Sunday, October 23, 2016

The undeniable importance of grieving

Minutes after landing at the Chhatrapati Shivaji International Airport, I see a text message that my 49-year old Aunt has passed away.  No, it doesn’t come as a surprise; to see ‘her’ is the reason why I am in India in the first place.  I had been prepared for the devastatingly sad event by my family who told me the previous day that she was on life support and that she would not survive.  I don’t have much time to let anything sink in because I have a very short transit.  As I board my connecting flight to Chennai, why is it that I feel a sudden urge to encapsulate of all of my memories of my Aunt into a few minutes as though I am running a highlights reel in my mind?  It’s a strange feeling that the mind goes into overdrive while the rest of the body feels anesthetized.  Numb.  Totally numb.  Slowly the numbness wears off.  And, seething anger towards a supreme power (“supreme” and “power” seem such unlikely terms in the wake of a death) that I hope exists up above, is one of the first emotions that I feel.  Then I land in Chennai and see some of my family members at the airport.  Suddenly, I snap out of the maelstrom of emotions.  “There are people to console,” I tell myself.  To begin with, an 80-year old mother that has lost her daughter, a 12-year old daughter that has lost her mother.  Surely their loss is greater than mine, I convince myself. 

In the next few hours, I see every close family member and every meaningful friend that my Aunt had.  Some of her friends are people that attended my first birthday celebrations.  So, you can get a sense for the history we share collectively.  As the final rites are performed, I see everyone consoling everyone else.  Some of my Aunt’s friends console me and my other family members.  Another family member, probably with the hope of squeezing out every ounce of grief, extends to a friend that most comforting of gestures – a hug.  All this while, I feel like I am in an entirely quiet zone, continuing to run that highlights reel in my mind.  Finally, I accompany my Uncle, my parents, my Aunt’s friends and a few other family members to the crematorium.  That is where it hits me.  The sight of people getting my Aunt prepared to be turned into a pot of ashes yanks me out of my own daze.  And, that maelstrom of feelings that I had been experiencing, finds my eyes to be an apt conduit to erupt out of.  I am incredibly thankful for the fact that one of my Aunt’s dear buddies of 30 years, is nearby – equally submerged under the weight of his emotions – to ensure that I feel that I am not alone.  An hour later, what gets submerged is the pot of ashes in the nearby Besant Nagar beach as the priest overseeing the final rites directs my Uncle to have his back to the waters as he throws the pot over his shoulders.  Watching this rather pointed direction from the priest, one of my Amma’s cousins comments, “We are a very practical people.”   Are we?  More on that in a bit.

Cut to the present…

It’s been nearly three weeks since the above events happened.  And, I feel like I have had a complete grieving experience.  Sure, my Aunt’s memories will be in my mind continually for the rest of my life given what an important mother figure, sister figure and friend she was in my life.  But the short term impact of this life event taught me a few important lessons.  One is what Professor Morrie Schwartz mentioned in the wonderful, illuminating book on life, loss and death, “Tuesdays with Morrie.”  When asked by his student as to how he dealt with grief, he talked about how he faced it head-on, going through it and coming out the other side.  (I pictured going through a dark tunnel to see light at the end.)  When reflecting on my experience from three weeks ago, I realized the importance of fully being aware of one’s grieving process, identifying what works for you– some internalize while just focusing on the happy memories, others cry out loud, some wail about the unfairness of it all, others ruminate on the science around the illness – and immersing yourself fully, never once having the fear of being judged.  As with every theory, there is an exception.  And, that exception is that, while it is critically important to experience one’s own grief fully, it is also important to balance it with a focus on being there for others whom you think need you. 

Talking of being there for others, what also comes to mind are the people in the extended family and acquaintances (outside of the immediate circle) that call on the surviving family members.  In thamizh, there is a term called, “dhukkam vijarikardhu.”   I have never understood the true meaning of this term.  It translates into (bad) English as, “Asking about your sadness.”    People that call on the near and dear of the deceased, I feel, have a responsibility.  And that responsibility is to walk the tightrope walk between expressing your own sadness and giving strength and expressing support.  And, I feel that I saw people on both sides of this balance.  I remained a mute spectator as I witnessed my family listening to a few well-meaning but ill-timed comments from certain people.  Comments such as one from an old family member to my grandma -“What is the use of you and me living when she (my Aunt) is gone?”  Surely, not the advice that the Doctor ordered for my grandma, you would think.  

But all these reflections aside, that anger that I experienced towards the Almighty, thinking of the unfairness of it all, still persists.  And, that’s okay.  My family gives me the permission to ask my own unanswerable questions, trusting me to live with life’s glorious uncertainties, with those seemingly cruel vagaries of fate, all while assuming that things will look up, that there is some reason for these things to happen.  I haven’t accepted any ‘theory’ or ‘explanation’ for why this thing had to happen.  For the time being, I continue to face my own tough questions.  And, I continue to celebrate the life of my Aunt in my mind, over and over.  The show is over.  But the highlights will continue to play...