The ocean and me.

That was the winter of 2014-15. This is the winter of 2019-20.

This was the beach in Goa where I sat paralysed for weeks. Some days I didn’t walk or talk. For days, I peered into my laptop, trying to figure out the ugly intruder who had broken into our house and taken my everything, my son. I swam in the whys and hows of this tragedy that had befallen us. The fact that my life continued while his had ended baffled me. I struggled with how that could be and what was the meaning and purpose of what was left. What now? What now? The question marks sprang up incessantly.

Si was with me then as he is today.

In this time, life has revealed that there is no one answer, no single destination, nowhere to go, nothing to do. All there is, is unfolding. The Universe endlessly expressing itself through this beach, the moon, the sand, the pain and me.

After dark, the wave fronts approach the shore shimmering like sword edges of the cavalry, roaring towards me and then breaking apart into a playful white surf and disappearing into the sandy slope. Again and again. Same but different. In the navy blue of the night it appears as though the special effects team has spent hours to make it look like this.

The lukewarm sand between my toes. The dancing waterline swirling around my feet. My hand tenderly held in Si’s. The rhythmic breathing of the ocean. The ins and out of my breath. The moon, an oval light overhead. The sea breeze ruffling my hair. The hint of salt in the air. The humidity, same as that in my eyes.

A pause. A break. A blank.

A moment holding everything within. It’s all here.

Three friends

This is an approximate transcript of a presentation I made at a TCF (The Compassionate Friends) gathering of bereaved parents earlier this month. The topic was “Finding Hope after Catastrophe”. I hope you find it useful in some way.

“Hello. My name is Sangeeta. I am an Anaesthetist by profession and it’s my job to put people to sleep. Thank you TCF, for having me here this evening.

My son is called Saagar Naresh. I could often hear his cackles emanating from his room. I am pretty sure he’s watching cat videos again. He loves to laugh and make other people laugh. He’s as bright as they come, astutely picking up languages, accents and mannerisms of people around him. He would go shopping with his best friend Hugo to Oxford street and they would pretend to be South African tourists all day.

We loved cooking together. It involved chopping of onions. He got tired of his eyes stinging and watering and found a way out – he would wear his swimming goggles whilst chopping onions. It worked brilliantly!

He was an excellent cricketer. A fast bowler to be precise. He also played the drums in a band. He loved to go to the gym. Most of all, he had a heart of gold and even when he was a teenager, he loved cuddles. He spoke French and German fluently and chose to study Arabic from scratch at University as he wanted to challenge himself.

After his second year at Durham University, he came home for the summer holiday and was diagnosed with Bipolar Disorder. He was unable to go back to pursue his studies as his depression started to deepen. We saw a doctor on the 14th of October 2014. He told us that Saagar would have to wait till his medications kicked in, that he was on the right medicines but they would take time to work. On the 16th of October, Saagar ended his own life.

That was like a bomb going off in our lives. Losing him suddenly, out of the blue was our catastrophe.

Finding hope …

The Oxford dictionary defines Hope as “a feeling of expectation and desire for a certain thing to happen”.

For me, Hope is the belief that it is possible that some of the best days in my life are yet to come.

Soon after Saagar passed away, just getting through the day was an achievement. The time ‘yet to come’ was a huge burden. I had nothing left to offer to the world and the one thing I wanted, the world could not offer me. My own mortality stared me squarely in my face and it was strangely seductive.

What was I left with? My logical mind had been turned into an emotional pulp as there was no logic to this. The more I tried to make sense of it, the more I suffered. It was like banging my head against a brick wall. It did not make any sense. Period. Deal with it.

What was I left with?

  1. This moment, right NOW
  2. Me, mySELF.
  3. Nature.

NOW

How deep rooted was my belief that Saagar would always be around? How much did I take that for granted?

What am I taking for granted right now?

My breath.

My parents.

My partner.

My job.

My health.

