Dr Indu was broken inside out. She felt like a big black boulder and could barely hold her weight. After all these years of marching on alone and doing the ‘right’ things, this was her reward. Most of her friends had no clue what to say or do. After a few days it was clear that many of them could only stand by her for a week or 10 days max. This is when Indu remembered a passing acquaintance, Ruhi, a girl who wore long flouncy colourful skirts and big dangling ear-rings made of feathers and other dreamy things. She thought of her as a girl even though Ruhi had silvery grey hair and was seven years older than her.
Indu wanted to see Ruhi again. She didn’t know why but it had to be done. Indu posted her an invitation and as back-up, sent her a text with details.
The clear bright day was trying to cover-up the immensity of this death. Ruhi came in a flowing black dress with multiple strings of black wooden beads in various lengths cascading down, from her slender neck to her shapely waist. The ends of her long black sleeves opening-up like flowers to reveal her delicate hands. Not only did she have a pink lip-gloss on but also a serene smile. On this tearful day, she smiled on as if that was the most natural thing to do. No defiance or disrespect. A subtle involuntary smile, puzzling and misplaced.
She walked up to Indu and held both her hands in hers for a few frozen moments. She went on to open her arms and enclose Indu in them like a baby. “One day you’ll be grateful for this”, she whispered in her ear. By now Indu was used to hearing non-sense like “be brave”, “you’re so strong”, “such is life” and so on. She had learnt to ignore a lot. It took too much out of her to do anything more than that. “You have no idea what this is like” she thought to herself, feeling like a duplicate of herself amongst all these people. She drew back from Ruhi and looked into her dark brown eyes through her tearful ones. “Believe me. You will” Ruhi said softly.
Seven years have passed. Now Indu is as old as Ruhi was then.
And she remembers her horror at what Ruhi had whispered in her ear that day. The chains are falling off. Her vision is clearing. She notices more, within and without. She wants to live the truth. Be it. She knows it now. It’s all a ‘seeming’. All of this. It’s so clever. It fools us into believing it’s real. She has felt the presence of the divine in her broken heart. The blessings of a few fleeting golden moments of absolute grace have left her charmed with life and thirsty for more.
Indu and Ruhi meet up at the café that plays Bossa Nova jazz all day. They catch-up over large mugs of cappucino, sing and dance and take long walks together. They laugh and cry with abandon. Both wear pink lip-gloss and without knowing, they smile. Light as dust.
It was late 1930s. He was a young man in love. She was a young woman who was delighted to be asked by him. They were married. Soon she was to be a mother. But the clan they belonged to were not allowed to procreate. She was made to abandon the baby even before it was born. They both were sent to different concentration/death camps. But their love story did not end there.
Despite shoveling snow with no shoes on, going for months without proper food, constant beatings and humiliation, not knowing which instant he would be walked to his death, he carried on loving her. He did not know if she was dead or alive but he loved her every second. He hoped to see her again. His longing kept him alive.
Four years later, he was freed and he found out that his sweetheart had passed away soon after their separation, at the age of 24. His father, mother and brother had met the same fate in that ugly assault of humanity on itself. His sister had survived and moved to a faraway land.
Viktor E. Frankl was a Psychiatrist. He took 9 days to pen down his learning and thoughts which became a book – ‘Man’s Search for Meaning’ that sold millions of copies all over the world as it helped them transform their suffering .
He pioneered a new way of counselling patients called Logotherapy or ‘meaning-based-therapy’. When asked of the difference between Psychoanalysis and Logotherapy, he said, “In Psychoanalysis the patient must lie on a couch and tell you things which sometimes are very disagreeable to tell. In Logotherapy the patient may remain sitting erect but he must hear things which sometimes are very disagreeable to hear.”
It is a future focussed approach through which the patient is reoriented toward his unique and specific attributes aligned to a purpose which can be fulfilled by him/her alone. It is based on the premise of freedom – the freedom to choose our response to our experiences, the freedom to choose the stance we take when faced with a difficult and unchangeable situation.
