Earlier this year, my father was diagnosed with a very rare type of cancer; cancer in the duodenum. Having been a student of the sciences for the entirety of my life thus far, the first thing I did when I got this news is, look up what part of the body duodenum is. I didn’t even know if I was pronouncing it right.
But that is the ruthlessness of the C. It teaches you everything in a very short period of time. It teaches you anatomy, it teaches you that there is no prevention for this dreadful monster, it teaches you that you can only treat it but perhaps never cure it, it teaches you about surgical options, it teaches you all about chemo and radiation, it teaches you about their side effects, it teaches you to fight a battle with all your might and resources, it teaches you to have hope for remission, it teaches you to live with the fear of recurrence, it teaches you the value of life, it teaches you about winning the battle.
What the C doesn’t teach you though, is how to continue to survive when you have lost a loved one to it.
Yes, my father, my Nanna, succumbed to the C.
There. That is the first time I have actually said the words out, even in my head.
There are two reasons why I am actually writing this:
- I realized that death is such a taboo topic for most people. I’m not sure if it is cultural or if it is just human nature across borders. Some people are just too afraid to talk about it. Some people desperately want to offer some kind of moral support, but just do not know what to say. They wonder what the right thing to say is. Nobody actually teaches us how to console or offer support to a heart broken person. Some others speak with you, and just skip the topic and try to shove it under the carpet with small talk, while your grief sits in the corner of the room like an elephant. I was overcome with emotion most times, but was also appalled by some insensitive conversations, and rather shocked by some people’s lack of sympathy.
- My Nanna was a writer and a poet himself, a really good one at that. He was always very proud that I sought to pursue writing, in some way. And writing about this, is my way of dealing with my grief. Also, if it can help bring some sort of consolation to at least one grieving soul out there even for a few minutes, I am sure Nanna would be smiling down at me, wherever he is.
This part, the past few months, has been the hardest phase of my life. I remember thinking that my break up with my first boyfriend was the worst pain that could be inflicted upon me, but it makes me laugh at myself now. Losing a parent is far, far, far worse. This has to be the worst thing that can happen to anybody. But, nevertheless, I have found some coping methods that are helping me to learn to live with a broken, grieving heart. So I decided to write about them. All of these may not necessarily apply to a person dealing with the loss of a loved one, but that’s the magnanimity of grief and loss, nothing can wholly describe or completely encompass it.
- Try to Have no Regrets:
Regrets are nothing but injurious to you. It may be impossible to not have regrets, like, you could have said this, or done that, or just paid attention, etc. And that is why I said try. It is okay, remember you cannot change what has happened and remember, things could have been far worse. Do not regret the things you could have done for them, be it that you didn’t call them more often, or meet them more often, or they didn’t see you graduate, or that they didn’t see you get married, or they didn’t see you have kids and so on. Nobody goes away satisfied. They could still have one more unfulfilled wish.
I was continents away from my Nanna went he went away since he was coping so well and then suddenly, my whole world crashed to the ground, without any notification. I regret not being there, I regret not getting to say my goodbye, but I shudder at the thought of being there and having to see him on a ventilator struggling to survive. It is more comforting to hold on to an image of him laughing with me, discussing his favorite books with me, or simply being the strong father he always was. So try to let go of the regrets and hold on to the happier memories. Do not let the Dementor of Regret feed upon your grieving soul. Think of the things you did that made them happy, have multiple Patronus’. They help.
- Avoid the What-Ifs and Buts:
The mind plays very dangerous games on you. It tries to draw you into a game of ‘What if we have done this instead of that’ or ‘But this didn’t happen to XYZ’s uncle’ or ‘Maybe we should have seen a different surgeon’ or ‘What if we had tried Ayurveda instead’ and so on. All this does is it sends you down a spiraling path of no return. Life is a bitch, and some things are just not in your control and sadly, you have to learn to live with this bitter truth for the rest of your life. Yes, things could have gone differently, and if they did go differently, maybe you could have had a few extra months and perhaps done everything they wanted to do and then what? Even if every sequence of the What-Ifs and Buts went right, nobody is ever going to be ready to let go of their loved one. Nothing can prepare us for this. So do no fall into this limbo.
Instead, maybe, now you could perhaps check off something on their bucket list for them. My Nanna always dreamed of going to China and so I have decided to go there next year, and do the things he always wanted to do. Mostly for his sake, but also for the sake of my own grieving heart.
