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Why an Indian woman cannot grieve for long – when she has so many responsibilities as a wife, mother, daughter-in-law, how dare she think only of her grief?
We plan for several things in life – for careers, marriage, kids – but rarely do we plan for something that threatens all this. Death.
The loss of a loved one leaves behind a gaping hole, and no grieving period can be enough to stitch you back. And yet, as a woman, wife and daughter-in-law, I find it exceptionally hard to make many people in my life understand this. The loss of my mother to cancer changed my life permanently and it isn’t something time or therapy can fix.
I am writing about my experiences with grieving her loss and why no amount of time is likely to make things better. I have accepted that a part of me will forever be dead – and I only expect the people in my life to also understand this.
I lost my mother to cancer almost three years ago. I first found out about her illness on my birthday, after she had spent the entire day celebrating with my friends and me. It was breast cancer – something I was sure could be treated, and rarely, if ever, became fatal. It indeed seemed so. For quite some time. We enjoyed her new bob-hair after the surgery and all the therapy, telling her it made her look like a news reporter. We went out on mini-vacations and to the movies, and spent hours discussing things in the immediate as well as the distant future.
That future we talked about together lingered only in the air and never came to happen. I thought my life would stop too but it didn’t. But nonetheless, something did stop inside me.
In Indian society, and in many communities worldwide, there is a fixed time period for which you are supposed to grieve. Once that is over, you invite people for a meal, do something that marks the end of your grieving period in tangible terms, such as starting to eat non-vegetarian food again. Few of us ever succeed in putting thoughts of the dead person away after this period is done. But after a time, like the guest who has overstayed his welcome, you are supposed to stop grieving. To stop bringing them up in conversation so often, to “get on with life”.
I come across different people from time to time, people with different views on death and getting on with life.
They say, “It has been a long time since she died. You really cannot let that affect your life even today. There are other people who depend on you and you need to be upbeat for them.” Since she died, yes. This group of people doesn’t believe in euphemisms such as “she passed away” or “she left us”. They make it very clear from the outset that she has died and that I have to move on.
I don’t deny that they probably mean well. But what they fail to understand is that no matter how much time has passed, the void in my life remains – as big, if not bigger, each day. And while I get their point of trying to be happy for the others in my life, I have my low days when nothing makes it better. And these days are not a figment of my imagination, or something I concoct to get sympathy. These days stand for the undying memories I created with my mother and for the searing pain I feel in never being able to live them again.
The “everything” here usually involves family gatherings and outings, parties, celebrations, and activities I used to do only with her. Often unconsciously, I find myself disinterested in playing a game of badminton because she played a great game and was my only real partner for many years of my life. I don’t enjoy picnics with the extended family because she used to be the one planning and organizing and I don’t like to see someone taking her place.
My point is that this decision of “getting out” of things is my defence mechanism to keep myself composed. It is anything but an excuse.
Women have responsibilities. They imply, “What will become of your child when he/she comes into the world?” It is presumptuous and unfair to presume that just because I am grieving I will mess up my responsibilities or not fulfil my duties. There is a difference between being dutiful and being happy and the two don’t always co-exist. Just because I am a woman and tied to some other family – yes, with a mother-in-law – it doesn’t mean that I sever all my ties with someone whose memory is what keeps me going.
Yes, it has been a long time since I lost my mother, my best friend. My life is very different now from when we were together, two girls who shared everything that gave them joy or that made them sad. There is something in me that died with my mom and try as I can, I cannot revive it. I am going on with life, doing new things, laughing, and loving, but I don’t think I’ll ever be done grieving her.
And even if the world disagrees, to the people in my life, this should be understandable.
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