New Zealand Law Society - Grief when it has nowhere to go

Grief when it has nowhere to go

Grief when it has nowhere to go
Al Noor Mosque, Christchurch - Michal Klajban By-SA

Hiba Hussain is a young lawyer who comes from a Muslim family. She is at the beginning of her career, having practiced at a boutique commercial law firm in Wellington for almost two years, and is interested in the areas of criminal law and litigation.

Hiba shares her struggle of dealing with the Christchurch Mosque attack and how her experience intersects with the legal profession. She hopes her writing is able to spark conversation amongst lawyers in relation to identity and mental health.

The space left by the loss of someone is all but an uncommon occurrence. It may begin with a grandparent, and seep its way into losing a person who you never expected to lose. There is often a tonne of emotional labour used in trying to fill that space again.

We go a lifetime of trying to explain grief, and cope with loss. We understand rationally that it is the natural course of life, or that accidents happen, and people leave. We understand that the person who leaves, will cause a ripple effect in the lives of those they immediately affected.

It is a bit more difficult to explain grief when you did not know the person who has left. However, the space is still there, and in this instance there seems to be an extraordinary amount of emotional labour required.

That is the aftermath of the Christchurch Mosque shooting on March 15, 2019.

Identity in New Zealand

It is difficult to convey to those who have always felt like they belong what it feels like to not. It is a special type of displacement, where you know you are at home but sometimes feel like a guest.

Let us begin with a child attending a school in a town in New Zealand.

This child looks different, sounds different, eats different, and quite frankly is different. This child is the product of parents who are not Pākehā. The child is a part of a community, where people share names which sound like her name. All the child knows is the affection of her parents, and the worldview of her community.

At school, the child is fully aware of the difference, not just from noticing it from her own eyes, but because other children do not fail to make it apparent. The adults make a slight effort to conceal their thoughts, but their aloof glances at the child and her family have the same effect.

Each day at school, the teasing, the remarks, the insults accumulate. Why is it not okay to be the way I have been so far? What is wrong with me? Do I have to change? Naturally, the child has to make a choice: being in, or being out.

The child adopts a New Zealand accent, noticeable mannerisms and any cultural norms she can. She fights the uphill battle of not feeling as if she is on the outskirts of a secret society. She makes Pākehā friends. She is grateful that they provide her with an entrance to a club which once seemed unattainable.

At home she finds comfort in the child she used to be – eating different food, speaking a different language, praying to a different God. But now to her parents, she is no longer that child. She has become different, to them. She challenges their ideals. She is ashamed of being seen with them wearing their clothing. She brings home friends that give them those aloof glances.

The dichotomy of home versus the outside form two personalities. The child is a mix of both. This grants her exposure, empathy, adaptability, and tolerance. However, for her, there is an ongoing internal conflict. Her home influences one and the outside accepts the other.

The child carries into adulthood a sense of estrangement.

Identity in law

For those like the child, estrangement is a perpetual feeling throughout the legal profession.

This is hardly surprising. A profession with its foundations in 19th century English common law naturally has a trickle-down effect of Eurocentric cultural ideals.

The profession invites and easily accepts those who are comfortable in a certain type of identity. As at 2019, 78% of lawyers stated they were of New Zealand European ethnicity.

This informs the way lawyers in New Zealand think, behave and interact. Everything from the adversarial system, to the topics discussed over workplace morning teas, to the necessity of alcohol as a social tool, to the requirement of having to know a lawyer in order to be admitted – the legal profession is a generational vacuum for homogenous identity.

The child, who is now an adult entering the legal profession, naturally shuns the other side of herself to once again not feel that she is on the outskirts of a secret society. Her profession, which engulfs her life, requires her to present herself in a certain way in order to be accepted. Her existence in the profession is not as smooth as it is for the other 78%.

Racism and grief

There are few spaces where you can be honest with yourself. For those who are spiritually inclined, a Mosque serves that place. For those who no longer practice, a Mosque is an imperial symbol of their identity.

Friday March 15 was an attack on every Muslim in New Zealand.

The grief is two-fold.

There is the screaming agony for the families who lost someone. The loss of your brothers and sisters. They were those who had the weekend, year, and lifetime ahead of them – but had paused for one hour to reflect and pray. They were praying for their family who they would never return to.

There is then the damage from the loss of yourself. The child who looks different, eats different – is not welcome. Her fear of being exposed as an outsider is now a reality. It is quite clear that a part of what she represents is not accepted here. Despite all efforts to present herself as no different to any other Pākehā, the reality is that she is different and always will be.

The first type of grief slowly dulls its impact on those who are affected. The second type of grief – losing a sense of self -is a constant reminder of feeling inadequate, estranged, and lost.

Response and mental health

There have been vigils, protests, gun reforms, articles written, and a sentencing of the crime. The overwhelming government and media response has allowed for a small sense of pride for New Zealand.

However, that is where the pride stops.

Day-to-day, friends and colleagues do not know what to say to someone who is still grieving. The shock of the event has now worn off. The moment reduced to a mere hiccup in our history.

For Muslims, the sentencing decision re-opened all wounds. It brought back the screaming agony for families as the victim impact statements were read out.

It also brought back the reminder of the estrangement.

When people around you remain silent, it sends a clear message: You feel the grief in a way others do not. It was an attack on your other community, and on the other side of yourself. We are only concerned with the version of you that we knew and we can relate to. The pain related to your other self is your problem, because you are different.

The absence of acknowledgement and conversation about grief, identity, and ongoing impacts to mental health is reflective of the classic “she’ll be right” attitude. Actively checking-in on people, offering a shoulder to cry on, being proactive in workplace mental health support, are all things that New Zealand does not have a culture of doing, let alone the legal profession. It may be because Kiwis don’t like to be intrusive, or that we do not like to show vulnerability. Regardless, there are little to no cultural tools available for addressing an ongoing struggle.

For lawyers, our work is a second-home. We invest so much of ourselves into the profession; it is a part of our identity. The emotional barrier and impersonal culture that exists within the workplace is harmful. Failure to turn our minds to what people outside of the 78% may be experiencing worsens the harm. It reaffirms the message underlying the Mosque shooting, that is, anything outside of what the majority feels has no place.

If a response to a terrorist attack cannot push your awareness further, what will? Being a lawyer is a strong signifier of our identity, but it shouldn’t compete with our capability to be human.

Where space is not made for conversations to cross bridges, for vulnerability to be accepted or for kindness to be promoted, Other groups will continue to feel displaced in our second homes.

The tragedy of Ihumātao, Black Lives Matter, the Mosque shooting, any other catastrophic event may be affecting employees and colleagues in a way which you are unable to comprehend. The effect of these events may be ongoing. The solution is not to ignore, but to proactively reach out, and offer support. If workplaces wish to wave the flag of “diversity” then they must live up to it.

And if this article helps to further create a sense of awareness and understanding of other communities, their experiences with grief and how it entangles their identity, in turn our conversations about our identity, and our grief may become more present. For most lawyers it seems, this is the first step.

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