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Museum Detox DIY series: How to Grieve with Barriers

Updated: Jul 1, 2022

How to Grieve with Barriers #MuseumDetoxDIY

Content warning: Grief, loss, bereavement, illness, depression, strong language.

The last time I felt so weightless was when I was freezing my t-ts off by Southbank. My interview prep session was cancelled because of the snow. I called my Mum whilst looking at the building where it was meant to be. I told her that this must be a sign, I didn’t know if I wanted to interview for this PR agency because they have alcohol accounts and didn’t tell me if I could just work on the arts ones. (Lol at Muslim dilemmas). She told me to focus on one thing at a time, and since my day was now clear, to come to her hospital appointment as a distraction. Enticed by the offer of free coffee and how nice it would be to just walk from the river to Warren Street, I agree to go.

When I look at this photo, that’s what I wish I could only remember about that day. I grew up a lot after that afternoon.

Image: Aksana Khan, March 2018

That personal development started because I was in the same room as my Mum when she heard.

“Mrs Begum, you have a tumour.”

I didn’t know what to do. I kept looking at Mum, just observing how she was taking it. I couldn’t cry because she hadn’t. It would be selfish. So I kept quiet as my internal voice went rogue. What does this mean Aksana? Is she not going to be okay? Fuck, what if she dies? Oh my God, oh my God...Allah, please...please...I need her, I...really need her. J-just breathe a little...breathe. I inhaled and my mind conjured the image of my family, a happy picture ripped by a dive into hypotheticals I didn’t want to turn real...We need Mum. Stop being selfish. What’s Mum feeling? I don’t know what I’m feeling. Is this sadness - rage - anxiety? This is painful. This feels primal. I want to let out a fucking scream. How isn’t Mum screaming? I want to scream. But there are people outside of this room and I don't wanna scare the shit out of them, especially if they get bad news too-

“Does this mean that I will die?”

Mum’s quiet words were seconds after the Doctor’s. They clanged. My running motorway of thoughts halted. Once she said it, she looked so vulnerable. That’s something you hope to never see with your parents, or at least not for a very long time.

We cried.

I realised that the primal thing I was feeling was heartbreak.

In between as we gathered ourselves, the Doctor and Nurse patiently answered our questions. I took the lead because I’m the eldest. I knew that if I were Mum, everything would be tinnitus. So I sat there, Mum being a mum by wiping my tears, and me being her daughter, holding hands, trying to understand. From what caused it, whether it was benign or malign, had it mestasised, what stage, if it were operable, the treatment plan. All of it. I don’t know if I were scraping those questions from what I learnt from GCSE Biology, or books, or from what I had heard from others. But it grounded me in this new reality, the one where Mum has cancer.

From that day, and in the months to come, I learnt what it means when you’re given awful become both intolerant of bullshit and a desperate optimist. You see, one in two people will develop cancer in their lifetime. We got bad news. Mum was unlucky.

I just prayed that one day, we would be the ones leaving the hospital with a smile instead of clutching papers as we solemnly walked to the bus stop.

I learnt that trying times means deciding what is a good use of your energy and headspace. I had to be a carer with the rest of my family. I cancelled that interview, put my job hunt on hold, decided to not go for a masters, and worked with my family to focus on Mum and help out. This makes me unusual if you read museum job adverts. Being in my position unveiled the snobbery of this field. Heck - one job interview, I was asked why I never had a full time permanent role. I couldn’t emotionally and financially invest in museums when there are bigger things. There’s a lot of people who think that way too, and I completely get it. What would the world of museums offer people like me?

By Aksana Khan

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