Over the last 5 years I have read Frankl’s book at least 5 times, each time deriving new inspiration. Last week I had the good fortune of being able to share some of those insights on-line with a community close to my heart. The Compassionate Friends helped me discover that Frankl’s love story will never end. It is interwoven into yours and mine and with the love-stories of those yet to come across it.
Why? How did we get here?
Why us? How can this be?
Why him? Such a sweet child!
How did it feel to be him at that point?
How did it get that bad?
Why could no one see it?
How could I be so blind to his pain?
Did he try to tell me in code?
Could I not hear his cryptic messages? Why?
Did he hide it? Was he trying to protect me?
Were there clues I missed?
How could all this be happening straight in my line of vision?
Is this a crazy practical joke? Fake news?
Could I just go back and rearrange events like my dressing table?
Did he tell anyone else? His friends? His hair-dresser?
Why did he say nothing to me?
Did he not trust me enough?
Did he think I loved him too much to bear hearing those words?
Did he think I loved him too little?
Did he think I wouldn’t understand? Would I have understood?
Would I have freaked out?
Did he think I’d be better off without him?
Did he have any idea how wrong that could be?
Was it a choice or a complete lack of choice?
How bad was his pain? How unbearable?
I want to stand where he stood.
I want to see what he saw.
I want to feel what he felt.
I want to experience what he experienced.
I want to go back there. NOW!!!
How much love does it take to keep someone alive? Why was mine not enough?
The annual festival of my beastly treacherous demons has begun.
Thank you Autumn.
S is for Saagar.
For Simon and Sangeeta.
Sudden shocking jolt
For shameful silent suffering,
Like one strike of lightening
Sucking up a few lives at once.
S is for surreal memorial services
Soul-searching and seeking
Sometimes screaming out-loud
Shattered dreams, salty tears,
And sweet memories
Strewn across the wooden floor
Like techni-coloured glass beads.
S is for simplicity
Sparkling smiling eyes
Salvation and solace
Shiny haloes and surrender
Like the curve of a weeping willow
Stooping down to kiss the ground.
S is for sharing
Speaking out loud
Saffron rice and saag-paneer
Saturdays and Sundays
Self as everything
Like the stars, songs and strings
Of guitars, and drum skins.
S is for solitude
Silence and serendipity
Sublime sun and sea
Sunflowers and sushi
Shirts and silk ties
Subtle messages from beyond
Like smoke signals in the distance
Sent out by friends from before.
S is for stigma of suicide in society.
Stashes of hidden sadness
Shrouded in small dark spaces
So little support and understanding
Such little compassion
Screened behind sports-cars
Suntans and scotch.
Like a corpse in the room
At the age of 51, he was finally consumed by the very thing he loved to consume. He died peacefully in his sleep. Pat, his wife was sad but knew it was inevitable. She carried on.
9 months later her son Kevin went on a Summer camp. He was 15. The camp site had been shut all winter. 2 days before the start date, the camp site had been checked by officials and declared safe. The lads arrived with great memories of the previous year and masses of energy and excitement. They started with a race. With a big smile on his face, Mark flew to the finish line ahead of everyone else and was instantly charred.
Pat’s family wanted to take care of her. They moved her from her family home in Surrey, to a house closer to her brother’s, in Essex. Pat went quiet. She silently and diligently pulled the shafts of her hair out from their roots one by one till she created white little clearings on her scalp. She scratched those clearings with such vigour that they turned into raw, red, weeping craters. She would empty the kettle before plugging it into the mains. She wore her clothes back to front, inside-out. She stood by the window for hours, waiting. She drove down the motorway in the opposite direction. Her family couldn’t help her. They thought she needed to be moved to an Institution for the insane.
