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.
Now, I belong to a network of mums and dads who share the same loss. We exchange stories, everyday struggles and our little achievements. Sometimes it is something as small as getting through an hour, a day. But then, fighting to get through the night, an all too familiar scenario. We know. We understand. We listen.
Sometimes, it is an inspirational piece of craft, a moving piece of music, a long walk or a rant. All of us desperately trying to hold on to who we were and make sense of who we now are, hanging on to the shreds of our being with all our might, seeing ourselves in each other, watching our helplessness and grief spill across the screen over and over again only to gather it all up and see it as nothing but love. All the rags weave together to form a mesh that strengthens each one of us. We recognise our reflections in each other and feel our little angels sending us collective blessings. All that is inside of us is alive even if it feels like it isn’t. It’s the purest form of love.
“But, you have the rest of your life in front of you.”
‘That is a terrible thing to say! That is such a terrible thing to say.’
(A conversation between Jackie Kennedy and her friend a few days after JFK’s assassination, in the film ‘Jackie’)
These days I randomly find myself standing in queue at ticket-counters at random cinema halls looking for a ticket for the next show, whatever it may be. Last week it happened to be ‘Manchester by the sea’ and today, just by chance, it was ‘Jackie’, both portrayals of death, devastation and dignity. Is this Universe’s way of letting me know that I am not alone?
Many, who have survived violent deaths of their loved ones.
Many, who have struggled to keep their legacy alive.
Many, who have shown great dignity despite housing a volcano of anger inside them.
Many, who have silently hidden and nurtured their incessantly weeping wounds.
Many, who have wished for their own death every night while staring into the darkness.
Come morning, many who have put on a ‘brave’ face.
Many, who have thought, ‘I could have saved him.’
Many, who have insisted the world witnesses the aftermath.
Many, who have held the bodies of those they love, in disbelief.
Many, who have not even had the chance to do that.
Death is nothing at all.
I have only slipped away to the next room.
I am I and you are you.
Whatever we were to each other,
That, we still are.
Call me by my old familiar name.
Speak to me in the easy way
which you always used.
Put no difference into your tone.
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow.
Laugh as we always laughed
at the little jokes we enjoyed together.
Play, smile, think of me. Pray for me.
Let my name be ever the household word
that it always was.
Let it be spoken without effect.
Without the trace of a shadow on it.
Life means all that it ever meant.
It is the same that it ever was.
There is absolute unbroken continuity.
Why should I be out of mind
because I am out of sight?
I am but waiting for you.
For an interval.
Somewhere. Very near.
Just around the corner.
All is well.
Nothing is hurt, nothing is lost.
One brief moment and all will be as it was before.
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again!
–Henry Scott Holland, Professor of Divinity, University of Oxford. Early 20th century.
Wish you were in this room or the next. Wish I could have filled a stocking with goodies for you. Wish we could have shared this day with those we love. Wish I could have heard you call out to me, “Mamma!” Wish we could have cooked and cleared up together talking about silly things. Wish we could have played a game of table-tennis or charades or carom. You were so good at them! And such fun! I did play, pray, smile and think of you a lot. I missed you every minute of the day but I was ‘normal’. Went mountain biking for the first time. I remembered how you loved stamping your little feet in puddles on the footpath when you walked to and from your primary school. I enjoyed cycling through similar muddy puddles and felt how you must have felt. Si was amused by the squeals. Your name was spoken many times with love and pride as if you are here. And you are, in our hearts. Utterly unforgettable. Till we meet again…
The best part of getting a hair cut is the repeated minuscule warm contact between the finger tips and scalp. My hair-dresser is an old friend. She knows how much I value her loving head massages. Shortly following Saagar’s leaving, a few minutes of massage would bring forth floods of tears. Now, it is an immersive experience that makes everything else disappear, including me. What remain are the nerve endings gently firing away on both sides of the points of contact. It is a welcome interference in the body’s bio-magnetic energy field.
Sights, smells, tastes and sounds grab our attention easily. It’s impossible to ignore a loud conversation on a bus, a song I loved to dance to, the aroma of red onions and cumin seeds spluttering in butter and the accompanying nostalgia. Touch is like a shy cousin of the other senses. It requires nurturing and careful attention.
Brockwell park was graced by a hazy sun this afternoon. I walked past the logs of wood where Saagar and I used to sit when he was unwell. My mind started to somersault. I closed my eyes, leaned against a nearby tree and brushed my hand over the bark.It felt like emery paper magnified a hundred times. I stayed there for a while. In the herb-garden, the sage leaves felt soft and fuzzy. The silkiness of the purple and yellow petals of pansy on my face was like butterfly wings.
The wooden bench I sat on felt smooth as marble but warm and welcoming.The metal plaque on it said that it was there in memory of some one who died in 2013 at the age of 50. My age. I wondered what their story was. “Thank you. Sorry.” I said silently.
As I touched all these things, I allowed them to gently touch and settle my heart.