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A mother’s grief: After the death of a daughter, a spiritual journey

Reuters/Adnan Abidi
Can a mother ever truly get over the loss of a child?
Published This article is more than 2 years old.

I was 53 when my daughter died.

Even now I do not think I can describe the endless night of November 18, the visit to the hospital, the return home, the hours that passed, the collective silence of relatives as they gathered in our drawing room.

I remember a frantic burning itch unfurling beneath my skin. For weeks no salve, no ointment, no ice, no heat made any difference.

My reproductive system shut down, this time for good. A hazy disbelief shrouded everything; my mind was doing its best to bar the outside world entry.

The years ahead lay heavy on my heart. I saw myself being pushed down the desolate trajectory of my life—without joy, without hope, each day as bleak as the one before.

So far as I was concerned all the children of the world should die, die at the height of their youth and beauty, die with their lives ahead of them, die and leave their parents grieving, even as I was grieving.

Every morning I opened the newspaper onto the obituary page, to examine the only item that interested me, the death of the young. Ghoulishly, I devoured confirmation that I was not alone.

Although this did nothing to ease my sorrow, I persisted in searching for dead children. Suffering had made me a monster.

Through the day the only pleasure I could anticipate were the sleeping pills at night. My continuing existence tore at me. I, the old parent, inhabiting the minutes, the hours that rightfully belonged to the next generation.

I had failed in my most basic duty: I had not been able to protect my daughter.

You don’t let your child go out in unsafe situations. And on that particular night of November 18, 2001 she was unsafe enough to die.

* * *

When I returned to work after two months [I taught in a college], it was with the slow painful walk of a cripple. My words came with difficulty, each lecture presented hurdles I stumbled over.

She had been the same age as these milling students, students walking, eating, studying, secure that to live was their birthright.

What did they know about birthrights? They who looked at me with large tender eyes, they whose gaze I avoided while walking stiff-faced down corridors.

In the staff room, I spent my time staring dully out of the window, my back resolute against sympathy aimed in my direction.

Stay away from me.

I resent your kindness, your determined advance upon my space, anything you say that expresses solidarity, the slightest reference to what happened.

I wished to have nothing to do with the social face of grief.

From time to time I recall with shame the condolence visits I had once paid. How useless I was on those occasions; I with the fixed smile, the trite sympathy, the fearful, there-but-for-the-grace-of-God-go-I feeling in my heart. I had gone in the service of you-are-not-alone but now I understood how much bereavement isolates, and how little difference any interaction makes.

The companionship I sought was of fellow sufferers. You, I will listen to. I respect you, your pain, your endurance, your survival.

The day you come home from the funeral, the first time you put food into your mouth, that is the moment you have decided to live.

One mother: The day you come home from the funeral, the first time you put food into your mouth, that is the moment you have decided to live. 

I stare at the black and white portrait of her daughter. The face in three-quarter profile, the wide open smile. I used to call her teeth piano keys, she said.

Piano keys. Nice image. We smile painfully.

It has been two years since her daughter died. She was 33. [Twelve years older than our daughter. Twelve more years of life.]

In some ways the second year is harder, she continued. By then it has sunk in, well and truly sunk in.

Oh. So there was all of that to look forward to.

We were meeting in a church. She had put out a notice announcing a support group for parents in mourning.

Someone had told us about it and here we were. The only attendees.

The woman was a counsellor.

In India perhaps this kind of gathering will not be so successful, she observed. People already have family, friends whom they rely on. But I was part of such a group in the US and it really helped. [Her daughter had died in an American hospital.]

We talk about marriage break-ups. Couples separate—they can’t take the burden of grief—their own and their partner’s. They want to get on with life.

It is not as though I am averse to getting on. I only wonder how you can do it when your spirits are so weighed down you cannot move. And what was the use of splitting up with your partner? For who else in the world could this particular loss be as significant?

* * *

Some time after the event, I walk hesitatingly to my study. Hesitation because with each step I move towards a life that no longer contains her and that wrongs every moment.

On the way I notice that the gladioli I had planted earlier have begun to bloom. The gay red tips hurt me with their insouciance.

It shows how stupid I have become. I feel personally aggrieved by the way everything continues. I long for a day when flowers can flourish, birds can sing and I am not offended.

I unlock my study door and enter. I stare at my computer, squat black, the morning light reflected off its thick layer of dust. How can I do the same things when everything is changed? It seems morally reprehensible.

The before time, the after time.

There are some things we never do again. I have never since stuck a photo in an album, never put mehndi on my hands. My husband stopped pursuing his development plans, abandoning a project that had been his dream for over 20 years. There are places we don’t visit because they are associated with her, songs we don’t listen to, books we don’t open, drawers that remain shut. Unbeknownst to anybody, we continue with our pointless statements.

