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Nafeesa Arshad

Raised in a British Pakistani sisterhood, I never expected to lose my sister to cancer

There's a specific type of grief that comes with sibling loss.

04 Feb 2021

When you think of death in your early twenties, you conjure up the image of a friend losing a grandparent or a long-lost relative you knew as a child passing away back at home. You never see it knocking on your door and asking for your older sibling. But last year, I lost my 31-year-old sister, Saima Thompson, to cancer.

Societally, losing a sibling at a young age is much less common, so it can be hard to know how to process your grief. When Saima got diagnosed with late stage lung cancer, it was a complete shock. Her only visible symptoms were general fatigue and aches. And it only felt even more surreal when my sisters and I rushed to the cancer ward she was admitted to. Surrounded by the stereotypical images of late-stage cancer, like elderly people hooked up to noisy machines, our sister stuck out like a sore thumb. I couldn’t help but think: “what the hell?”

It was never meant to be like this. Before her diagnosis in 2018, she was living her best life, running two businesses including the multi-award winning Masala Wala Cafe in South London. She pioneered authentic Pakistani home cooking in our female-run business and celebrated our immigrant mother’s food. She created a space that became a hub in the community.

Nafeesa (left) and her sisters, with Saima (third from the left) – image via author

Ours had been a single parent household; my mother divorced our father in 2001. Being left with four young girls to look after, Saima stepped up as the second parent figure. My family were immediately frowned upon by the local South Asian community as divorce is a huge taboo, but Saima became a huge support for both our mother and us girls through the turbulence of it all.

Saima even eventually created an amazing job opportunity for our mother through the restaurant. More importantly, as my older sister, she influenced everything from my music to style choices, while guiding me through life’s challenges from a parental perspective. Saima created a beautiful synergy of both British and Pakistani cultures which we all embodied. She was the ultimate cool girl, an indie rock advocate and style pioneer. She loved gigs, at every opportunity she would invite us to join her at live shows and festivals.

“Our sisterhood taught us to have no shame, to speak our mind on important matters and to celebrate what’s close to our hearts”

Our sisterhood taught us to have no shame, to speak our mind on important matters and to celebrate what’s close to our hearts. In our little South Asian sisterhood, as girls and as young women, we have always been determined to fend for ourselves and create our own opportunities.

Saima handled her experience with phenomenal composure and wrote about her journey unapologetically in her blog ‘Curry & Cancer’. During her treatments she organised charity supper clubs, wrote and spoke articulately on the need to break down misconceptions on living with cancer as a young woman of colour, founded the BAME cancer support group, and co-hosted her own BBC Asian Network podcast ‘Fresh to Death’. Alongside her friend Leanne Pero, founder of Black Women Rising, Saima carved out a space among the big cancer charity names who were unable to provide relevant statistics for the impact of cancer in marginalised communities. 

This type of information could help expel the misconceptions around cancer in my community as in our culture, terminal illness is also a taboo, actively not spoken about and hidden from family members with relatives passing away due to mysterious causes. My mother took my sister’s diagnosis especially hard and couldn’t quite get to grips with the concept of cancer and the word ‘terminal’. And it was only after Saima’s diagnosis that we discovered that close relatives had also lived with cancer. 

“Sibling loss is gut wrenching. For many, siblings are your peers, protectors and partners in life to cheer you on at every step”

Sibling loss is gut wrenching. For many, siblings are your peers, protectors and partners in life to cheer you on at every step. Sisterhood is a whole other level – for me at least, it’s an unbreakable bond that simply can’t be put into words. I have learned that grief can be so physically exhausting that it’s difficult to get out of bed some days. But grief can also charge you up with a desire to connect with others in meaningful ways, which is something my sister championed.

I find myself mourning the future, without my dear sister here to celebrate life’s milestones: job promotions, house moves, marriage, kids. My other sister recently gave birth to our first niece. It’s bittersweet, the beauty and joy a baby shines into your world interlaced with the missing auntie, our missing sister. 

Saima on her wedding day (centre) – photograph via author

And to add to the pain, it feels absurd to experience loss during the pandemic because my sister’s passing has impacted every part of my family’s journey. Grief is typically a collective experience in Pakistani culture. From being limited to the number of people at her funeral to also having to grieve in isolation, I’ve had to overcome the anger of not being able to see her in the last months ahead of her passing in June because she was being ‘shielded’. The only comfort I have is that it meant she could have high quality time with her husband.

At the time of Saima’s death, I only had one close friend who had lost a sibling at a young age, but it was through creating a community platform called Goodness Gracious Grief that I’ve encountered a handful of others who have gone through similar losses.

I hope to keep my sister’s memory alive by continuing the discussion on the taboo nature of long-term illnesses within South Asian communities, sibling loss and young grief. I’m still learning to accept my reality and move forwards with my sister’s legacy, but my own journey with grief is teaching me more than I ever thought it would.

For anyone else experiencing sibling loss, I highly recommend turning to the online communities that are available in this time – you are not alone. 

Nafeesa writes about her experiences of grief and sibling loss @goodnessgraciousgrief on Instagram and at www.goodnessgraciousgrief.co.uk. She will be hosting workshops and supper clubs in 2021 for those experiencing loss in their 20s. 

Masala Wala Café remains open, headed up by Saima’s sisters and they will be exploring charitable work to honour Saima’s memory.