Illustration by Suneesh Kalarickal.
Note to readers: Healing Space is a weekly series that helps you dive into your mental health and take charge of your wellbeing through practical DIY self-care methods.
Grief, they say, is love with nowhere to go. It can feel burdensome as though we may neither carry it nor set it down. It is a mish-mash of emotions, sorrow, anguish of things unsaid and undone, anger, but also regret, blame. We may feel abandoned, and its ensuing vulnerability. We may feel numb, holding a dull ache that never surfaces. In this pandemic, some have lost numerous kin, others a key figure. Each loss draws us our unique and cruel map. There is nothing to compare it to. And so, the new language with which we navigate this newly curtailed world is lonely.
Loss can feel like a punishment, like we are singled out. We are disconnected from those carrying on as though nothing has changed when everything in our life has. We are urged to move forward, to ‘stop wallowing’. But we don’t want to, because we don’t feel ready to leave behind those who have gone. So we hold on to our grief and it becomes at once both the wound and its salve.
We draw the picture of loss in highlights: a career and marriage, a family, anecdotes. What we miss in the everyday are the little things: a coffee cup that sits on the shelf now, a brand of ghee or ointment nobody else uses, a discarded habit, like plastic bags in plastic bags, a laugh, a twang, a smell, a sense, a presence.
Jodi Picoult says in My Sister’s Keeper, “There should be a statute of limitation on grief. A rulebook that says it is all right to wake up crying, but only for a month.” There isn’t one though. And therefore there isn’t an expiry date to the pain. Most of us resort to burying it where it won’t get in the way, and push past. Being productive is a common way of coping.
Coping is using a mechanism to block dealing with what’s bothering us. Working, binge eating, drinking, sleeping; it’s like trying to walk around with a thorn in your foot by buying a better shoe. Some losses are finite, we will get over a financial loss, a business failure, a job loss when we get to another win. But grief? It seems so infinite; there isn’t another end, a place to go to with it.
Grief can feel like a location, Elizabeth Gilbert said. In that forest, you have no clue how to move forward. But in truth, just as there is no pain centre in the brain, there is no locus of grief in the heart. And because it is not fixed, it has no fix. Grief is not a thing, and it can never become nothing. It stays.
This also means there isn’t a time by which we are expected to get over it. We are allowed to sit with our grief, to allow it to stain the days. No, we don’t need ‘acceptance’ - one of those umbrella words that get thrown around all the time now. Acceptance is never for situations but for emotions.
I accept that I hate this, that I am angry, that I blame someone, that I feel like I will never heal. I accept that grief will bring me to my knees.
Except, now I know this can be in pain, but also in gratitude, for our whole shared life. We may fear breaking down because we won’t know how to put ourselves together again. Especially if those we leaned on to do that are the ones we now mourn. People are always wanting to do something, anything to avoid feeling. Yet it is in ceasing to run from it, we give grief its due voice.
As we listen to it we discover a new language of lost love. We sit with memories, write them a letter, leave a voice note, caress a favourite shirt or sari, savour a passed down recipe. In honouring our grief, we bear witness to the full extent of their fusing with our lives. In time we learn that their legacy is in so much of who we are, some part of them is never really far.
I carry your heart (I carry it in my heart)
Gayatri is a mind body spirit therapist and author. Her forthcoming Anitya is a guide to coping with change.[@G_y_tri]Also read: 'I cannot afford to be emotional or fearful right now': people across India share how they're coping with despair and grief