- Anger Vs Acceptance:
Sometimes I am extremely angry that this happened to me. That I have to suffer this way. On some days I feel suffocated and chocked and irritated and angry. I did not deserve this. There are times when I still hope that I will finally wake up and realize that this is just a bad, horrible dream and that everything is okay back home. Oftentimes, I feel like an atheist, other times I feel agnostic. Some times I am sitting in a team meeting and have tears in my eyes for no apparent reason, other times I listen to really sad songs because I want to make myself cry. I am angry that certain friends haven’t called me after learning about my loss and offered support, and I am angrier that some close friends haven’t said the right things to me. I want to scream when people ask me, ‘How are you?’ I want to snap back saying, ‘I’m not fine, I have never felt this shattered before and the pain never seems to end,’ but you are supposed to gulp everything down and simply say, ‘I’m doing alright.’ I am angry that people don’t ask something more sensitive like, ‘How are you doing today?’ or ‘How are you holding up?’ or simply, ‘Hang in there.’ It suffocates me that I still have my Nanna’s number saved on my phone but I simply cannot pick up the phone and call him anymore or receive any ‘missed calls’ from him.
ALL THIS IS OKAY. You can be angry and you don’t have to accept what has happened. You can keep that saved number on your phone forever and never delete it. I am not asking you to get all delusional but, if you just lost someone you knew ever since you were in the womb, it is alright to be angry and not reach the acceptance stage of your grief.
And let me tell you this, you probably will never reach the acceptance stage and that is okay too. To think that you have them watching over you, guarding you and wishing the best for you is completely normal.
Ever since this has happened, all I can tell people is: My Nanna had the C and he didn’t make it or everything happened so fast and is over. I haven’t been able to bring myself to utter the actual words used in the English language, even the flowery ones. I feel that if I uttered them, they might actually become true.
- Keep Away the Negative Energy:
Do not let the negative energy become a priority. What nobody teaches you is that all rituals, irrespective, which religion you belong to make mourning very taxing. I do not question religion or rituals but families often prioritize ritualistic practices over people’s loss. Nobody, absolutely nobody, can feel what you are going through when you are dealing with your loss. While some practices are just blunt and brutal, some families make it harder than it already is.
There were relatives who told me that all my Nanna wanted was to see his 31 year old daughter married and that he left without his dream being fulfilled. I was arguing with them that, yes, he wanted me to be married, but he also wanted me to be happy, that was more important to him than my marriage. There were some people who talked about assets and gold, and there were still others who were gossiping about what treatment could have been better, and some others who were complaining that there was no sugar in the coffee being served to visitors.
What irked me the most, but was also a moment of realization, was when two members in my Nanna’s family had a difference of opinion on the ritual protocol and they began to argue about whether the ‘meal offering’ must be placed at the head or at the foot of my father. That was it. I walked away, away from the wretched deathly hallows toward home, home that will never be the same anymore. I needed none of this bullshit. What I was going through was already extremely heart wrenching and to these people, this was some kind of an ego display theatrics.
This is the kind of negative energy you want to keep away. I feel that facing these situations, or involving yourself in them, even arguing with them to prove a point takes away from your loss. It makes your loss sit on the back burner. It makes trivial things appear more important, which isn’t the case clearly. Your loved one loved you very dearly. Let nobody tell you otherwise.
- Find a Medium to Deal with your Grief:
This is very, very important. You need to let the pain out. The pain does not get any lesser if you do, this will stay with you and haunt you forever, but the letting out process eases the pain to a certain extent. You can choose whatever medium you want. Crying out loud in front of people, pouring out tons of silent tears while you are alone in bed or in the bathroom, confiding your pain in your friends, having long conversations with your family about the loss, going to grief support groups, reading books, reading books on dealing with grief, collecting pictures of your lost one, whatever works for you. But find that medium. One of my friends advised me that some people chose the wrong medium, like resort to alcoholism or doing drugs, only because that keeps the pain away, and that I shouldn’t take those up. Of course, so I don’t support mediums that cause self-destruction.
What helps me is talking about my loss. The pain it causes me, the unfair situation, the happy memories, and merrier times. I started to keep a journal and jot down all the little happy instances I can recollect. I want my future kids, if I ever have them, to know my Nanna since they will not get to meet him in person. This post is a medium too.
My friends tell me I have become even more obsessed with cleaning. I am constantly cleaning the apartment and re-arranging furniture. I keep my appointments to the Ts and never cancel plans. It is my way toward some sort of satisfaction that I can still control some things, and that I will continue to control what I can since there clearly are things that are way beyond my controlling or fixing capability.