I turn the machine on and dredge up the novel I am working on. I scroll down page after page. I can barely understand what I have written, let alone relate to the characters. I feel as weak before the narrative as a baby in a grown-up world.

I close the file.

Writing had once meant a lot to me, and now I wonder whether this too has collapsed along with so much else. My hands move over the keys. Uncertainly, I begin to jot down a bit of what I have been going through.

It is useless. Words cannot do justice to what I feel. I switch the computer off. In the now blank screen I can see my dim reflection. The reflection of a 53-year-old woman.

I make a list of authors who have lost their children:

William Shakespeare, Rabindranath Tagore, Roald Dahl, Mary Shelley, Goethe, Isabel Allende, Carlos Fuentes, J.M. Coetzee, Mridula Garg.

This is a list I find soothing. I cling to Shakespeare & Co and continue switching on my computer and gazing at the screen.

* * *

Two women: Indu Jain.

We are related, Indu Bhabhi and I.

A few months earlier she lost her daughter in a helicopter crash. Her husband and grandson are also dead.

The point about Indu Bhabhi is not the number of deaths in her family but how she looks.

All her life she has been a seeker. Her skin glows, her face is youthful, her whole demeanour suffused with joy. Her gurus and her spiritual practice are the source of her strength.

She invites us to her house. There she is sitting on a divan dressed in orange robes. When she talks it is of the delusions of the mind, when she offers consolation it is through realising its strength.

I come home feeling uplifted but soon my sad reality hits me and I am back to where I started.

No matter how long it takes, I want to look like Indu Bhabhi.

Anu Aga.

Within fourteen months, Anu Aga lost both her son and husband. Though this has rendered her completely alone at both home and business, she emanates a beautiful self-sufficiency. A little digging and I find she meditates. She refers to her Vipassana retreat.

I choose these women as my role models […]

* * *

[…] Six months pass. Teaching is over for the year. I am now free to go to a ten-day Vipassana retreat in Dehradun, to an ashram that overlooks a dry stony riverbed.

For ten days I will not speak. I will get up at 4am to spend ten hours meditating. I will eat two meals in mindful silence. I will not be allowed to read.

Do I wish to look into myself quite so much? And not read?

But if I want some way out of this stupefying wretchedness I have no choice. In Buddhism happiness is a spiritual goal. I yearn for that happiness, that freedom from emotional maelstroms.

Hour after hour in the meditation hall. We do not move. Backs straight, cross-legged on specially designed cushions. The men and women occupy opposite sides. There is no fan. It is very quiet.

I sit and I sit. Angry as I am, I decide to be angry with the leaders of our meditation. It is all very well for them to look so tranquil. I’d like to see them maintain that calm in the face of losing a child, I just would.

I seek a private interview with the woman leader, I tell her about my daughter. She listens attentively before giving me the one piece of information that has any relevance, the death of her son in his early twenties.

I am duly chastened. There is suffering everywhere, in how many ways does this need to be brought home to me?

I resume my meditation and do what I am supposed to do, which is look inside. I have tried to avoid this, but when you are seated for ten hours, in the silence that determined non-movement brings, you can do nothing else.

I would see her twice more in dreams. Then never again.

Images of my daughter appear. Her gaze is fixed on me, but her look is solemn. Wordlessly she climbs into my lap. I wrap my arms around her, straining her slight young body against my old heavy one. I cry and cry, you didn’t say goodbye, you didn’t tell me you were going. Her head is against my shoulder, her own arms folded around my neck. Then she disengages herself, unzips a tent placed in the middle of my heart, bends down to enter it and from the outside I see the zip slowly travelling up as the flaps shut. The tent is light blue, her track suit is pale pink as are her neat little canvas shoes.

This was her farewell. My face is damp, my palla wet with snot and tears. I would see her twice more in dreams. Then never again.

I left the Vipassana centre convinced of the efficacy of meditation. This indeed was the route to non-suffering. The ten-day retreat had put a tiny distance between my grief and me and I was determined to continue. Both morning and night I meditated for one hour. But my mind—as is the nature of minds—proved resistant to the slightest discipline. The same one thing swum round and round and, by the time the year was out, I had stopped meditating.

* * *

That summer N and I fly down to Pondicherry. The Aurobindo Ashram is one of the many places we visit in search of some balm to soothe our torment. We meet a senior teacher there. In shorts and a T-shirt he appears happy, contented, calm and serene.

He has given up his life in Delhi—a decision he spent eight months thinking about—to join his guru in the shram. He helps to run the place.

Taking in his demeanour, I too have this wild desire to flee Delhi. The Aurobindo Ashram will be my future home.

But of course it is not the place, is it? No place can free you from your suffering. Not a single place in the entire world.

As he shows us around, we tell him our story, one we have told many times. What can anyone tell us that will make the pain recede? At some level I feel our quest is hopeless, yet we are driven on.

