‘The cruelest cut ever for me and my mum – the heartbreak of losing your hair’ – Saira Khan

Saira Khan shares the story of the grief and pain she felt cutting her mother’s hair as her mum, who had always been very proud of her hair, went through chemotherapy to treat her cancer

Saira and her mum

I have faced many challenging tasks in my life, but nothing was as excruciating as being asked by my mum, as she lay in a hospital bed this week, to cut her hair that is falling out because of the chemotherapy she is receiving.

My Pakistani mum, who has a blood cancer called follicular lymphoma, is 76 but has never cut her hair in her life.

That is not an exaggeration. Like many women of her culture, generation and heritage, her hair is her identity.

It is linked to her sense of femininity and beauty and has religious and spiritual meaning too.

I have only ever known mum to have one hairstyle – a long plait with a bobble tied at the end.

Saira’s mum would spend hours oiling her hair to keep it shining and healthy

As I was growing up I watched in awe as she carried out an oil ritual to strengthen her hair.

She’d take a bottle of mustard oil, bought from a local Asian shop, untie her plait and let her dark locks fall loose.

This was the only time I ever saw how beautiful my mum’s hair was – long, thick and cascading around her face. But she never wore it like that in public.

Mum would warm the oil in her palms and massage it into the whole length of her hair for an hour, making sure every strand was coated, to strengthen it, enhance the color and make it shine.

My job was to hold the bottle and pour the oil into her hand. I didn’t like the smell, but my mum didn’t care about the aroma. She was focused on the results – soft, glossy, healthy hair.

Saira spoke of how her mum had been left furious when she had cut her hair as a teen


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The ritual ended with her combing out any tangles, tying her hair up in a bun and wrapping a headscarf around it to stop any oil getting on to her pillow at night.

Then it was my turn. She would massage my scalp and give me two plaits that she would still be in when I went off to school the next morning.

I never saw mum in a scrap of make-up, but boy did she decorate her hair – with bobbles, slides, clips and a Pakistani decoration called a “paranda” which would be woven in to add length and thickness.

Her definition of beauty was a woman with long, thick hair.

But as I was getting into my teenage years, I didn’t want to be the Asian girl with two oily plaits.

I wanted to be like my friends in 1986, who were all getting curly bobs like Kelly McGillis in Top Gun. So I did the unthinkable. I went to the hairdressers and had the plaits that reached my bottom chopped off to just under my chin.

I went home with the excuse: “I cut it because I had nits.” But I will never forget the horror, pain and shame I saw in my mum’s eyes from her.

I had done the inconceivable as an Asian girl – cut my hair and brought shame on my family.

Mum didn’t talk to me for two weeks and I felt guilty for years. So imagine what it was like when she asked me to cut off her hair from her.

With tears in her eyes, she handed me a pair of scissors and said: “Cut it off, but don’t show it to me.”

I looked at her thinning, matted hair and wanted to scream and curse the cancer for putting my mum through this.

But, unable to speak, I made the first snip.

The little blades cut away her hair while my beautiful mum sobbed uncontrollably. It broke my heart into a million pieces.

I held her in my arms. I kissed her from her. I said: “It’ll grow back, mum. You’ll see. It’ll be thicker and stronger.”

She didn’t hear my words of comfort. She just put her head into her hands and waited.

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George Holan

George Holan is chief editor at Plainsmen Post and has articles published in many notable publications in the last decade.

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