Grief and the wings of life.

The voice said, “She’s dead, Pavi. Your paati is gone.And she’s never coming back.” 

My tummy hurt. I was 11, and this was my first brush with death.

“You won’t see her again. Won’t hear her singing or laughing. Won’t taste her sambar, poured over succulent mounds of rice. Won’t see her walk toward you, eyes brimming with mischief and love.”

Grabbing my tummy, I shut my eyes and wished it all away. The mourners gathered around my grandma’s body. Sobbing and reminiscing. The smell of incense sticks lit up in prayer. My grandfather talking in hushed tones with the priest. 

I wished they would all go away and leave me alone.In that instant, I would have traded every precious possession of mine for another year with my paati. Another month. Even another day.

It took me a long time to make my peace with her passing.The stark finality of death and my impotence in the face of it hurt me the most. I could cry till I passed out, and she was still not coming back. Never. I dreamt of her constantly for the first couple of years. Long, detailed sequences of playing chase with her, of walking into the kitchen and finding her brewing filter coffee.I would wake up, joyous at peace. And then this deep, almost-physical sorrow would hit me, and I wished more than anything to go back to sleep. 

Grief, especially unresolved grief, can be dangerous. It is much like chronic stress, honing, sharpening your worries and fears into a nasty little PTSD spear, until every thought you have, every choice you make is colored in the hues of sorrow you haven’t been able to let go from all those years ago. 

Part of why I became a doctor, was because I needed to understand death/grief and reduce it from this massive, fearsome monster in my brain to a little something I could tame and not worry about. First year of MBBS, involved dissection of all those leathery months-dead bodies. Second year of MBBS; I rushed to autopsies and tried to understand why a 7-year-old lay on the mortuary table.Third, fourth, fifth years, where I learned how to keep patients alive, at least until the bigger, better doctors walked in. I tried my best, got my degree and didn’t feel any wiser. I still fretted over loved ones falling sick, road traffic accidents, heart attacks and this horrible disease called cancer. And every time I saw a patient die, that heavy, woollen sadness came over, and with it, the futility of everything. This was probably classic depression/anxiety, but I didn’t know it then.

I don’t remember when it happened or even how, but well into my thirties, I made my peace with death. Maybe it was birthing my own children. Or maybe it was a mindful choice I made to live life in the present. But finally at some level, I had accepted that bad things can happen, and the best we can do is to roll with it.

My daughter came up to me last month. Her eyes were enormous pools of unshed tears. “Amma, will you die?” 

I paused because this was a big moment. She was only 5. Possibly the first time she’s consciously thought about death. She didn’t need to be exposed to sadness, this young. Right?

I wanted to shield her and distract her with a nice, little story. But when I opened my mouth, this is what I said.

“Yes darling, I will die. That’s normal. Everyone dies. But they die only when they’re really old, or if their bodies are very sick.” 

“Are you old, Amma?” she asked, peeking at the errant grey strands in my hair.

“No, my darling. I’m not very old. And I’m not sick, either. So I don’t think I’ll die for a long time.” 

“I’ll miss you when you’re dead, Amma.”

“I know, my darling. I’m sure you will. And it’s ok to be sad about that. Just remember, I don’t plan on dying any time soon.”

She cried for a while. The next couple of days, all she talked about was death. Typical 5-year-old curiosity. And each time, I could see her walking one more step towards accepting the inevitable. I was glad she had the space, and time to explore these questions. And before I knew it, she’d made her peace and moved onto other things.

The dead are gone. There’s no coming back. But they live on through us. Through the genes we share, the lives and memories we made together. I have my paati’s nose, her absurd sense of humor and her love of storytelling. I brew my own fragrant, filter coffee and sing the same songs she sang all those years ago. 

I still dream of her sometimes. But now, I wake up smiling. Because for the rest of that day, I feel her live on fiercely in me. 

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