- Let Each Person in your Family Deal in Their Own Way:
If this isn’t easy on you, it isn’t easy on your family either, your siblings and your mother, I mean. They could be in a far worse situation than you are. Do not put yourself in their shoes because you probably will never understand their pain even though you are all dealing with the same loss. Do not judge them or force them to confide in you. Just remember, in Rachel Green’s words, if you feel that it’s like there is rock bottom, then 50 feet of crap, then you, your family could be feeling the same, or they probably have a 150 feet of crap between rock bottom and them. Grief is so weird, it comes like alternating current, only there is no resistance, none at all.
What I am trying to say is; every human being is different. When the likes and dislikes are so vastly different between two individuals, how will two people’s modes of grieving be identical. It took me a few weeks to understand this.
When this great tragedy hit my family, my brother did not cry. For as long as I was there with him, he did not shed a single tear. I was very worried for him, worried that we would have to face a volcanic outburst due to all the over piled containment inside of him. I nudged him to cry, and offered him my shoulder to cry on, lent my ears to hear him out, and he did neither. He also refused to shave his head that was required as a part of the ritual. And when I asked why, he calmly said to me, ‘I do not want remember what I was made to do to him after he was gone, in the burial ground. If I shave my head, every time I look into the mirror, this is what I will remember.’ Reality hit me; I hadn’t even considered what the boys in our country, particularly Hinduism practicing families go through in these kinds of situations. It is just outright brutal. Of course, my brother was forced to shave his head anyway.
I simply said to him, ‘You don’t have to confide in me, as long as you have some medium or someone you feel comfortable enough to speak with, as long as you are unburdening the pain in some manner, I’m okay.’
- The Ultimate Support System:
This could be your family, friends or simply acquaintances who are also grieving and know what it is to lose a parent. They are your backbone and you have to learn to recognize, and appreciate them. Support comes in so many ways. Some people give you cards to console you and let you know they are there for you, some send you flowers, some friends come and meet you and stay with you, some of them, even if they aren’t physically there, say the right things you need to hear. Some simply ask the most mundane and banal questions that could mean the world to you. Every little effort matters and needs to be remembered. I always like to say, ‘Good friends clap their hands and cheer you through your ups but great friends hold your hand and pull you up through your downs.’
When I got the most devastating news of my life, a co-worker and friend hugged me real tight for I don’t know how long and asked if she could say a Christian prayer although she knew my Nanna was a Hindu, and I just hugged her back and shook my head in agreement.
An acquaintance who I barely know asked me, ‘Have you been getting any sleep and do you feel hungry at all these days?’ Such an inconspicuous question but it literally had me chocked. Because there are nights you cry yourself to sleep and yet can’t keep the pain away.
And to all these people who were my backbone, I made sure I told them how appreciated they were and how much their concern made some difference to my grieving processes.
- It is okay to be Happy:
This is the trickiest one. There are times when you forget all this pain for some time and go back to being your old self. When you treat yourself. When you go shopping and buy yourself a new dress. When you go out on Friday night with friends and get drunk. When you simply turn off your mind and decide to go watch a newly released movie. When you take a vacation because you need a break. And this is okay. Do not be guilty about it. Ignore the judgmental looks people throw at you. Nobody decides for you about how you learn to survive, you do. You have been through a lot. And you don’t have to sit in the corner and cry all the time. If anything, your life isn’t going to stop because you choose to throw your hands up in the air and decide you’re done. Your loved one never wanted you to brood all the time and waste your life. That wasn’t expected of you. Grief will last forever; you just have to learn to continue to do everything in life while you carry that void in your heart.
This has been one of the most difficult things I have ever had to write, but I just needed to put it out there because sometimes, I have felt extremely lonely and all I wished for was to hear from someone who was dealing with what I am going through. And yes, growing up sucks. Sometimes I wish I could just go back to being in 7th Grade where my biggest problems in life were fear of Gowri Ma’am and passing the Maths test.
For those of you who are interested, I chanced upon this website called Remembering With Roses. This company takes roses from events such as funerals, weddings, graduations, etc. and they have a recipe that makes the roses into long lasting, permanent black beads. They accept both fresh and dried roses and you can ship directly to them. I wanted to have something tangible from my Nanna, apart from myself, so I got a pendant made. When I wear it, I feel connected to him and it gives me a sense of protection from him, like he is over seeing me.
Here is the link: http://www.rememberingwithroses.com
October 21st, 2016: Happy 64th Birthday, Nanna. I love you.
“The most painful goodbyes are the ones that are never said and never explained.”