Meeting old friends for the first time.

Meeting old friends for the first time. In at least three dimensions. Sharing a physical space together, not just a bland rectangular screen. Actually holding hands.

“Gosh! You’re for real!”

The sparkling smiles of recognition mixed with disbelief. The hugs offering heart to heart resuscitation and healing. Sitting down side by side on the sofa, sharing stories, tea and cake.

A year ago, this could have been fiction but last weekend it was fact. While volunteering at a retreat for Bereaved parents hosted by The Compassionate Friends, we finally met people we’ve only ever seen on Zoom. It was held at the simple and serene Woodbrooke Centre, a Georgian manor house in Selly Oak, Birmingham with tall trees, beautiful flower beds and a family of geese perambulating the grounds, intermittently honking. It is a Quaker centre and has a poster in the main foyer which reads “Nameless helping the Nameless”.

The garden in front of the main house has a labyrinth mowed into it. Early on Saturday morning, birds were singing and the light was inviting me into the open. I decided to walk bare feet into the center of the labyrinth. I took my shoes and socks off at the edge of the circle. As soon as I started walking, it turned into an extremely mindful experience as the ground was littered with geese droppings.

The silence in that place was sweet and the views a treat. We talked about the importance of finding meaning. We shared the joys and challenges of taking the inward road. We watched a film and sang together. We wrote from our hearts and created pretty little candle holders for our kids from jam jars at the crafts table. We cried and laughed, reassured that in this company, it was completely acceptable to do both, sometimes simultaneously.

A pleasant exchange. Giving and receiving with compassion. Understanding. Belonging. Learning. Holding the utter magnificence of life in one hand and the absolute devastation in another. That’s what this game is all about, I guess.

Who is telling me not to do this?

“You want to write a book? Who do you think you are? Why would anyone spend any time or the money on it? Who’s interested in reading your stuff? You will expose your inner life unnecessarily. You are not a writer. Don’t pretend to be one. Your book will simply prove your mediocrity to everyone. Even if you manage to write it, who will publish it? I think you will have to go the self-publishing route.” Oh no! This voice in my head. In any case, I don’t have time. Nor the talent or the imagination. I don’t feel inspired. I am not in the right frame of mind. There’s too much else going on. I am struggling with ‘structure’. It’s serious and solitary hard work. As the story is still unfolding, we haven’t reached the end yet. So, how can it be finished? When I sit at my desk staring at a blank page, I freeze. I don’t know what to write about. It’s too big a job and the hospital is keeping me so busy. On top of that, there are unending chores that need done. The summer has finally arrived and I should take the time to enjoy that. The list of excuses goes on and on. There is so much I don’t remember accurately anymore. How do I put that in words? I am up against this project when I want to flow with it. The book wants to come from a place of love. Not angst. I need to take it easy. Breathe. Gently ask my inner critic to come back later, when I am on the second draft. For now, leave me alone with these blank pages. Let me see them as friends who want to help me be fully expressed. I need to learn to connect with my anxious heart, soothe it and be fully present here at my desk. Right now. And start, regardless. Go to the kitchen. Make a cup of coffee. Water the money-plant. Return to the study. Look at the man in a blue and white base-ball cap walking with his tan Labrador in the park across the road. The round green trees and the clear blue sky. I put on the soundtrack of Human’s music on Youtube – a spectacular film by Yann Arthus-Bertrand, music composed by Armand Amar. (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=uog4eCZTUX4) I am but a dot on this enormous picture inside which I live. Connected with everything. Not separate. In my heart, can I trust myself to be a tiny part of a greater process? Trust myself. Show up every day and work with the mystery. Trust myself.

What are the chances . .?

It was Tuesday, not my usual day to be working at St Thomas’ Hospital.
It was lunch-time and there was time enough for a proper break, which was extremely rare.
I was able to physically leave the Theatre complex for fifteen minutes, which was usually impossible.
I wanted to clear my head, so I went to the cafe, looking for a seat by a window. I was in my raspberry scrubs, wearing my most expensive necklace which is a green lanyard with my ID batch. The round table by the french doors had three chairs, of which one was occupied. I asked the older gentleman if I could share his table and he didn’t mind. As I sat down I noticed that his left arm was heavily bandaged. My curiosity got the better of me and I asked, ‘What brings you here?’
He looked straight at me and replied, “I tried to die.”
‘I am sorry you found yourself in that impossible place. Must have been terrible. Are you getting the support you need?’
“Yes. They’ve been very good here.”
‘I am glad.’ I paused to wonder if I should tell him but the words left without my permission.
‘You know, I lost my son to suicide a few years ago.’
His gaze connected with mine like a laser beam and his eyes moistened.
Softly, almost apologetically, he stated “When you are in that place, you can’t think about other people.”

