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6 June 2017

For good and ill, there’s something very British in how we mourn the victims of terror

Traits embedded in the British DNA treat mortality as something to be squared up to, but perhaps we need more.

By Nesrine Malik

The ways we mourn collectively are never too far removed from who we are individually. Over the past few months, there has been a sublime majesty about how the country has stood large, towering above the deaths sustained since the attack in Westminster, diminishing both the desired effect of terrorism and the efforts of those who exploit it to further toxic agendas. In this national response is reflected the individual, daily heroism of those who have approached tragedy with grace and dignity.

But this response is not borne exclusively of defiance and eagerness not to let the terrorists win. There is something cultural, something embedded in the British DNA that treats mortality as something to be squared up to and stared down.

Oscar Wilde said: “We should treat all the trivial things of life seriously, and all the serious things of life with sincere and studied triviality.” This isn’t just a neat aphorism, it is observable in real life. The love for the colossal understatement, and inflation of the mundane mishap into the consequential, is a defining British cultural characteristic.

The upper classes still have an unruffled affectation, where a serious illness is a bore but the fact that the milk has curdled is an unmitigated disaster. There was something of this in the bravery and humour on show following the London Bridge attack.

Within hours there were dignified, touching dedications and celebrations of the lives of the casualties, alongside the mischief of saluting the “absolute legends” who were running away from the attacks while still holding their pints, and even the undisturbed nobility of the Gallaghers feuding over the One Love Manchester concert. In this country, we seek restraint in seriousness and find release in farce.

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Along with it come all the wonderful offshoots of this duality; sanguine satire, grace under fire, modest self-deprecation, not making a scene and losing your head, hiding one’s light under a bushel and not being gauche. Basically, all the ways Britain is not America. 

But there is something in the way the British grieve that illustrates all the problematic aspects of the virtue of self-restraint. The interruption of introspection for fear of being indulgent. The dousing of death with ritual and celebration.

There is something premature about it. And the tendency is accelerated in the aftermath of terrorist attacks, when everyone rushes to assert that we are not defeated, that we will carry on as before. Some of that performance is an admirable political stance, but a lot of it is cultural. We are conditioned to be ashamed of not being dignified and restrained in the face of death, a state doubly steely and fortified when that death is inflicted by an enemy.

When I left home, I held a deep objection to the way Africans in general, and Sudanese in particular, mourn.

First, there was the violating lack of privacy at a time of intense stress and need for peace and calm. To have a death in the family is to turn your home into a camp for friends and distant relatives you’d never heard of to pitch up, and literally sleep rough on floors and upright on chairs.

Then, there were the hysterics. Instead of polite small talk there was a chorus of wailing and gnashing that, even if the afflicted had found a moment of composure, soon tipped them over the edge again. It was invasive, traumatising and overwhelming. But it was also permission to lose your mind. It provided a space to really experience the pain, to allow consciousness to swell and expand beyond the confines of the normal so that it may reach the foreign land of death and familiarise itself with its terrain. With that came a catharsis and a coming-to-terms that I now only appreciate in hindsight, and which I also absolutely do not recommend.

After London Bridge, Zoe Williams wrote: “As necessary as it feels to make these statements of resilience – to rebut the hang-em-and-flog-em voices as much as to resist the terrorism itself – they are hollow unless we also articulate the more complicated or less noble feelings that come with them, the grave sense of irreversible loss, the humiliation of fear.” 

Along with that articulation, we should also acknowledge that sometimes it is too soon and the trauma too large, no matter how much we attempt to shrink it. Sometimes we need to become smaller before we become bigger. There is no correct way to grieve, but there is no shame in acknowledging that there might be better ways to do so.