A doctor in the Isle of Mann was well-known for his abilities in this field. Pat’s sister-in-law asked him if he would make an exception and help Pat even though she did not live on the Isle. He kindly agreed. He saw her. He unpicked her heart. He unwrapped the wounds in it. It was an excruciating process. She felt he was cruel, forcing her into the darkness of her soul with a torch, untangling the tight knots in her mind, wading through whirlpools of turbulence within.
After 5 weeks he invited her to live in his family home. He encouraged her to walk down the street. The first few times he went with her. Thereafter she walked alone, with her eyes fixated on her shoes. He suggested she try looking up and tell him what she saw. “Blossoms on trees, the church spire, white fluffy clouds, birds, light…”
By the time the hair-dresser had finished with her, she was ready to go home.
In difficult times, it’s important to hold on to something sustaining, like a sparkling crystal in the darkness, like the sweetness of stroking a cat or a dog. Take every opportunity to make life easier, lighter.
Let a tragedy be only tragic and not absolute hell. There is a big gap between the two. Like the difference between someone lying on their death bed and someone lying on their death bed surrounded by their family yelling and screaming at each other. If we didn’t make worse the terrible things that there are, if we could just put up with the terrible things that exist, maybe we could make the world a better place.
The motivational speaker and Clinical Psychologist, Jordan B. Peterson speaks about his latest book – “12 rules for life. An antidote to chaos.” He says he wrote it for himself as much as for anyone else.
“You set an ideal and find that there is a long way to go. It is a constant readjustment. There is also something positive about that. It’s not that there isn’t such a thing as a good person. Our idea of what constitutes good isn’t right because a good person is one who is trying to get better. The real goodness is in the attempt to get better. It’s in the process, to use an old cliché.
The central figure of western culture is Christ. He is the dying and resurrecting hero. What does that mean psychologically? Well, it means that you learn things painfully. And when you learn something painfully, a part of you has to die. That’s the pain. When a dream is shattered for example. A huge part of you has to be stripped away and burnt. And so, life is a constant process of death and rebirth and to participate in that fully is to allow yourself to be redeemed by it. So, the good in you is that process of death and rebirth, voluntarily undertaken. You are not as good as you could be. So, you let that part of you die. If someone comes along and says, there’s some dead wood here. It needs to be burned off. You might think, well that’s still got a little bit of life. When that burns it’s gonna hurt. Yes. Well, no kidding. Maybe the thing that emerges in its place is something better and I think this is the secret of human beings. It’s what we’re like. Unlike any other creature, we can let our old selves die and let our new selves be born. That’s what we should do.”
When asked if he falls short anywhere in his book, he says,
“Until the entire world is redeemed, we all fall short.”
During his holidays, Saagar and his friends would be subjected to Woman’s hour on BBC Radio 4 second hand, as their mothers listened. They would later have amusing/interesting discussions about breast feeding, female education and employment challenges. This station was pre-set on the car-radio and at home. It was designated as the ‘old people’s’ radio-station by him. Invariably, ‘Gardener’s question time’ would come on while we were in the car together, travelling over the weekend. It was quaint by its sheer irrelevance to us as we could barely keep our 4 nameless indoor plants alive. Our urban pre-occupations meant we didn’t have a gardening vocabulary.
‘Just a minute’ was our all-time favourite – a panel of funny people asked to speak for one whole minute on a given topic without repetition, hesitation or deviation. The seemingly innocent topics often held great potential for hilarity, for example, billiards, the best thing about cats, how I spread a little happiness, keeping a straight face, my love of the absurd, garages and such. The correct and incorrect challenges posed by the panellists generated tremendous amount of laughter. Our attempts at giving each other topics resulted in great amusement.
