To lose my mother so violently and prematurely – she was only 45 years old – was more than a death. It was devastation.
By
Amani Haydar

7 Mar 2018 - 3:48 PM  UPDATED 9 Mar 2018 - 10:49 AM

I was born in 1988 to Lebanese migrants. My mum was 13 years younger than my father. She was 19 when I was born. She was in Australia with no immediate family, no tertiary qualifications, and no financial independence.

Throughout my childhood my parents had a turbulent relationship. Even as a child, my mum would complain to me of the disappointment and emotional abuse she experienced in her marriage.

Although I didn’t always understand the nature of this abuse, it made for a very unhappy and negative home environment, and affected me in ways that I am only just beginning to understand.

Because of the stigma associated with divorce in my community, my parents never divorced although they got quite close. They were on the brink of divorce when, on 30 March 2015, my father murdered my mother in her home. My mum became the 30th of 80 women to lose their lives to violence that year, according to data collected by the Counting Dead Women initiative of Facebook activist group Destroy the Joint.

Eventually, I found myself coming up with my own creative little dua or prayers, like letters to God, and jotting them down as a way of expressing my hopes and worries. This helped immensely and writing has since become a major part of my personal healing process.

At that time in my life, I had finished university, got married and my career as a solicitor in a commercial law firm was progressing well. I had just celebrated my second wedding anniversary and I was five months pregnant.

I felt that I was in a good place despite the troubles in my parents’ home.

The few days following the murder were absolute chaos.

Dealing with grief is not something we can learn until we have lived through it. Death is very confronting even when it has happened naturally or peacefully.

When an act of violence or evil is involved, it becomes an even more difficult thing to comprehend. To lose my mother so violently and prematurely – she was only 45 years old – was more than a death. It was devastation.

My mum’s funeral was the first I had attended. It was my first time at the cemetery and my first Janazah (Islamic burial). It was surreal. After the formalities were done, I was left in a very strange and sad situation.

There would be a trial, but that was way down the track.

For now, I had to find the strength to continue looking after myself for the remainder of my pregnancy. I had  legal and financial stresses as a result of what had happened and faced uncertainty about the future.

The next few weeks went by in a blur. I remember being conscious of the mental and emotional strength that would be needed to get through this difficult time.

Despite having arrived in Australia with no English, no real support and no financial independence, my mum had pursued further education and a career. She was employed as a drug and alcohol counsellor at the time of the murder and had even commenced a university degree in social work.

Along the way, she had instilled in me an awareness of the importance of mental health, and an understanding of the importance of self-care, including seeking professional help. This turned out to be a true blessing.

Despite growing in a community where there were stigmas around mental illness, for me, it seemed normal and intuitive to pursue the appropriate services and support.

There is no shame in being a victim, there is no shame in needing help and there is no shame in seeking the right professional for that help.

I became jumpy and paranoid; anxious one day, down and depressed the next, and angry most of the time. Whenever I tried to explain how I was feeling, I’d struggle to find the words.

Accepting this meant I could deal proactively with what had happened and the trauma which ensued.

Acknowledging the trauma and the way it was affecting my functioning was an empowering step towards recovery.

Initially, I took what help I could get though the Homicide Victims’ Support Group, a wonderful organisation which provides counselling and support to victims of homicides.

I had a very experienced and sensitive counsellor there who I saw regularly. She gave me an A4 journal to write in.

She suggested I use it as though I was writing a letter to the people I couldn’t communicate with, whether it be my mother who I had lost or to my father who had so badly betrayed us.

I carried it around for a few months and found small pockets of time where I could sit in a park or a café and write down my thoughts and fears.

Eventually, I found myself coming up with my own creative little dua or prayers, like letters to God, and jotting them down as a way of expressing my hopes and worries. This helped immensely and writing has since become a major part of my personal healing process.

I gave birth to my daughter in August 2015, only about five months after the murder.

I had a second baby the following August.

For most of 2015 and 2016, I was busy parenting and getting used to having small children in my care.

Sometimes, I thought that I had recovered from my trauma but I started to realise, as the trial loomed, that I hadn’t.

I was angry and irritable. I didn’t enjoy looking after newborns. I struggled with the lack of support. I found it hard to make decisions. I never felt present during a conversation.

I had initially wanted to blog about my experiences and become more involved in activism, but I was burnt out and the online world had become an unsafe and triggering space for me.

I would find myself at the shops wandering around aimlessly trying to remember why I was there in the first place. I didn’t want to be around friends. I gained weight, ate very poorly and almost never exercised. Eventually I felt that I no longer recognised myself.

The murder trial finally took place at the Supreme Court of NSW in early 2017.

Second to the weeks immediately after the murder, this was the most difficult period in my life. The stress of the trial was a huge setback for me.

It unsettled the memories I thought I had already put to bed and unearthed a cold, callous side to life.

I was grateful that the law had recognised the injustice that had been done, but even though my father was found guilty of murder and sentenced to about 20 years in prison, I was back at square one in terms of how I felt.