The man begins to describe the mind. A mad monkey, a mad, sick, crazed on drugs, frenetic, jumping wildly from tree to tree monkey.

It is a favourite analogy this one—the similarity between the mind and a monkey, one I was to come across many times. The responsibility of controlling the monkey was ours. We and we alone had the power to remove our suffering.

We ask desultory questions. After a point he says you just have to experience it. Words cannot make you feel a spiritual reality.

It is December—13 months since Amba died. I am sitting in the garden.

A nephew is getting married. With ceremonies lasting one week it promises to be the event of the year. It is one of the first weddings of this generation in our family and there is much excitement.

Clothes, jewellery, parties, gossip, activity, activity, activity.

Amba would have been in the centre of such things. She adored company and company adored her. She loved interacting with people, intuitively relating to them at all levels. Her visitors never stopped coming, her phone never stopped ringing, her fingers never stopped tapping out the hundreds of numbers she knew by heart. I am a people person she would say from time to time.

Her eyes were shaped like gleaming almonds. Her fingers were long and slender, so was her neck. She had a little mole at the tip of her nose; a mole that she wanted removed.

I sit among the growing flowers and count the days left to the wedding. But what was the use? This one over, there would be others. Her cousins, her friends, and we invited to them all. What else could anyone do? They wanted to remember—we wanted them to remember. We were what was left of her. We had to be involved.

I am 54 now. How much longer did I have left to live?

To go to sleep and never get up—a consummation devoutly to be wished.

Ameeta, my sister-in-law’s friend, wanders by. How are you, Manju?

Fine is a word that tastes of ashes in my mouth. I want to die, I reply.

She sits down to look at me with the earnest sympathetic gaze I now attract. It is a look I hate—don’t pity me—but mixed with my resistance is a sense of my own dreadful isolation. Nobody can talk to me—what is there to say? Nobody can talk of anything else—I’m not interested.

Why, Manju?

No answer. I am a dog chasing its tail, trapped in a cycle of desolation.

Why don’t you try this Buddhism I practise? It does make a difference, I promise. What do you have to lose?

Always this statement hovering over everything I refused to try. What did I have to lose?

This was how I was introduced to the Soka Gakkai and chanting Nam myoho renge kyo.

Imagine things you want, commanded Ameeta.

My belief in karma though stronger than before was not doing an adequate job in enabling me to come to terms with what had happened. Tranquility, acceptance? Nowhere on the horizon.

Despite myself there were things that I wanted. After all I was still living.

A family that was healed.

A husband to recover fully from the cardiac arrest a year of relentless grief had brought on.

For now this was enough.

Most forms of Buddhism actively deal with suffering. The BSG was the structure that propped me up—day after day, with person after person coming to visit me, chant with me, talk to me.

It is incompatible to want things and simultaneously wish yourself dead. In a shift so tiny it was imperceptible, the hope I thought had disappeared forever, glimmered fitfully. Drops of water falling on a stone. Another favourite analogy implying that eventually you will get there.

So, with crutch in hand, I went on.

Karma, karma, her karma, my karma.

As I chanted I gradually stopped feeling like a victim. I stopped asking why me? Why her?

It’s been over ten years now. Ten years—with all my subsequent life wrapped like a pearl around this lacerating grain of sand.

The way I think is now deeply influenced by what I practise. Every day, day in and day out for years together I have tried to change myself into a person who possesses the Buddhist virtues of wisdom, courage and compassion. A person who recognises in the depths of her being that you cannot hang onto anything, not even your children. That if you manage to accept this basic fact you will not feel so violated.

The teacher at Aurobindo Ashram was right: a spiritual journey is difficult to explain in words. Words seem tired, old, self-evident, obvious and simple, even while embodying precepts almost impossible to follow.

* * *

I thought nobody could help, but that was not true.

Whenever I hear of parents whose children have died (or worse, committed suicide) I think of the long, long road ahead of them. I want to rush out and hold their hands, assure them that their darkness will lift, that though their lives have changed irrevocably, they will be able to experience light again, a different light from the one they thought they would live in earlier, but light nonetheless.

I want to present a smiling face. See, this happened to me. It happened, I thought nobody could help, but that was not true. I was helped, by many, many—even though it did not feel like help at the time. It felt like wanton intrusion into my misery.

I will tell them how angry I was. My life had been desecrated. The only thing I yearned for was that the clock should turn back, and I live in the blessed time before. And the only people I wanted to meet were those who had lost their children.

They must know they are not alone. There are others. And there will continue to be others.

This is excerpted from the piece titled Name: Amba Dalmia Dates: May 19, 1980—November 19, 2001, from Of Mothers and Others: Stories, Essays, Poems edited by Jaishree Misra. The book, published by Zubaan, is available at bookstores and online. 

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