Let death be your teacher. ‘Right now’ is all I have left. Like a bird trapped in a cage. The door is open but the bird is unable to fly away. The cage is where he/she belongs. In the ‘now’, I could only sit and watch the door, knowing that it was open. I could breathe in, take a pause, breathe out, pause, breathe in and repeat… I could fully acknowledge and feel the dark hollow that was my chest and hear the echoes of my sobs returning from the black hole within. Connecting fully with the present moment was the only way past it. There was no short-cut. No secret escape route. One moment at a time. Now, I am walking upstairs. Now, I am halving cherry tomatoes. Now, I am watching the steam rise from my cup of tea and so on… My refuge lay in this moment, right here. Right now. The future is a story. The past exists in our thoughts. Yet, our mind is in one or the other. What is real is this moment.

I had a patient once who had a black ‘Gratitude’ tattoo on her left forearm in a big bold decorative font. I asked her the story behind it. She said, ”I work with kids with learning disabilities. By the time I’ve brushed my teeth in the morning, I’ve achieved more than they can. So, I am grateful every moment.”

SELF

I was lucky to have so much support at that impossible time. My mum and brother came over from India to be with me. My friends, Saagar’s friends, their parents, my work colleagues. Everyone stood by me with love and compassion but ultimately it was up to me to live with this utter devastation. I was filled with so many questions, so much guilt and grief that I felt like I was drowning. 

It took 2-3 years but slowly I taught myself to be kind to myself. I am still teaching and reminding myself that our everyday reality is made up of stuff that is unthinkable for most people. We live the life that is other’s worst nightmare. Many can’t even imagine what it’s like to be in our shoes. 

So, we need to honour ourselves for carrying on living with as much grace and dignity as possible after having absorbed the impact of such a huge catastrophe. To know that the harsh inner critic will continue to chatter but we need to witness its mumbling, recognise the pointlessness of it and let it go.

We need to have compassion for ourselves. Compassion being not just a gentle kind feeling but small acts of courage. For instance, I used to love dangly ear-rings ‘before’. I would change them every day, to match my clothes. But for 3 years ‘after’ I didn’t change out of the boring old gold studs. One day I decided to change into one of my favourite pair of ear-rings for no particular reason. It was a small shift. It took courage. I cried. But it was an act of kindness towards myself. I needed my own friendship, my own affection. I needed to once again find ways of being at ease with myself. Lord Buddha has said “If your compassion does not include yourself, it is incomplete.”

I am learning that I need to be a ‘compassionate friend’ to myself.

NATURE

That wretched day in the middle of October was cursed but also resplendent with autumn colours. It was a festival of orange, ochre, red, green, yellow and terracotta. These decorative leaves carpeted our street. I stared out of the window watching these leaves gracefully dance their way to the ground. The trees went from being semi-nude to naked. This was the cycle of life. Nature was reminding me and showing me the devastating beauty of life. Cycles upon cycles of change, millions of times over. The impermanence of everything.

Over the next few months, I sat gazing at the Himalayan mountain range, marvelling at its history and all the changes it has undergone. I sat on a beach in Goa, watching the ocean waves change every second. Over time, I started to allow Nature to teach me what I needed to learn and soothe me when I needed to be soothed. I learnt that we humans can carry the utter tyranny of life in one hand while simultaneously carrying the spectacular beauty of it in the other.

I requested everyone to join me in singing this song by ABBA and was delighted by the upward shift of healing energy in the room as everyone sang together. It was a powerfully uplifting evening.

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help me cope with anything
If you see the wonder of a fairy tale
You can take the future even if you fail
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a fantasy
To help me through reality
And my destination makes it worth the while
Pushing through the darkness still another mile
I believe in angels
Something good in everything I see
I believe in angels
When I know the time is right for me
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream
I’ll cross the stream, I have a dream

I have a dream, a song to sing
To help…”

A tiny shift

58 months. Nearly 5 years.

And still, the first thoughts in the morning that rush into me to invade and occupy my conscious mind are those of Saagar. Like multiple grey moths stuck on the dark walls of my room, waiting. Then hurtling into my head the moment the light in there is turned on. Bringing in the darkness with them.

Everyday. Still. Sure as the morning, the sunrise. The thoughts. The moths. The darkness.

A mantra I created for myself, for distraction, salvation: “Thank you for this day. Thank you for Si, my family and friends. Thank you for Saagar.”

Often times it works. Sometimes its impotent. Useless.

I need to find a way to get out of bed without a dagger being struck in my throat even before I’ve opened my eyes. I speak to some learned people and they tell me to make a slight shift. They say that everyone comes into this world to experience X amount of happiness and Y amount of sorrow. So, when I think of Saagar, I should think not just of the suffering but also the love and joy in his life. I shall do this tomorrow morning. The moment my sleep is over. I will.

