When I began my blog last year, I had listed out several fun and amusing and some thought-provoking topics that I was passionate about. Never had I imagined that I would be writing about experiencing grief. I never lost anyone so close before I lost my husband over ten weeks ago. Experiencing a huge loss and going through the grief journey changes the way you look at the world around you. You stop pursuing things that don’t truly matter. No more fake stuff! Although I have learned that no two people experience grief the same way, hearing and reading others’ experiences has helped me and I hope to do the same for others. Even if one person finds it helpful, I would think writing on this topic was worth it.
The following is an account of how I see the experience as of now- at ten weeks. Who knows – I might write an update on this process periodically. There are at least four parts to this experience as I see it – Grieving, Mortal remains, Material remains, and Figuring out a new life without your loved one.
In the first few weeks, I found myself in a cold dark place, feeling chilly and incapable of generating any warmth from within and incapable of generating any happy chemicals in my brain. Surely I acknowledged all the acts of kindness and love towards me, but it’s without the usual energy, elation or excitement while thanking or appreciating someone. I was entirely dependent on my immediate family and best friends for warmth and also for prompts to eat, shower, rest, etc. Almost like a small baby. You feel completely defeated and devoid of any energy.
The grieving takes on a different flavor once you get some energy back – both physical and mental energy. I started to remember more things and started talking more, which is part of the process, but the grief experience takes on a different feel. We ate his favorite foods and did things that he liked to do as a way of remembering him, whenever we felt up for it. Anil had a great sense of humor and made everyone around him laugh. My family and friends always have a great time reminiscing those wonderful times and repeat the jokes over and over and laugh, when we didn’t cry. Grieving and reminiscing together with family and friends is therapeutic. There is probably no right or wrong way. Everything about this grieving process comes down to this. You realize there is no right or wrong way. It becomes impossible to force yourself to do anything other than what you feel natural and comfortable doing at that moment. You are plainly grateful for every bit of genuine expression of emotional support you get. Some people will plainly surprise you by how much warmth they show you. You feel an imaginary raw bleeding surface in your life and you heal by ‘secondary intention’, outwardly from the raw bleeding surface. At ten weeks, it still hurts but it doesn’t feel as raw any more. One of my coworkers who surprised me by reaching out to me emotionally (surprise because our work has no overlap and we are not on the same teams) gave me a good analogy – it’s like chronic wound care. You keep tending to it, but it never quite goes away.
This part is hard. It’s extremely hard to accept the reality staring at you- how quickly a healthy young able-bodied person turned into a frozen albeit life-like body, and then into an urn-full of ashes. I spent as much time as possible with his mortal remains – it was my way of being with him until the very last. There’s probably no right or wrong way about this. For the funeral service, my close friend and I picked clothes that we remember him most in – a sporty full-sleeved T-shirt and shorts. Anil had his signature smile on even in his death. That smile was his final gift to all of us he left behind. I don’t know what happens to the dead person after death, but I felt that the smiling look was a blessing to all of us. At the funeral, some said they almost felt like giving him a tight smack and say, “Alright buddy, the prank is over. Let’s go home!” The Hindu rituals prior to cremation consisted of a prayer to Ganesha for removing any obstacles, a prayer to Shiva who is the destroyer of things (it is said that when Vishnu destroys something or somebody, he replaces them, while Shiva on the other hand, destroys something or someone with no replacement), and a prayer to Yama, the God of Death for a smooth journey to heaven.
On the ninth day, we were supposed to immerse his ashes in a large body of water. We released the funeral flowers instead into the nearby lake, and took the ashes to India few weeks later to immerse them in the Indian Ocean. I felt he would be more happy being in Indian waters than in US waters or Canadian waters. The priests who did the ashes immersion ceremony were also nice in giving the rituals a personal touch. They assured me they would pray for a good life for me and so on. The eleventh day rituals were prayers to his departed soul and the souls of his ancestors, while the twelfth day rituals were for the well-being of the surviving family members. Per Hindu tradition, we offer prayers, rice and water once a month for the first year and then yearly for the departed soul and the ancestors. The rituals were definitely helpful to those of us who remained in this world. It was additionally helpful to participate in the rituals because they made the loss real. In India, Hindu women are not allowed to be part of the funeral rituals. I certainly felt fortunate that this was not hundred years ago when widows were cremated alive along with their dead husbands (the practice of sati). I also felt fortunate that these are modern days and that our families are not into those Hindu funeral rituals that are cruel towards women (they shave a woman’s head, break bangles on her hands, make her wear a plain white sari for the rest of her life, etc. – translation – make her as unattractive as possible). After the twelfth day prayers for the well-being of surviving family members, my family bought me a lovely sky blue Oscar de la Renta dress!
As though plunging from a state of total ignorance about mortality and the grief experience to living the realities of the experience is not devastating enough, there are material things to be dealt with. To add salt to a raw bleeding wound, some of these items are time-sensitive, and they require you to be cognitively intact in order to execute them. Even for a normally high-functioning person like me, handling these material activities and decisions is extremely hard. We were a couple with a reasonable division of labor, and all of a sudden, you find yourself dealing with the entire set of mundane items.
