It sits on my shoulder like a monkey. Annoying. I’ve had a long day, I say. Go away.
It pulls my right ear and searches for lice scrambling all its fingertips over my scalp, irritating as hell. There are none. Get lost. I am not a child.
I’m losing it. The moon is winning.
Proud of its super-fullness. It is evil. The tides it excites, the fights it ignites, the way it bends minds, the resting foetuses it pulls into this cruel world, stealing sleep from the depths of the night. Milky and serene on the outside, within a serious trouble-maker resides. Hurricanes, tornados and earthquakes it invites.
You’re an imposter. I see you. A big black rough rock with nought to your name. No water. No gravity. No air. Certainly, no light. This thing you proclaim as your own is in fact not so. We all know. It belongs to the star called Sun. The one that gives life. Not you. That’s the real star. You, a mere appendage, borrowing importance, gloating in your pretend beauty, cycling and circling with poor intent.
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.
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.
“He loved me in the purest sense and I loved him. That’s how he kept me alive.” says Marsha about Ted, a catholic priest.
This relationship taught her two important things that she applied to her work as a therapist for seriously suicidal people. She wrote about these things and taught them to her students, the future generation of therapists.
‘I was unable to say thank-you then. Now I can.’
If you’re giving unconditional love to help someone cope with the hell they are in, if you’re holding them emotionally and physically, don’t interpret their absence of ‘thanks’ as a sign that you are not giving them what they need. You probably are.
2. ‘Keep loving them.’
When someone sees no point in living, they are like someone walking in a mist. They don’t see the mist. They don’t see that they are getting wet. If you’re walking with them, you may not see it either. But if they have a pail of water, you can collect the water that was mist, in it. Each moment of love adds to the mist, which adds to the water in the pail. By itself, each moment of love may not be enough. But ultimately, the pail fills up and the person in hell can drink that water of love and be transformed.
Like Marsha, I know this to be true. I’ve been there and drunk from that pail.
(Inspired by Marsha M Linehans’s book: ‘Building a life worth living’.)
I thought that if his doctors would have recognised how sick Saagar was, they would have known that the best thing to do was to refer him to the Psychiatric services. They would admit him to the hospital, look after him and keep him safe. He would recover fully, return home and resume his life as normal – play the drums, read and speak French, play cricket, go out with his friends, go to the gym, make me laugh till I had tears in my eyes and soon, return to University.
Now I know, that I was so wrong at so many levels.
The GP didn’t think his condition was life-threatening, even after he told him it was. How much more obvious did it have to be? They didn’t believe him. If at all they did, they didn’t take him seriously. Or maybe they simply didn’t know what to do.
GPs are not trained or supported in looking after suicidal patients.
If they would have made a referral to the Mental hospital, he would have waited for a long time to be seen. Maybe he would have died while on the waiting list, like many others.
GPs are dis-incentivised to make referrals to specialist services in various ways.
Admit him to the hospital?
No chance! That would not have happened as there would have been no beds. If there were beds, there would have been others much sicker than him, ahead of him in the queue.
Hospitals have very poor capacity and very high thresholds for admission to inpatient beds.
Keep him safe?
490 patients died while detained under the Mental Health Act in the year up to March 21. At least 324, for non-COVID reasons.
Many patients report traumatic experiences while admitted to mental hospitals. The treatment is often not conducive to recovery. Concerns include coercion by staff, fear of assault from other patients, lack of therapeutic opportunities and limited support.
There is little understanding of what the patient needs, to recover.
I am presently reading a book – ‘Building a life worth living’ by Marsha, M Linehan. She is the psychologist who developed Dialectical Behavioural Therapy, to help suicidal individuals to build their lives. Much before she did that, she was a seriously suicidal and self-harming young adult.
Once upon a time there was a beggar. He sat at a street corner, pleading for scraps. Anything – pennies, food, clothing. For thirty years, he had lived in dire poverty. One day a young man came along and asked him, “What is it that you sit on?”
“It’s an old wooden box.” mumbled the beggar.
‘Shall we have a look inside it?’
“It’s not worth looking at. I found it in a rubbish heap years ago.”
‘Ever looked inside?’
“No. What’s the point? There’s nothing in there.”
‘I can help you dust it down if you like.’
“Can you spare some change for me please?”
‘Yes. After we’ve looked at the box you sit on.’
“If you insist…”
They took the rotten old blanket off the wooden box and managed to pry it open. With utter disbelief, astonishment and elation they saw a heap of glittering gold-coins within.
While we look for scraps of pleasure, fulfillment, validation and security outside of us, the true wealth of deep unshakable peace and the radiant joy of Being lies within us. Inspired by “The Power of Now”, a book by Eckhart Tolle, I’ve been practicing making this moment the focus of my attention, surrendering to what is and saying ‘yes’ to life, noticing the direct relationship between inner resistance and pain, observing the subtle life-force that flows through my body, witnessing my emotions arise and cease as sensations in my chest and tummy. I have learnt to trust myself. I have found glimpses of freedom from my mind and felt my presence as one with the Universe. Who would’ve thought this possible?
