Feature Friday: Learning to swim – Mariam Khan

I’m going to be a hundred percent honest right now, I’m very nervous to share such a deep part of my life on a very public platform. I have made many unsuccessful attempts and have contemplated backing out many times, but then I thought about the feelings I went through, and how if I would have had someone who has gone through the same reach out to me at that time, how much of a difference it would have made. So here I go, my father was diagnosed with a brain tumor when I was 14 and passed away about six months after his surgery.

Written on a word document you can’t see the tightness in my throat, the tears I’m trying to hold back because I don’t want my mom to see me and get upset. Losing my father was the most excruciatingly painful heartbreak of my life. Not only did I lose my best friend, but I lost this sense of a normal life I had at the time. I lost the spark of my mother’s eyes and the closeness of my brothers.  My home was filled with people yet felt so empty, I felt so defeated.

I couldn’t relate to my friends anymore their issues weren’t my issues, they had kind words but went home to their own lives. I felt as though I was stuck, like I wasn’t drowning but still not being able to float, going nowhere. Yet, in the midst I felt little waves of hope, encouraging me to keep going, and I learned so much about myself in the past eight years dealing. I hope to share this, to give anyone reading this that may need it, the little wave they may need to keep going.

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Don’t paint a picture with one color.

I can sit here and tell you it’s all going to get better and that the grieving  process is healing and spirituality and internal peace, or I can tell you the truth. Don’t get me wrong, there is a fair amount of internal peace that comes but before that, is a very ugly and painful time. A time where you feel like giving up almost every day. I first watched my father slowly lose his battle with cancer. I was fourteen and alone when my father had his final seizure. I had to call 911 and watch as the paramedics take my father down the very steps he had helped me walk up as a child.  He was leaving the home he had built with my mother for the very last time.

That single memory has been imprinted in my mind and I wish I didn’t have it, because that is not who my father was. My father was this gentle, loving caring man who devoted his life to his family. I still remember as a young child leaving to go to school in the winter months and I would step in his footprints to get to the bus always thinking of how early he had probably gotten up and left for work and how late he would be coming home that night.

These were the memories I wanted to keep in my mind, but unfortunately, you can’t just edit the hard times out. You can only try to prioritize the loving and gentle image you have known your entire life. The struggles don’t change the person, and can’t take away from the beauty of the good times.

It never “gets better.” But you do.

A hard truth to swallow, I know. At the time when my mother — who by far is the strongest woman I know — had said this to me, I couldn’t wrap my mind around why I would want to live a life where every day I felt this immense pain. I would often wonder if I would ever smile again and some nights the heartbreak would be so intense I would feel suffocated like the only way out was for me to die too.

For me personally, there will never be a day when being asked about my father or being reminded of him will not bring a lump in my throat, but you learn to carry it. You learn to make room for that in your heart. You take it a day at a time, and that turns to weeks, and then years. but one day, you are able to pick up the pieces and with baby steps move forward.

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Surround yourself with sincere loving people

The other night, someone very close to me asked to share something about my dad. I stopped for a second. I felt the tears, I felt my heart drop and I gave myself a mental pep talk to simply just speak. I barely got through a sentence. It’s really hard to talk about my dad because I have always treated my father’s death as the “elephant.” I have always buried it. I didn’t want to dampen the mood and risk sparking emotion in any conversation, but it’s OK to do that. You shouldn’t feel guilty for crying about something, or be worried that people will wonder why you haven’t gotten over it in the past six years.

Yes, even after six years the emotions are still very raw, but pushing those feelings away not only keeps the pain fresh, but you miss out on the realization of how those around you sincerely care and love you. A quote by Dr. Renee Brown that always stuck with me was “owning our story can be hard” which is completely true for me. It can be so hard for us to open up and allow someone to know our vulnerabilities but this also allows us to experience the growth, love, and compassion, we get in response from those who love us.

It’s okay to ask, why me?

Some might not agree, actually some might strongly disagree. Often times, throughout the years I would ask, why me? What could I have possibly done at the age of 14 to deserve this lifelong scar? What did people around me do different that they got to keep their family together? What did I do that my father would never see me as a bride, meet the man I will marry, or hold my children and be called nana? Do these questions mean that my faith isn’t strong, or that I am an ungrateful person?

It took me many years to realize that the answer is NO, and that this answer only comes from within you, and being honest, no one else’s answer matters. When I look back, I feel as though I would not be who I am if I didn’t go through these experiences. Allah knew exactly the mess I was walking into when my uncle came to pick me up from school that day. Allah knew when I was holding my father’s hand for the last time, and Allah knew the pain in my heart watching my dad’s funeral procession taking away the life I had loved.

I truly believe that Allah took all those painful experiences and molded them and shaped them to help me become the woman I am today. Most importantly Allah taught me that if I could get through this no matter what the world throws at me, I will handle it. Not only did Allah teach me how to swim but also taught me to be my own lifeguard.  

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On a much lighter note, I just wanted to do a cliché introduction to myself. I was very hesitant to attach my name to this but at the end of the day, I think it’s important to see the substance and depth behind people. People may see the simple highlights on Instagram or Facebook and not realize that all of us have a unique story, and often I would feel as though Instagram almost serves as a mask hiding these issues we all deal with. If me pouring my heart out into this post can make even the slightest bit of a difference to anyone going through something similar, it’s definitely a win.

I have always loved taking pictures because I felt like I had a sense of control. I could make this vision in my mind a reality. and I could position everything the way I want, take out what I didn’t like, edit the rough patches, because it doesn’t work that way in life. But that’s also the beauty of life within itself.

From the bottom of my heart I want to thank Zuni for giving me such an amazing platform to share my story and giving me the courage to share it, without you this would have just been a recipe post. – Mariam Khan

Mariam Khan is a University of Michigan Dearborn alum, and a clinical researcher for Henry Ford Health System. She loves photography, Kashmiri chai, and spending time with her loved ones. She wrote this post in hopes of helping anyone else going through a loss.

If you are interested in writing a Feature Friday post, don’t hesitate to email zuni@thephdream.com or just fill out this form!

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Hi, I'm the founder of The PhDream. I'm a second year doctoral student who wasn't satisfied with just sitting behind a desk and writing papers. While my research may have an indirect impact, I wanted to engage more directly with the community and provide a platform to discuss neglected and sensitive issues. Along with that, I try to stay sane in my program by stress baking, glamming up even when I'm down, and sharing my dad-joke captions on the gram -- if only that creativity could translate into my research... Anyways, I'm always looking for contributors, collaborations, and people to eat my zelicious creations, so don't hesitate to reach out or follow me @ZuniJilani :)

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