Pause.

“Here comes my wife.”
Holding two paper-glasses and a brown paper bag, she joined us and placed one of the glasses in front of him. She took out a Jubilee cupcake from the bag to share.
“Have you traveled a long way today? I asked, shifting gear.
‘Sussex. Straight train. Not too bad.’
“Beautiful part of the world!”
‘Yes. But we lived in Australia for eighteen years which was really pretty. We came back to be with the children.’
“Nice. I wish you all the very best. I must get going now.”

‘Us too. Our appointment is in fifteen minutes.’ she said.
‘You take care’. He said, making that eye-connection with me again.
“You too.” I looked straight at him, nodded, smiled a polite smile and walked away.

(Resources for attempt survivors, their families and friends:

https://www.sprc.org/livedexperience/tool/resources-suicide-attempt-survivors-their-families-friends)

God bless America.

Following the Sandy Hook school shootings in 2012, the Conservative commentator Anne Coulter provocatively proclaimed that “Guns don’t kill people. The mentally ill do.”

“The United States sees an average of 32 000 handgun-related deaths per year (as per this paper published in 2015), and firearms are involved in 68% of homicides, 52% of suicides, 43% of robberies, and 21% of aggravated assaults. Far from the national glare, this everyday violence has a disproportionate impact on lower-income areas and communities of color, and is widely held to be the cause of widespread anxiety disorders and traumatic stress symptoms”… the stigma linked to guns and mental illness is complex, multifaceted, and itself politicized, in as much as the decisions about which crimes US culture diagnoses as “crazy” and which it deems “sane” are driven as much by the politics and racial anxieties of particular cultural moments as by the workings of individual disturbed brains. Beneath seemingly straightforward questions of whether particular assailants meet criteria for particular mental illnesses lay ever-changing categories of race, gender, violence, and, indeed, of diagnosis itself.”

“Persons in the United States live in an era that has seen an unprecedented proliferation of gun rights and gun crimes, and the data we cite show that many gun victims are exposed to violence in ways that are accidental, incidental, relational, or environmental. Yet this expansion has gone hand in hand with a narrowing of the rhetoric through which US culture talks about the role of guns and shootings. Insanity becomes the only politically sane place to discuss gun control. Meanwhile, a host of other narratives, such as displaced male anxiety about demographic change, the mass psychology of needing so many guns in the first place, or the symptoms created by being surrounded by them, remain unspoken.”

“Mass shootings represent national awakenings and moments when seeming political or social adversaries might come together to find common ground, whether guns are allowed, regulated, or banned. Doing so, however, means recognizing that gun crimes, mental illnesses, social networks, and gun access issues are complexly interrelated, and not reducible to simple cause and effect. Ultimately, the ways our society frames these connections reveal as much about our particular cultural politics, biases, and blind spots as it does about the acts of lone, and obviously troubled, individuals.”

Ref: American Journal of Public Health. 2015 February; 105(2): 240-49.

Mental Illness, Mass Shotings and the Politics of American Firearms by Jonathan M. Metzl, MD, PhD and Kenneth T. MacLeish, PhD

PMCID: PMC4318286

PMID: 25496006

https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC4318286/

… and your name is?

S A A G A R.

In Delhi, it was simple and sweet.
In Belfast, it was a problem. It had to be pronounced slowly with exaggerated lip movements and spelt out clearly. Still, it was uttered in all kinds of ways – Segaar, Sega, Saaga, Sags, Sagsy-wagsy. It is after all, a proper noun. “As long as you call him with love, you can call him anything.” I would say with a smile. But of course, it was his name. Not mine.

At the age of 7, one day he came home from school and said, “Can’t you change my name to Aran or something?” I felt for him but laughed. What else could I do? I asked him if something happened at school that day, if someone said something hurtful and he just picked up his soft grey elephant and cuddled it.