Tonight I share this link with you. It is the link to the promotional pages for the short film I mentioned the last time. It will be called “1000 days”. It hopes to cause a tiny shift in those who might watch it. Collectively, they all might bring about multiple small shifts towards greater connectedness in our world. The aims of the film are to:
1. Educate people that many suicides are preventable.
2. Empower everyone to ask for and offer help, hope and understanding.
3. Enable all of us to feel less alone.

https://igg.me/at/1000days

Your support is invaluable. Thank you for being here. Your contribution might save a life. Good night. xxx

Feathers etc.

10 weeks back I was surprised to find an all-day course in ‘Mindful Self-Compassion’ for Health Professionals advertised on the Trust intranet. It sounded great and it was for free. Wow! We are recognising the pressures on health care professionals and moving slowly but surely in the right direction. To organise a course like this and make it available to all staff at no cost is nothing less than super-fantastic.

I enrolled instantly and waited patiently for the day to arrive. The day arrived.  I entered the room to find all these items scattered neatly around the room: a bowl of smooth tactile pebbles in purple, maroon, white and yellow, little bottles of lavender and vanilla extracts, fantastical eye-catching postcards, maracas and manjiras, a white rosary in a tiny wooden box, sketch pads with charcoal tree sticks, a bunch of sea shells, sprigs of fresh rosemary and mint, a dried corn on the cob, a few white and brown feathers, a spongy red ball and a spiky yellow plastic one, a tiny hand-crank music box and an hour-glass with pink sand. These things were for us to appreciate, touch, feel, smell and listen to.

Two gentle young women led the day taking great care of everyone in the room and in complete harmony with each other. We started with a ‘soft landing’ – becoming aware of our feet on the floor, bum on chair, our breath and our finger tips. They called these short snatches of peace, the ‘green moments’. We were encouraged to create/access these green moments to transition from seeing one patient to the next or from work to home mode and vice versa.

The word ‘discernment’ was brought into my awareness. While the dictionary meaning of it is “the ability to judge well”, we were encouraged to scan our thoughts and ‘notice what’s not helpful’. It was a useful concept. It helped me locate stuff that was unnecessarily cluttering up my mind and blocking light from entering this sacred space.

I remembered that as a teenager I had a big scrap book filled with my collection of feathers of all kinds, my favourite being the peacock feather. Where did that dreamy girl with 2 pig-tails go?

For a while I could hold the little girl in me lovingly in my arms and marvel at her innocence and beauty, appreciate her child-like sense of wonder and creativity. This sweet girl is me. Perfect and complete in every way. All she needed was to be seen. By me.

Caring with compassion for you and me.

Rush hour London

7 am. Monday. South-east England.

From the window of an inbound aeroplane, they look like moving lines changing texture every second. Demarcating hedges, rail tracks, rivers and roads run around in graceful undulating curves. These lines pass between patches of all forty shades of green. And some dry brown ones and watery blue ones. A silver set of solar panels glitters like a massive diamond. Imperfect squares and rectangles are juxtaposed like patches on an applique quilt. Thickets in rough triangular shapes fit neatly into corners. Multitudes to houses sit snugly like school kids in tidy rows. Each house, home to multitudes of stories.

London

The City is poised at the start line. London, in a state of fresh awareness. The sun is shining. Commuters are rumbling, making their way to the nearest train station, bus-stop, car or bike. Multi-coloured bicycles and black motorcyclists wriggle about in clusters. The air is cool. The smoke is gathering. It hasn’t formed a blanket yet. A hum in the background holds at a fixed, non-descript pitch. Jarring sirens of police and ambulances intercept at regular intervals. The stirrings of people, shaking the City. Millions of people in organised chaos, moving over and under the ground.

Me

I draw the curtains aside, to a dream morning for a bike ride. Gentle breeze and soft sun. I glug the smoothie I prepared last night. Pull on my cycling gear.  My body wanting to jump on to the bike this second. Put my stuff into the pannier bag that I should have bought ages ago. Remember to wear my helmet before the gloves. Remember to lock the house. Switch on the lights on the bike. Put on my yellow high-vis jacket. Say a silent prayer. And take off. Gear up. 1-1. 1-2. 1-3. 2-3. 2-6. 3-3 … The down-slope after the first right turn brings the morning air face to face with me and I am flying. Levitating. Floating blissfully to work. Lost in the rhythm of my breath going in and out. Feeling my legs going round and round in meditative circles. All my senses awakened. In this second, I am free. And so lucky to be alive!