On Thursday evening I was asked if I’d like to be a guest on Woman’s hour to talk about Saagar. It was unbelievable. It made me smile and cry at the same time. What a paradox! Of course I’d love to be on Woman’s hour. Under these circumstances? Meeting Jenni Murray was an honour. She was down to earth and professional, looking just as I imagined, in her trademark glasses sitting just above the tip of her nose.I told her she had my dream job. She said Joan Baez had been in the studio the day before, sitting at the same chair as me. How cool! Oops! Saagar prohibited me from saying ‘cool’ as he thought it sounded all wrong coming from me. I wonder how he would feel about this interview if he knew. Maybe he does.
Despite making notes and preparing as well as I could, I was a bit flummoxed by some of the questions. I didn’t say everything I wanted to. I hope there will be other opportunities. This conversation must grow until everyone is a part of it in a meaningful and constructive way. In a way that saves lives.
A recording of the interview with brilliant and committed Mr Ged Flynn, the CEO of PAPYRUS and I:
In ancient India, there lived a woman. She was happily married to a rich merchant and was the proud mother of a bubbly one year old. After a brief illness, her only son died. Her grief was unbearable. Wailing and weeping, she took her child’s lifeless remains from door to door pleading with the townspeople to bring her beautiful child back to life. No one could help her. She was destroyed.
Someone suggested she take her infant to the Buddha. She did. Through her tears and sobs she narrated her tragic story and begged Him to infuse life back into her bundle of joy. The Buddha listened with compassion and said, “Kisa Gautami, there is only one way. Bring me 5 mustard seeds from a household where no deaths have occurred.”
Her eyes lit up with hope. She hurriedly gathered up her bundle and once again, went knocking on each and every door in town. To her utter disappointment, every family had experienced death in one form or another. She realised the lesson that the Buddha had wanted her to learn. Suffering is a part of life and death is inevitable. Kisa Gautami’s eyes were now open. In the light of this knowledge, she could handle her grief. She went on to become an ardent follower of the teachings of Buddha.
Like Kisa Gautami, I have found myself at the feet of the Buddha. His teachings have brought light and lightness to my being. Along the way other divine souls have helped in unique ways.
This is the festive season for most people. Planning meals, choosing stocking fillers, selecting wrapping paper, posting greeting cards and preparing to welcome the New Year. Yay! It’s all happening. But a Saagar-shaped piece is missing. I feel for all the families who will have that vacant chair at their table this year. I hold them close to my heart. As time goes by, it does not get easier. This excerpt on the subject of ‘Pain’ from ‘The Prophet’ speaks to me. I hope it helps you too. I wish you as peaceful a time as possible.
“And a woman spoke, saying, “Tell us of Pain.”
And he said: Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.
Even as the stone of the fruit must break, that its heart may stand in the sun, so must you know pain.
And could you keep your heart in wonder at the daily miracles of your life, your pain would not seem less wondrous than your joy;
And you would accept the seasons of your heart, even as you have always accepted the seasons that pass over your fields.
And you would watch with serenity through the winters of your grief.
Much of your pain is self-chosen.
It is the bitter potion by which the physician within you heals your sick self.
Therefore trust the physician, and drink his remedy in silence and tranquillity:
For his hand, though heavy and hard, is guided by the tender hand of the Unseen,
And the cup he brings, though it burn your lips, has been fashioned of the clay which the
Potter has moistened with His own sacred tears.”
― Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet
It’s a luminous room on the first floor of a Victorian building. The sun pours in from the big window facing the street. The delicate palm leaves throw artistic, dancing shadows on the carpet. I feel the tension in my muscles, the knot in my stomach and the tightness in my chest. Two comfortable black arm-chairs sit facing each other. I am gently welcomed and ushered to the chair facing the window by a lady with a soft Irish voice and a sweet smile.
We sit down. I am relieved to catch sight of a box of tissues from the corner of my eye. I look at her and say my name. She says hers. We hold the same belief – the soul is eternal. I ease into the chair and take a deep breath. I am open to this, whatever it brings. For now, I put my anxiety and scepticism aside. I tell her that I am here to find out if my son is at peace. He died by suicide at the age of 20, two years and 10 months ago.