Earlier this week I had the honour of sharing some of the theory, practice and research on this subject through an on-line presentation entitled “Making Friends with Now”. Many thanks to The Compassionate Friends for making this teaching accessible to many.
“Hi. I am Dr SM. I will be anaesthetising you for your procedure today. Could I ask you to please remove your mask so I can take a quick look at your teeth and airway? Thank you.”
My guess of how their whole face looks is often completely off the mark. They look more beautiful than I imagine especially if they remember to wear their smiles. I have missed smiles exchanged with random strangers walking around random shops and street corners. I have missed hugs from friends even more.
Countless nuclear fissions on the surface of the sun translate into radiation that hits the Earth’s atmosphere and creates an electro-magnetic field, some of which converts to heat and light. The green plants picks it up along with CO2 and through photosynthesis convert the sun’s energy to carbohydrates, proteins and fats. Our food takes these to the mitochondria in our cells. These little power-houses create fuel, energy and warmth through the process of cell-respiration. This solar event carries on within us at a molecular level.
Two of the best things about being human are, smiles and hugs. They bring us into the sunshine of another human being. We are beings of light. Our design makes us heal spontaneously when our energy is high. The two things that deeply damage human energy are – fear and guilt, both of which have been ramped up in myopic and manipulative ways.
This is the time for us to find each other and our state of harmony. To know that we are alive right now and sing it out loud. The present humanity is an unfinished symphony and I feel some of the best bits are yet to be created.
“We have travelled past the longest night.
Now treading into the return of light.
In the stillness of mid-winter, may we dream into existence a magical new world,
most kind and bright.”
Wishing you, me and humanity, many songs, smiles and hugs. xxx
Once upon a time there was an ordinary person. Making a living, being honest, spending time with the family, having a few friends and simple pleasures. Nothing special. Just ordinary.
Then they lost their child to the monster of unbearable pain. They carried on breathing and giving and receiving love. There was nothing ordinary about that. They couldn’t bear the thought of the same thing happening to anyone else. So, they went out to tell the stories of their angels to everyone. To exhibit the smithereens of their bleeding hearts. That was not easy or normal but they did it anyway. To say that there were other options that they wish their kids had been encouraged to explore. To give out the phone numbers of the good people out there who can help. To remind everyone that there was hope. There is hope.
These 3 dads were ordinary people. Now they are walking together for 300 miles over 2 weeks, making waves all over the country, connecting with people, smashing the stigma and sharing the stories of their lovely girls. Ordinary and beautiful. Just like you.
Please listen and take a look at what’s possible when love speaks and acts.
Vikram Patel is a psychiatrist and a Professor of Global Health who works tirelessly to improve the mental health of people living in low and middle income countries like India and Ethiopia.
His recent research has found that all countries are ‘developing’ countries when you look at the low proportion of the health-budget they spend on mental health. Some wealthy countries may have better systems of care for maternal and child health but overall, mental health remains universally, at the end of the queue.
At present, COVID has overtaken all other agendas. However, now more than ever before, there is a recognition of the two-way relationship between poverty and mental ill-health. This may be a historic opportunity to get this right.
The relationship between poverty and mental ill-health is a complex one. How can we distinguish a normal response to poverty from a disease process? Poverty can increase the risk of poor mental health via multiple pathways, for example, poor physical health, high levels of noise pollution, violent neighbourhoods, insecurity and humiliation.
Can an increase in income improve mental health? Yes. It can but it needs to be sustained.
The fact that having a mental illness may induce poverty is less well recognised. It may affect one’s education and hence, employment opportunities. In low and medium income countries, health care is paid for by people. Due to the length of time it takes to find an effective treatment, much effort and money is wasted in doctor-shopping. Depression is inequitably distributed in society but not recognised as such because wealthy individuals also get it. We accept that long term expensive therapies cannot be delivered to the poor, so what’s the point in studying them?
After nearly a year of job-losses, the number of people below the bread-line all over the world will increase by tens of millions. In India alone, the gains made in economic growth over the last decade are predicted to be wiped out this year. The historically disadvantaged will fare worse, suffer more.
We can expect a surge in mental health problems like we did after the 2008 global financial crisis, mainly led by suicide and drug misuse. Sir Angus S Deaton, a Nobel prize winning economist wrote extensively about these deaths of despair. Economists and global health experts warn that this one will possibly be far worse.
In India, while the state is spending all its energies on the pandemic, livelihood-based organisations are finding very poor mental health in their members. Taking a broad, multidisciplinary approach to depression and anxiety rather than viewing it through the lens of a medical specialty is the need of the hour. Policies all over the world need to de-medicalise the emphasis on specialists and empower front-line providers and communities to enable them to foresee, identify and address this problem.
The bi-directional relationship between mental health and finances means that appropriate mental health interventions can improve finances. Can we persuade policy-makers world-wide to listen to global health experts and economists, look at this fast-approaching avalanche and steer policies to protect those who are being and will be hit by it?