On death and grief

I have noticed while straddling two cultures – my family’s and my birthplace’s – that the universality of death and grief ends there. How we approach it, the means by which we acknowledge it and the language surrounding it are radically different. And yet for many of us, myself included, it is something we can go years without experiencing and even longer without the mechanisms to cope with it.

Growing up, I didn’t really have many conversations about death or grief. In fact, even making jokes about anything relating to death, or dying, was shushed immediately, followed by disapproving glares. It was “inauspicious”. Having realistic conversations about family members dying was just as taboo. It left me without much of a death education, knowing only that it happened and that the bereavement bore down deeply on those closest.

I recognise that the Hindu-influenced household I grew up in, while very secular, liberal, and supportive, anticipated death without the same sense of finality that I felt in conversations outside the household. Rebirth and reincarnation are central to the religion, so it seems counter-intuitive that death was so taboo. Many years of considering this has not begot a definite answer quite yet, but I hazard a guess that the very fact that death is believed not to be final is why it is so inauspicious to talk about it in the first place. There seems to be a lack of that intrinsic acceptance existing in other belief systems, where we live our lives anticipating that death will ultimately occur in the end; with no ambiguity about it there is a sense of closure provided. Where there is ambiguity, where there is the belief in possible rebirth and reliving, then I suppose a fear of the unknown stifles any discourse surrounding it.

Yet what I once thought was repression of grief within my culture could also be interpreted as a performance of grief: a culturally instructive way of showing your loss and publicising your trauma. In this way, death within my family’s culture mandates silence all around it. It is not to be spoken of until it happens. When it happens, the grieving process is defined; what spouses of the passed can wear, when families can start to celebrate other events again, and in some cases, it compels those closest to give something up, like a food group or habit, in recognition of the grave loss suffered. I suppose this has evolved out of a time when death was all around, and these practices were a stern reminder that it could happen again and to be deferential to the omnipotent Gods.

But then how do we go about encapsulating someone’s life when they are gone if we are unable to remember them wholly, if it is too painful to speak of them and if we could never have imagined them dead anyway? It is impossible to imagine someone dead when the last time you saw them, they were so … alive, it makes you wonder whether that moment of life was as long as it should have been and how you can possibly fathom a permanent state of without-them.

So when I grappled with a gut-wrenching and sudden death of a loved one recently, in a way that I had only ever heard of and never personally experienced, I was at a loss. Not only was it the loss of a loved one; I was also devoid of any idea of how to approach others bearing the loss, how to process my feelings of guilt, sorrow and darkness; and most alarmingly for myself, what language to use in the interim between excruciating grief and the period of reminiscence and acceptance that I am still waiting for.

I did not know if it was selfish of me to feel grief so heavily when others closer would be ‘feeling it more’. I wondered if I was naïve or lucky for not being well-versed in how to approach grief, in all its debilitation and slow burning ache. The way it lies dormant, until you are weak from the other rigours of life, and strikes with the fervour that you thought had passed in its last bout. Someone needed to instruct me when it would stop being disrespectful to enjoy myself again.

But strangely, I found solace in the religious language of a culture foreign to my family’s. What I once found, in my Catholic schooling, to be ominous and heavy language, illuminated a path for me in the time of need. Its darkness actually clarified my own, acknowledging it and articulating it when I could not. It was not one particular biblical verse or ritual, rather, it was the centreing of both life and death within that religion (at least, in my experiences of it) that anchored my feelings to a sense of normalcy. I was not alone, and I was not the first to be feeling this way. Nor would it be the last time. And watching my community around me grapple with the death, people of all different ages, upbringings, religions and cultures, I came to realise that there is no ideal model to cope with death. There is no manifesto, no culturally superior practice, no amount of googling that can prepare you for insurmountable loss. Any attempt would be reductive.

I suppose our increasingly secular world challenges this even further. I did not find solace in God or religion in the way believers do, and religion didn’t explain to me why death happens, or why it did in this instance. But if language is a currency then religion is rich in it, and there is nothing wrong with absorbing the wealth thousands of years of scholarship and thought.

So instead of rejecting the confusion and helplessness, I let myself ease into it, even be overwhelmed by it at times. I overcome the guilt that is unavoidable after death when you have moments of happiness, of light, of laughter; because strangely we tend to assume that grief is uniform rather than oscillating.

These moments of light become brighter, longer, and the burden of grief turns to nostalgia and yet we never forget the impact of our first bout. Nor do we forget that a burden is lighter when it is shared … but in no way does this diminish its gravity in the first place.

Humans really have no choice but to be stronger than the grief that befalls them. That means it never quite goes away, but I think we get better at bearing it. I really hope I do.

Image: Annie Spratt

Aditi Razdan is a Law and Asian Studies student at ANU, drawn to the country of her ancestors and the stories of her people. She is particularly interested in issues of race, the politicisation of culture and religion and the criminalisation of coloured bodies.  She is a Sub-Editor at the East Asia Forum, Editor of Demos and has had her work published in Demos and The Kashmir Times.

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