Mrs Saeed is a 74-year-old widow with a big family. She lives in Karachi with her two married sons and five grandchildren. She should not have any reason to feel lonely, right? Think again! Her sons come to her before going to work, remain standing and keep looking at the watch, and after a cursory 'how are you this morning' and 'do you need something' and depart for work. Her grandchildren go to schools and colleges, and have no time to spare for an old woman who tries to instil moral values in them.
They come home and with a 'salam dadi jaan' then rush to their rooms. Her daughters-in-law do not treat her badly, but dislike giving her company. So, it is TV and prayers for her. It has been this way for years now. "When my husband was alive, at least we had each other's company, though we often had fights. Since he died 12 years ago, I feel a strange emptiness. I often stay silent for hours at a stretch because there is no one to talk to. Everyone told me I would stop missing him and time is the best healer, but I miss him moreand more day by day. You see, he always had time for me."
Mrs Saeed stays at home when the rest of her family members go on outings, because her sons think that she does not need to go out. "My son told me once that I am so old that it is not proper for me to go and visit people. At my age I should just spend all my time in prayers. They don't even take me to family weddings because then someone has to bring the food for me."
She does not blame anyone for not wanting to spend time with her. "They are young people. Why would they want to waste their time with me?" she says philosophically. "I feel lonely because I have no one to talk to. At my age, TV and reading lose charm. Time is difficult to pass, but what can I do? I am lucky that I still have a roof over my head, and am fed thrice a day!"
Yasmeen lives in London. She is a 60-year-old widow who has two married children: a son and a daughter. She lost her husband three years back, and since then she has been lonely and depressed. She has a job which makes it possible for her to pass some hours of the day among her co-workers, but when she returns to her little flat, she has no one to talk to. She is physically healthy and has no financial problems, but since when has money protected people from experiencing loneliness? Yasmeen has lost interest in everything. "It's no use having children. In the end, one has to live alone," she laments.
The children of single parents are often fixed in their views, as to how their remaining parents should behave. Remarriage is not on the cards, as far as they are concerned.
Trying to break away from traditions is not easy. If these lonely people don't conform to the rules, they have to pay for their 'indiscretions'. Fatima, a US citizen of Pakistani origin, became a widow at the age of 30. She had three sons and a daughter. She single-handedly brought them up and one by one her fledglings left the nest, and at the age of 56, she found herself alone, and felt very lonely and miserable. Fatima tried to involve herself in different activities and somehow managed to limp through for two more years. Her children would send her a card on Mother's Day dutifully, and gave her a call at least once a month, but they were too busy with their own lives to spend time with her.
Finally, Fatima could not take it any longer, and decided to marry a widower who was 65 years of age. Her children were outraged and severed all connections with her. Fatima was disappointed with their reaction. She had hoped that after some time the children would relent, especially her daughter. But to her surprise, it was her daughter who proved to be the most aggressive, as she was more concerned about what her husband and in-laws would say than about her mother's well being.
Fatima misses her children, but says that at least she does not have to talk to the walls. Fatima is lucky because she lives in the US. Had the same thing happened in Pakistan, it would have been a lot more problematic for her. In Pakistan, unfortunately, a 50-year-old woman marrying a 65-year-old widower makes it to 9 o' clock news, and is greeted by 'kya zamana aa gaya hai. Baday mian or badi bi ko sharam nahi aai!'
The irony here is that although people can still be broadminded about old, lonely men getting married, they cannot digest the fact of an old, lonely women getting married!
Ever heard of people dying from a 'broken heart'? It is very much true that when people are unable to cope with the trauma of losing a loved one to death, their heart is affected. Senior citizens are more prone to succumb to broken heart syndrome after losing their partners. The syndrome alludes to situations where death occurs without a tangible cause. Usually, it happens with people over 60, and the death occurs usually within six months of losing a partner.
Life is a vicious circle. Children are born, nurtured by their parents, become adults, get married and start their own lives. It is perfectly normal to leave parents to start one's 'own' family. It is also perfectly normal for most people to lose their parents. After all, parents are expected to die before their children. We grieve for them, and, move on. It doesn't mean we forget them, but learn to survive their loss. But, losing a spouse is a totally different phenomenon. Especially for widows and widowers.
Coping up with life without one's partner is never easy, and leaves the surviving spouse despondent and depressed. It's losing that special companionship, which simply cannot be substituted that torments the surviving spouse. Because, usually by the time this happens, life has come to full circle and the children of the surviving spouse are already settled within their own families. They don't have a lot of time for their parents anymore.
'No man is an island' says John Donne. The poet used the word man meaning human beings - not just males, for women are way more emotional and gregarious than men. Unfortunately, widows or divorcees having children are supposed to become 'islands' - they are expected to live only for their children ever after. All the young widows who devote their lives to their children earn the 'respect' of the family, especially from their in-laws. The irony here is that it is the women only who look down upon their sisters who have the temerity to re-marry. A recently concluded TV series 'Annie ki ayagi barat' dealt with this issue in a very sensitive manner. Veteran TV actor, Samina Ahmed (Mehr-un-Nissa), who plays a grandmother of two married grand-daughters, marries an old widower, Manzoor Qureshi (Khalid Bhanji), another senior citizen with numerous progeny. They are both shown from affluent families and have lives of their own, yet they feel that melancholy craving to share their thoughts with a partner.
The reaction of Samina Ahmed's family and her own guilt at re-marrying throws some light on how this issue is perceived by us.
Single parents find it even more difficult to while away their time and as such they often fall into depression. Widow or widower remarriage should, therefore, be an option; it should not be scoffed at.
Zainab had lost her mother at a young age. Consequently, she ended up looking after her father, plus running the household. When she was about to get married, she somehow convinced her father to re-marry. Her step-mom was a 48-year-old divorcee. She was a great help to Zainab during the hectic wedding period, and Zainab was able to leave her home with the knowledge that her father was well cared for. Unfortunately, not many offspring are as understanding about their parents as Zainab.
We, as a nation, are judgemental and do not miss a chance to criticise western trends. We disparage 'old homes'. We look down upon widow re-marriage, although it is encouraged by our religion. We cry shame when we hear about an old person, whether widowed or divorced getting re-married. What we do not realise is that once children are married off and have their own families they don't have a lot of time for their parents.
Old people in our country used to be venerated, sought after and valued, but the fast paced life everyone is compelled to lead nowadays has brought a change in people's lifestyles. Old people are now left to their own devices most of the time. It is more difficult for women as they find themselves totally grounded, whereas men usually seek solace in the company of their friends, spend more time in mosques and go for long walks. Women, unfortunately, cannot do anything like this without incurring censure from their family members.
The need of the hour is to make our senior citizens an active part of our lives. Old parent/s are expected to limit themselves to home. It is automatically assumed that they would not prefer to dine out, to meet friends, or, even to go to movies! Thoughtlessly, without meaning it consciously, we make our elderly people 'feel' way too old!
In other Islamic countries, life does not end for an old widow or widower. No one expects them to take to prayers all the time. In Malaysia, Turkey, Iran, etc., people in their 80s, and that includes women, are seen riding bikes, doing grocery, going to cinemas, and meeting friends. What is so wrong with our culture that our senior citizens, especially if they are sans spouse, are compelled to live a life of extreme loneliness?