When you find yourself not emotionally ready and not cognitively together and you know you still need to do it, it’s crushing. The first time I picked up the phone to report my husband’s death was a milestone. The first time I reported his death without crying was a milestone. When someone dies suddenly and unexpectedly like my husband did, learning what needs to be done is a steep learning curve. You’ll realize banks don’t have a soul. If you are not the primary on a credit card, you will not have that credit card any more. You’ll see your credit score drop. You have to make sure that you didn’t become delinquent on any utilities payments. Some might look upon you unkindly just because you are a double-income-no-kids couple. Just because. That you had gone through a ton of emotional trauma and spent a lot of money on fertility treatments and adoption agencies is nothing to them. Nothing about these material aspects is compassionate. Sure these material issues are temporary and you are grateful you have an education and a career that will allow you to bounce back some day. When the first time a customer service representative asked me if I would like to do x or y, I was so upset I told her, “Listen, I don’t have experience with husbands dying in my life. This was the first time and hopefully it will never again happen in my life. You let me know what I need to do and help me do it.”
Going through clothes and shoes and personal items is an entirely different experience. Each item has memories. I saved some for the memory box and donated the rest to charity. The one thing that still baffles me is this. He has a full-sleeved navy blue T-shirt that he wears on his long road trips or flights. During the initial weeks after his death, I have often visualized him in that shirt walking in the clouds towards a door high up in the sky, occasionally turning back towards me to wave at me. To this day, I cannot find that shirt in our closet. I’m sure it’s somewhere in the house, but I haven’t found it yet. Not finding the shirt was just mildly puzzling. I felt serious churning in my stomach recently when I saw him in my mind entering that door and it shut behind him and that’s it.
Figuring out a new life without your loved one
I can’t figure out which is harder, this part or the grieving part. The other night when I was driving home and the full moon was shining bright and beautiful in my driveway, I so wished he were alive so we could sit together in the backyard! Every new joy that I experience is soon followed by a sense of guilt that he is not around to experience it himself and he is not around for me to share with. Any sense of longing to see him and touch him somehow brings on this tactile memory of his cold body after he died. Between the day he died and the day of his funeral service, I must have had my hand on his cold body for almost seven hours. That memory has created a strong powerful divide between life before his death and life after his death. The day he left the world is my time zero now. My new lifestyle includes activities that he was doing around the house before. So, figuring out how our coffee machine works and the vacuum cleaner works is a challenge. Either I am protesting or they are protesting, but the machines didn’t work for the first few weeks in the house. When the pool guy tells me that he left my husband a voice message that a certain piece of pool equipment is not working, tears start streaming down my eyes.
I now welcome kindness and emotional support from everyone including colleagues with open arms. In fact, all the people in my life have now self-sorted in my mind into those I am not emotionally comfortable with and those I am emotionally comfortable with. Random things bring on tears or a wave of sadness. I took Sheryl Sandberg’s example and started logging my joys and what I am grateful for, every single day. The joys remind me of all the things we normally take for granted. The first time anything is done right, that’s reason for joy! Like the first full meal, the first full night’s sleep, the first yoga class, the first normal wake up – get ready – go to work routine, the first day at work I didn’t cry, or the first time I did something cognitively intense. My social life is reorganized around those who show caring. And if you think it’s a linear progression towards normalcy, you couldn’t be further from truth. It’s truly like a march through the snakes and ladders game board. You need to handle yourself with extreme compassion and hope that the overall ‘area under the curve’ is forward and upward!
These are the activities and resources that have helped me so far.
- Time with Family and friends, Reliving warm memories, Doing things my husband would want me to do, Journaling, Going back to things I was already doing like Yoga and Blogging
- Listening to music, especially Gayatri Mantra (rendition by Pandit Jasraj), and Great Compassion Mantra (rendition by a few singers – Kelsie Chukie Tethong, Niem Phat Thanh Phat, Yang Mali, Imee Ooi)
- This article on grief I read early on was very helpful: http://m.huffpost.com/us/entry/10243026
- An article on being a young widow I found helpful (I have to admit feeling grateful that this didn’t happen to me in my thirties): http://www.theglobeandmail.com/life/relationships/the-widowhood-effect/article33344335/
- Bhagavad-Gita Study – (course available through Chinmaya International Foundation)
- Grief One Day at a Time (365 meditations to help you heal after loss) by Alan D. Wolfelt, Ph.D. (A friend who recently became a widow herself shared this book with me. This author also has over a dozen other books on grief.)
- Blogposts on the topic by a friend http://www.drjanpatterson.com/ and hearing experiences of other friends who also lost family members they loved deeply
P.S. The snoozies slippers in the picture were a gift from a colleague who welcomed me back to work. We didn’t know each other that much, but I felt very much loved and welcomed!