The trial process is incredibly intimidating and silencing for victims, whose hope for some sort of closure or acknowledgement often hinges on the outcome of a process over which they have little or no influence.

Indeed, the trauma of the trial was in some ways worse than the initial trauma. I now had two babies who needed my undivided attention. I had little room for my own thoughts

 I couldn’t afford to withdraw into my own mind and fear mixed with exhaustion prevented me from voicing my concerns. To add to all of that, I had to deal with some unfortunate behaviour from some of my father’s supporters who were unhappy with the outcome of the trial.

I felt heartbroken and powerless all over again. I could not concentrate, not even during my daily prayers I had relied on as a source of peace during my days.

I became jumpy and paranoid; anxious one day, down and depressed the next, and angry most of the time. Whenever I tried to explain how I was feeling, I’d struggle to find the words.

I drove myself to channel this negative energy into positive activities. I organised a Pink Ribbon fundraiser in memory of my mother and raised over $5000 in a matter of weeks,

I also learned to control my exposure to social media and focus on more relaxing, controlled activities; like painting and redecorating my home.

In the same month, I attended a graduation ceremony at Western Sydney University, to accept a posthumous award on behalf of my mum.

I met her teachers and the Dean of the faculty and they were all incredibly supportive. I read about trauma and the experiences of victims as part of a thesis I was writing within my own studies and, in my spare time, informed myself about the many types of domestic violence and its gendered nature.

By doing things like this, I felt that I was transforming my grief and trauma into something positive.

I also saw my advocacy as a sadaqa jariyyah, a type of Islamic charity, I could contribute to the world on behalf of my mum and make a statement in support of women’s health and safety.

But these things were not enough to carry me all the way through the re-traumatisation that had resulted from the trial.

I realised that recovery from trauma is not linear, rather, it goes up and down and requires hard work.

I wouldn’t just wake up feeling better one day. It was time to see a counsellor again.

I found the right counsellor through Victims’ Services NSW and it was the best thing I could have done.

Talking therapy provides a wonderful sense of relief. I felt better and better with each session and gradually implemented my counsellor’s advice in my day to day life, as well as coming up with my own ways to practice mindfulness and relaxation.

For example, I learned to allocate time for thinking about things that make me angry or upset. So rather than dealing with negative thoughts and emotions whilst trying to feed my kids or doing the shopping, I would set aside about 20 mins in the evening for “thinking”.

My counsellor told me that the mind naturally goes back over traumatic events as a way of processing them and healing.

I realised I had been too busy to allow this internal process to take place. By allocating quiet time for those thoughts, I was giving my brain an opportunity to do the work it needed to do to get better.

I became aware that it was important to stop sometimes. There is nothing wrong with hitting the pause button once in a while. So rather than return to work at the end of my maternity leave, I was realistic about my capacity and decided to resign.

I also learned to control my exposure to social media and focus on more relaxing, controlled activities; like painting and redecorating my home.

I had initially wanted to blog about my experiences and become more involved in activism, but I was burnt out and the online world had become an unsafe and triggering space for me.

It was difficult to admit that to myself but once I accepted it, I began to experience real progress in my healing.

We need to start by looking after the homes of the soul; the body and the mind. If you don’t look after you, you cannot possibly look after anyone else.

I planned my days so they had purpose and structure, without being overwhelming.

I wrote out daily goals as well as goals for the future. I took my kids out more often to outdoor spaces so that I could get fresh air and exercise.

I learned to identify and manage potential triggers or associations that would bring intrusive thoughts into my day. Through these strategies, I began to experience a sense of recovery and empowerment.

One of my favourite expressions is “you can’t pour from an empty cup”.

I have learned that to help those around me, to look after my kids, support my husband and sisters, and advocate for justice more broadly, I first need to look after my own physical and mental wellbeing. Maybe that’s the true meaning of the expression “charity starts at home”.

We need to start by looking after the homes of the soul; the body and the mind. If you don’t look after you, you cannot possibly look after anyone else.

I am still on this path. I still take breaks when I need to. I allocate time each day to doing things that I find therapeutic and which allow me to slow down my thoughts.

My spirituality has been a major part of my coping so I make an effort to pray more mindfully and sincerely. I believe  having a healthy relationship with myself is a key part of enjoying a healthy relationship with God.

Gradually, I have been able to accept new commitments into my life including building on my skills and knowledge so that I can use my experience to help others and influence change. By regaining my energy, I have regained my voice.

You don’t need to face a death or trauma before you seek professional help. In fact, being proactive about your mental health sets you up to be a more resilient person so that when life becomes painful, you have the skills, emotional endurance and confidence needed to withstand and grow from tragedy.

Amani Haydar is a lawyer and volunteer member of the Management Committee of Bankstown Women's Health Centre. She will be giving an address on the challenges faced by women from CALD backgrounds in reporting domestic violence, including recognising emotional abuse, for International Women's Day at the Bankstown Women's Health Centre on March 8. 

This speech is a adapted from an address made at Mind-Field, a mental health awareness event held by the Islamic Sciences and Research Academy (ISRA).

Family violence and mental health services: 

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