It’s been five Eids, two wedding anniversaries, and four birthdays since Shahbaz has been gone. Friends have gotten married, children have been born, and world-changing events have taken place all around us. And yet if you were to ask me what my overwhelming sense of the time that has passed has been I would say it has been one of stillness. It is as if nothing has moved at all. He walked out of that door that day, two years ago, and I am sitting where he left me, waiting for that door to open again.
You hold on. You hope. You pray. You survive. You wish the best for him yet you know that there is suffering. You can abide your own pain, but what do I do about the pain that he might be going through and that I know nothing about?
I am told that all suffering has a purpose. Such pain can either break you or make you. I am told that I have become stronger, and knowing how Shahbaz is, I know this is true for him too. Wherever Shahbaz is being kept, I know he is worried for us. Those who know him have no doubt that this trial will make him braver, wiser, and stronger. And that perhaps will give some meaning to his senseless and violent abduction. I would like to think that my love for him and his commitment to me are helping him through this immense trial.
People ask me often how it feels, how I handle the pain. There is no frame of reference for this kind of a situation. How does one cope with something like a kidnapping? It is easier to explain away other, more familiar traumas to attain some sense of comfort and even closure. A kidnapping is rarer, harder to examine and more difficult to process. It helps to speak with those who have gone through similar trials, forced to brave the taking away of those dearest to them without reason and without there being any surety of what the outcome will be. This is what makes the experience—a cycle of hope and despair—so much more difficult.
I have been fortunate in many ways. I have family and friends to turn to. I have a job which keeps me occupied, more so as I deal with people whose pain and suffering I can ease as their psychological counselor. Yet when the day is over, the overwhelming feeling is of being very alone and isolated. This is a loneliness that nobody can really relate to. People can comfort you, but it is difficult to fathom what it really means to just wait and wait and wait. How do you explain what it means to be without your best friend, your soul mate, for reasons that have nothing to do with either him or you? Such pain changes you. Such loneliness could leave one embittered, if you did not have faith and hope, and a deep conviction that your love, loyalty, and commitment will triumph in the end. There is a future that you must constantly keep before you, if the present is to be survived.
The unexplained absence of a loved one changes you forever. I know our lives will never be the same again.
But in all this, there are also these great positives that keep coming through. Kind words are a powerful thing. I have received thousands of messages of support and prayers for Shahbaz, from people of all ages and from all corners of the world. A 16-year-old Sikh has taken an oath at the Golden Temple to cut his hair the day Shahbaz returns home. An 18-year-old sends me a message every single day to stay strong. Thousands of prayers have been said at Mecca for his safe journey home. People who go there and to Sufi shrines in Pakistan and India tell us they have prayed for him. It is these heart-healing prayers that keep us hopeful, that help me push back the darkness, that strengthen my resolve.
My husband is a brave man. That was obvious in the way he handled his father’s assassination. The character he has shown in this period of time speaks of a great future awaiting him. With courage to fight, power to survive, and the ability to inspire, I know that Shahbaz will be an icon for his generation.
There is much that lies beyond one’s control. Every day brings a new rumor, a new speculation, a new fear. Truth is trumped by sensationalism by an irresponsible and insatiable media that has no visible regard for those it may be hurting. Media organizations do not seem to care about the pain they cause from their wrong reporting and they certainly don’t think twice about jeopardizing the safety of those at risk, like Shahbaz. Social media only magnifies and makes inescapable such reports. What is the protocol for handling all this when shutting out the world is not an option? What does one do when hope is constantly challenged by “breaking news”?
Here in Lahore, the mind is never far from the lawless federally-administered tribal areas, where most kidnapping victims are whisked off to. Now more than before, one thinks about the families there ravaged by violence, one thinks about the byzantine politics which surround that part of the country, one thinks about the rituals of routine violence there. One also thinks about the mundane: the weather there, the food, health care. And then there are drone strikes and the actual and collateral damage they bring. When those who have abducted your husband are being targeted from the skies, drones are not just an abstract concept but a living reality, a pressing and deeply personal concern. I am sure Shahbaz lives under this fear. I know I do.
I often think whether this experience would have changed Shahbaz. It is not easy living in isolation and captivity but a deep-rooted conviction tells me that these cruel circumstances would not have broken him. He will come back to me the same humorous, warm-hearted, caring person that he was when he left. He would have changed, yes, but only to have become more empathetic, more sensitive, and much more fearless than before. What would be left to fear once you have gone through something like this? These last two years have taught me a lot. The unexplained absence of a loved one changes you forever. I know our lives will never be the same again. They will be better informed by a visceral appreciation of choosing to journey together in a world of great uncertainty come what may, powered by a conviction to make every day count not only for each other but for others around us.
The traumas that Pakistanis go through can be soothed by those who have struggled with similar suffering. Support groups that make these experiences and shared wisdom available are so important and vital for the survival of others who feel alone and despondent. There have to be ways to help make things better for those who suffer, to have their voices heard, to make sure that our streets are safe. It is our collective duty to think about and care for families coping with unnatural traumas. I think of all that we can do once Shahbaz is home. Assisting such families will be a small but meaningful service to all those praying for Shahbaz’s safe return.
The author is a psychologist who married Shahbaz Taseer, the son of Punjab’s assassinated governor Salmaan Taseer, in 2010. Her husband was kidnapped in Lahore on Aug. 26, 2011. His whereabouts remain unknown.