Methuselah

One morning, despite severe inertia and amplified gravity, I carried my body through treacle to a yoga lesson nearby. Once I got there, the music, the incense, the light, the chanting, the breathing and the presence of other people lightened me up and I got into the groove.

I became the rhythm of my breath and the simultaneous harmonious dance of the body with the breath. Each posture pushed me just a little bit outside my comfort zone and the energy started to shift and flow. Before I knew it one hour was up. As we were finishing off the session with a short meditation, Felix, the teacher said “Dedicate your practice to someone you love.”

In that moment, tears sprung out in rivers. Out of nowhere, all on their own accord, they flooded me. I lay in the corpse pose (shavasana) and the warmth of my tears continued to soak the hair at both my temples.

Just then a set of 4 light soft paws, one by one stepped on to my tummy. I am familiar with the weight and size of such paws due to our feline, Milkshake’s nightly visits. Instantly, I broke into a smile. I lifted my head and opened one eye. A black cat that had been lazing on a sofa previously had made itself comfortable on top of me, rolled up into a ball. The fuzzy warmth of that circle travelled all the way to my heart. I sat up and cuddled it, stroked it and thanked it for reaching out to me. It was gracious enough to let me. Love was boomeranging.

We love. Therefore, we are.

Nearly 5 years on, we gather again. This time it’s a 25th birthday party. Many in the room are in their mid-twenties. It’s their party. It’s everyone’s. There’s an open mike. Young voices. A few songs are special – Dolly Partons’ ‘Jolene’, Timberlake’s ‘Cry me a river’. By divine conspiracy, there is this song from the CD Saagar got me one Christmas –  Corinne Bailey Rae’s ‘Girl put your record on’. I sing along nice and loud, word for word, like I used to, a long time back!  It’s our music, biryani and laughter. A strong sense of belonging binds the room together. Sadness and joy are everywhere, stuck together like conjoint twins.  

When I supposedly had ‘everything’, I didn’t know how to access true joy. Now that I don’t have ‘everything’, I do. Even if it happens for tiny snippets of time, it happens in its fullness. It’s like being immersed in a singing warm ocean of bliss. The brickwork of resistance drops off. Everything is in harmony with my cosmos. Everything that steps in the way melts away. I am complete with everything just the way it is. This enticing path of joy meanders through a dark forest of grief. I carry the forest with me. And its black shadows. And all its wild animals that threaten to kill. We celebrate. We sing, laugh and we dance. We hug and cry and eat and drink as one. We are held in the warm embrace of a field of love that nourishes our souls.

We hurt alone and heal together.

Uganda Diaries

Frantically searching for an important document, I rummaged through all my papers up and down the Study. My mind can’t be trusted with anything anymore! My memory is shot. I exhausted myself and all my options. Over a cup of tea, I thought about all the places I had not looked through. A box full of Saagar’s books and diaries. I never read through any of his personal stuff. But that day, before I knew it, I had read all his musings from his travels to Uganda with a friend. They were there for 2 weeks to help at a local school supported by their College.

It seems when he was struggling, he wrote. Like me. He wrote exactly as he spoke, leaving some words half said and stretching out the first letter of unspeakable words. His diary was reading itself to me in his voice. I felt like he was in the room. I was an intruder. It wasn’t my place to read it. It was personal to him. But it was also my conduit to him even if it was written 27 months prior to Day 0.

It was clear that the boys were totally unprepared for the massive change. This is the note from his last day there.

30/7/2012. 2300 hrs.

“Never before have I been able to say the words “I want my mommy!” with as much certainty as now. This sucks ass. I feel like such a pathetic little shit. I hope missing Mother is no more than a manifestation of homesickness.”

A deep feeling. Then a judgement. Then an admonishment and then a substitution. A minimization. A classic example of a young man being brutally unkind to himself even though he is suffering. Being a ‘man’. Not allowing for any fragility even in the face of a harsh reality.