I told him the story of his name. I was 24 when I got married. My in-laws lived In Chennai. We visited them a few months after the wedding and one evening we all visited a place called Besant Nagar beach. That was the first time my eyes fell upon the expansive ocean. On the map this water body had the boring label, Bay of Bengal. The vision of a dark blue shimmer below meeting a pale blue glow above in a clean, delicate, straight line made everything else disappear. Its calm, its rhythm, its enormity, its subtle dance, its grace and openness pulled me in. All conversation faded away and there I was, completely soaked in the bliss of the ocean. My soul soothed. My body relaxed. My eyes quenched. My heart happy. I was in love. In that moment, I knew that if we ever had a son, he would be called, ‘Ocean’: Saagar. I reminded him that his name was Saagar because his heart was as expansive and as beautiful as the ocean. He smiled and gave me a tight hug.

As he grew older, he came to own his name. He came to live it. The waters of this ocean ran deep. They appeared placid on the surface but strong currents ran underneath. All I saw was the steady flow of gentle waves, rhythmically lapping against the shore through the seasons. It oscillated with the moon but the high tide was never too high and the low tide was never too low, until one day it was.

Come home, my darling.

I still hear the key turning in the door from the outside and you stepping in. Can you believe it? I still see your face, darkened by the sun. Dressed in your cricket whites, you drag your massive cricket-bag-on-wheels behind you by your left arm.

“Did you take the sun-screen with you?” I ask.

“Yes, it’s in the bag.”

“Did you actually put it on?’

 “Mamma, I’m hungry.”

I still wait for you to join us for dinner. I cook the foods you like, especially on your birthday: spinach-paneer for mains, chocolate mousse for dessert. I wonder what you’d be doing in this realm if you were here. Job? Girl-friend? How silly! Isn’t it? I can’t help it. It’s involuntary. It’s got something to do with the heart. With longing. With missing. With love. It’s not supposed to make sense. You would have had a good old chuckle at my expense if you were here. But you are not and I am. How random is that?

I still remember the first time I felt you elbow-ing or knee-ing me from inside my tummy, as if we had an inside joke between us. I remember holding all three kilos of you in my arms for the first time. I couldn’t believe you were for real. You were all mine. Now my arms ache with emptiness. Is this real?

Do you miss me sometimes?

Happy birthday my darling.

Heaven

It will be the past

And we’ll live there together.

Not as it was to live

But as it is remembered.

It will be the past.

We’ll all go back together.

Everyone we ever loved,

And lost, and must remember.

It will be the past.

And it will last forever.

                      – A poem by Patrick Phillips, on the New York subway.

(“Ghar aa” is a Hindi phrase that means “Come home”)

Demonic dunes.

(Kolmanskop, Namibia. Photo by Emma McEvoy)

Chasing me. Haunting. It wants to swallow me. I wonder why. I am a mere witness standing by. It viciously runs to get me. Grains of sand penetrate my eyes, making me squint and blink and tear-up. But I am just a spectator. I wrap my head in a pink cotton scarf. It soaks up the water, protects my head but my ankles are now submerged in the sand. I extricate them and lunge away from it, breathing hard. Then stop. Turn around, stand still and stare at it. It hisses, plumes of sand flying off the top of it like flames. It threatens to burn me alive.

Images, echos and winds of the past. Dancing dunes of time.

It has blocked my doorway, invaded my home, drive, my garden, front and back. There is grit in every crevice and crack. All I have is sunk underneath this deadly dune. Only the slate-grey gable roof and the chimney tops breathe.

I am not running away from it. From anything. This dune does not have my permission. It may not bury me. It cannot. I know it has a weakness. It can only play in the field of the Past. It cannot enter this Present moment of mine. A silk veil of breath undulates between the damned dune and me. It keeps me on this side of the line. Here, I am safe. This side of the boundary line is mine. Here, all I need I have. The field of my presence is spacious, clear and blue, untouched by this devil of a dune. As pure as my smile. In. Pause. Out. Pause. In. Pause. Out …

The world is less beautiful without you.

I am told it’s common for those at the end of their tether to believe that everyone would be better off without them. I don’t know if Saagar believed that but if he did, I want him to know that’s not true. They are far from ‘better off’. They hurt for as long as they live. They try to keep walking, with their painful unanswerable questions shouting in their ears. They make repeated futile attempts at forgiving themselves for their real and imagined, seemingly unforgivable mistakes. They try to uphold a light of hope for themselves and others, inside the well of their desperate darkness. They try to find purpose and meaning in their lives, when they can hardly move from one breath to the next.

