degree that the period immediately following bereavement, typically the first year, is universally one of intense suffering, the process of recovery and the eventual outcome of the bereaved individual is not so uniform at all.

“The amount, the nature of the anguish we experience is determined not by the (or not only by the) nature of the trauma but the by meaning..” (Yalom, 1996, p.69)

As such, Dr. Lash makes us consider the outcomes of two widows, both bereaved after a marriage of forty years. While one widow gradually reclaims her life, the other remains stagnant in her dejection.

“..a year later, she was mired in deep depression, at times suicidal, and required ongoing psychiatric attention.” (ibid.) 

Now, you would expect that, of the two, the first woman - the one who recovers - would have had a less gratifying, less poignant relationship with her husband, while the other likely was too deeply in love - and as such now at too great a loss - to be able to let go and move on.

Between the two, who would you expect to have had a ‘tumultuous’, ‘conflicted’ and fruitless marriage? The one who recovers?

“..the reverse is often the case.. ‘regret’ is the key concept. Think of the anguish of the widow who feels, deep down, that she has spent forty years married to the wrong man. So her grief is not, or not only, for her husband. She is mourning for her own life.” (ibid., p.70)

The widow who has to face the prospect of years of her life dedicated to a failed marriage, now irredeemable - which death ‘freezes in time’, leaving it ‘forever conflicted, forever unfinished’ - will probably never be able to recover fully.

On the other hand, what happens to the widow who was one irreplaceable half of a “loving, mutually respectful, growing relationship?” - the one who is spared the consuming regret of poor life decisions and has a different meaning emanating from her trauma: that the greatest source of comfort in her life has come to an end? In other words, the one who has to face, as acutely as a human being possibly can without experiencing it on their own, what was previously only an abstract, ‘secondhand’ consideration - that our lives are finite.

“..a truth that is well known to many who have experienced bereavement—that the death of a significant other has the potential to hurl the survivor into a confrontation with his/her own death.” (Yalom, 1991)

As Dr. Lash reveals in the novel, a substantial proportion of such widows (around twenty-five percent) don’t just go on to reclaim their lives, but undergo a substantial personal growth - a growth that is comparable only with the immensely positive psychological shifts that some patients exhibit when they are told that they are dying and only have a few more months to live.


    The writer is the head of Scholars by Profession, a local research-initiative. Scholars by Profession is a research workshop that initially came together as a research club on the eve of 2011.