Fact: He missed me. Thinking of me brought him comfort. I have evidence.

How could I ever doubt that? By judging myself too critically. Why do we do this to ourselves?

That was a beautiful gift from you to me on your birthday my son. 25th birthday! Bless you my love.  

Heartbreak Syndrome

Screen Shot 2019-04-27 at 18.48.41

Carrie Fisher: Date of death 27th Dec 2016.
Her mother, Debbie Renolds’ date of death: 28th Dec 2016

Emiliano Sala: Plane Crash – 21st Jan 2019
(Death confirmed 13 days later).
His father, Horatio Sala’s date of death – 26th April 2019

Both these parents died of natural causes. Horatio Sala was only 58. For days after the crash, he was not sure what was happening. “Hours go by and I know nothing. It makes me think the worst. I know nothing. Nobody has spoken to me. Not a call from the Embassy, the club, from anyone.”

I cannot imagine how stressful that must be. After the ‘worst’ was confirmed, the investigation was a protracted one. Horatio’s angst is palpable on the video clips. The grief and anger of it must have caused a sustained and prolonged release of adrenaline which greatly raised his pulse and blood pressure, making his heart work harder, making his blood sticky and ruining his immune system. Research also shows that in the first 30 days after a loved one dies, your risk of dying too is significantly increased. There are many stories validating this finding.

More than a month after the crash a BBC report said, “Some operational aspects are yet to be determined, such as the validity of the pilot’s licence and ratings.” What must that do to a parent! “Air accident investigators will continue to look at all operational, technical, organisational and human factors which might have contributed to the crash.”

They will continue to look I am sure but for the bereaved families, there is no resolution till the investigation is complete. They don’t feel settled until then. They are haunted by unanswered questions. The big and noisy fight inside overshadows everything else. There is no sign of ‘peace’ for at least a thousand mile radius. A prompt, fair and proper investigation is essential for them to start grieving properly. Losing a child is bad enough. A parent should not then have to fight for facts and justice.

Sadly, even the medical profession does not understand sudden traumatic grief. Often the investigations are a sham, take forever and produce vague statements like the ones above. I know many parents whose suffering is insulted and prolonged for this reason. This must change. It breaks my heart and many others.

PS: Very sorry for the pilot, Mr Ibbotson’s death. The system failed him too. If he did not have an appropriate licence, the system did not stop him from flying.

No more thorns

The bridge rumbles, shakes and shudders
as trains thunder over it.
I sit under the bridge and everything around me
rumbles, shakes and shudders.
The verticals, horizontals and things in between
judder
Outside and inside of me
I live under this bridge. It threatens to snap and bury me in rubble
Some trains are overloaded.
They crawl on top of my chest.
Crushing me to pulp.
Others come galloping,
Turning me to fine flying dust.
Almost non-existent
Yet, here.
Feeling. Breathing.

Thousands of us huddle under this bridge.
Wondering why our love wasn’t enough
Why no one said anything
Why it keeps happening at a maddening pace
Why we were blind
Why we didn’t know what to do
Why the Earth keeps spinning
Why the breath keeps oscillating
Why the heart keeps drumming.
Why?

4 years ago, it was all happening in September.
He didn’t know he was so close to the end.
I didn’t know I was so close to his end.
Now, I know.
Everyone’s talking.
Was I deaf or is it much too late?

Kingdom of Us: Lucy Cohen presents a film about the life of a family affected by suicide https://www.theguardian.com/film/2017/oct/08/the-kingdom-of-us-review-netflix-teenagers-lucy-cohen

Horizon: Stopping male suicide by Dr Xand Van Tulleken on BBC2 on 22nd August 2018
https://www.bbc.co.uk/iplayer/episode/b0bgv82g/horizon-2018-6-stopping-male-suicide

House of Commons, 5th September 2018: Transcript of a debate by Helen Jones, making a case for changing the standard of proof from ‘criminal’ to ‘civil’ for deaths by suicides
https://hansard.parliament.uk/commons/2018-09-05/debates/B8A2C436-64BE-4694-B4AA-F6535E49E31E/SuicideCoroners%E2%80%99Courts

NICE Guidelines: September 2018: Preventing Suicide in community and custodial settings.
https://www.nice.org.uk/guidance/NG105