Three years back I went traveling to the USA and Australia, as a Churchill Fellow, to find answers to a few of my unanswerable questions. I met some amazing people and learnt a lot, some of which I shared on this blog in October 2019. For the last two years, I have been compiling my findings with the aim of producing a report. It has been a challenging task and has taken a lot longer than I thought it would, thanks to the multiple distractions of the last couple of years.

The report has now been published and I am delighted to share it here with you. It is called ‘Bridging the Gaps in Suicide Prevention’ . I hope it will inspire compassionate ways of dealing with human fragility. I hope it will reach all those who can influence change from within – governments, communities, professions and hearts of individuals. I hope it will keep our hopes alive, for a well-connected, understanding world.

Report: https://www.churchillfellowship.org/ideas-experts/ideas-library/suicide-prevention-efficacy-of-multisectoral-approach-and-bereavement-support

The innocence of others

How I envy the lives of those, who have never been touched by suicide. What must be the quality of their minds? Their being must be so clean, un-spattered with blood. How I miss the old me of the world ‘before’, however ignorant and self-absorbed I was. My smile used to reach my eyes. It conveyed something real and complete about me. Now my eyes thirst to see that one sweet face. My smile is a faded and false version of its former self. A nicety that makes futile attempts to cover up for a heart that bleeds all the time.

When I look at photographs of women’s faces, I can tell the ones who have lost big chunks of their hearts. Their eyes are miles away from their smiles. Searching. Hungry for that part of their story which disappeared. I know that hunger. I envy all the other eyes, that sparkle.

Oh yes. I make up condolences for myself. Isn’t it a blessing that he didn’t have to go through the treachery of the lock-downs, he doesn’t have to worry about getting on the property ladder or about nations at war or about the appalling state of world leadership or about the rising fuel prices or about increasing world poverty or about some woman breaking his heart, about offending someone by asking a simple question. And climate change. He doesn’t need to deal with all this nonsense ever. Lucky bastard.

I turned to the kid’s section at our local library to rediscover the lost child in me and found ‘Charlotte’s web’ by E B White. I loved Fern, the little girl who could understand animal sentiments and conversations. I met Wilbur, who was ‘some pig’, terrific, radiant and humble and Templeton, the annoying rat. Charlotte, the spider, was adorable, a kind and benevolent friend. That’s the world I want to live in.

I think I’ll be visiting the children’s section of the library more often. This Easter, we shall watch all three Kung Fu Panda films, in preparation for the fourth one coming soon. Maybe we can fit in some Madagascar too 😉

Invitation to the Circle of Remembrance

Towards the end of 2020, a series of phone calls with mums and dads from the USA, Australia and the UK resulted in the formation of an on-line peer support group that has met every other Saturday evening for an hour and a half. The first meeting was held in the middle of January 2021. We’ve recently had our 32nd meeting. The group provides a warm space for sharing and offers non-judgemental listening and understanding. It provides a fertile ground for post-traumatic healing and growth. We call it CORe: Circle of Remembrance.

The loss of a child is different from other losses. The purpose of CORe is to honour our children, to create an opportunity for sharing our inner and outer experiences and to seek tools and mutual understanding for establishing a firmer ground of compassion, from which to live our new lives.

Over time, I have come to appreciate my need for a tribe to belong to. Other people who are also living through the loss of their child validate our experiences, witness our pain and help us feel less alone.

After many years of trying to make sense of something so treacherous, I now know that it is impossible to make any sense of it. However, I also know that it’s possible to create a new path for ourselves. A path of learning and peace.

It has been an honour for Si and me to facilitate the CORe group of roughly 20 friends and witness their journeys. The rich, life-sustaining conversations and friendships within the group are a delight to be a part of.

It therefore gives me great joy to invite bereaved parents to a new group that will meet on alternate Wednesdays from 7.00 – 8.30 pm (UK time). Please visit the website of CORe (link below) for more details and testimonials and sign up if you would like to join.  In our experience with the Saturday group, the upper limit to attendees is 25. Once we have about 15 members, we’ll get started. The tentative start date is 4th May 2022.

https://www.core-community.com/