She is sorry for my heartbreak. She shifts in her chair, turning and looking in the direction of the door. Her smile widens. I can only remember a fraction of what she said -“He’s so bright. So lovely.
Your relationship is sweet … special.
Does he play music?
West African drums?
He is not just a good drummer. He is extra-ordinary.
He has an eclectic taste in music. Super-creative!
He’s very proud of his musical heritage.
He’s wearing a long shirt, like a kurta.
He says he enjoys Celtic music too.
Recently a memorial concert was held for him?
He says he was there.
Is there a London connection?
He is showing me a cat sitting on his shoulder.”
She changes the direction of her body and aligns it to me.
“You … are a writer. A healer.
He loves your writing.
He says it comes from the same field of energy as his creativity. It entwines your souls.
Your nutrition is very good but you suffer with severe stomach cramps. Your distress affects your digestion. You need to take lemon juice on an empty stomach every morning.”
She shifts again.
“The last year of his life was difficult. In his last few weeks the medications messed up his head real bad. He couldn’t think straight.
I see a strong army connection.
Your mother’s mother is there with Saagar. She tells me that your father is a man with great integrity. He has a big moustache. You have had a disciplined upbringing.
Saagar is surrounded by love. He wants you to know that you did your best. He wants to thank you for encouraging him to pursue his passion for languages and music and for not pushing him to do other things. He thanks Si for his patience and his friendship. He is impressed to see the commitment that Si has shown towards you. He is happy for you both.
He is offering me some rose petals.
Does that make any sense to you?”
Not sure, I say with an uncertain smile.
“Is someone’s birthday coming?”
Yes. Mine. In 10 days.
“He is also offering me a small bronze statue of Lord Ganesha. Does that mean something to you?”
Yes. I smile with tears of recognition.
“Would you like to ask any questions?”
Is he at peace?
“Not only is he at peace but he is joyful.”
Can you tell him I am sorry for not spending enough time with him and for not understanding the extent of his suffering?
“He feels nothing but love for you. Can you feel his presence?”
“I know you have felt it for short periods of time, here and there in the past. I hope that with time you will begin to feel him around you a lot more.”
I can remember bits of that interaction but can’t comprehend the accuracy. How can a complete stranger know the intimate details of 3 overlapping lives? May be there is no such thing as death. Maybe we all exist together in a big pool of consciousness where different energies manifest in varying realms, like magnetic waves and gravity are invisible but they exist. Infrared and ultraviolet radiations are invisible to the naked eye but they manifest themselves in other ways. Maybe there is no such thing as death.
“How are you?”
There is no short answer. Often, there is no answer.
This question comes up walking past friends and acquaintances in corridors. All I can say in the given time is, “Fine. Thanks. And you?” All I can do is acknowledge the question, smile and nod. It’s like saying ‘Hello’. No one actually finds out how anyone is doing or feeling.
It’s been 2 years 3 months and 3 weeks. It could be said ‘enough’ time has passed. For who? Who decides how much time is enough? Traditionally bereavement has been a personal and private process. Does it mean that as a society we would generally prefer it to be personal and private? Other’s sadness can make us feel uncomfortable, embarrassed, not knowing what to say or do. The path of least resistance is to not mention death or the deceased at all. There is a fervent desire that the bereaved will adjust and move on per a set timetable, not only for their own sake but also that of others.
The Bible says:
For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven:
a time to be born, and a time to die;
a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal;
a time to break down, and a time to build up;
a time to weep, and a time to laugh;
a time to mourn, and a time to dance;
a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together;
a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;
a time to seek, and a time to lose;
a time to keep, and a time to cast away;
a time to tear, and a time to sew;
a time to keep silence, and a time to speak;
a time to love, and a time to hate;
a time for war, and a time for peace.
Book of Ecclesiastes 3:1-8
Never assume someone’s mourning is over and done with. It takes its own time.