Understanding Grief

Yesterday morning, I woke up and went downstairs to have breakfast while Tri stayed in our room to check his email. When I got back upstairs, he called me over to the computer and showed me an email from my mom saying that my grandmother died early Friday morning.

My maternal grandmother had been sick for about 3 years. She was diagnosed with cancer back when I was a Sophomore in college, and she’s been battling it ever since. At certain points, she seemed like she had really gotten rid of it, but there have been many times when we thought she would die.

Before Tri and I left for Nepal last summer, we stayed with the rest of my family at a beach house in North Carolina, something we’ve done every year for a long time. Before we moved to Nepal, I knew that my grandmother was likely to die this year, so I tried my hardest to say my goodbyes and spend time with her during that week.

Despite having tried to prepare myself for her death, I was shocked and saddened into tears when I read that email from my mom yesterday.

This is the third death this year of someone close to us. The first, as I’ve mentioned before on this blog, was Tri’s mom’s death. She passed away suddenly last April. The second death was also sudden, the death of a friend of Tri’s from his school days (I’ll call him A).

Last spring, right after Tri and I got the horrible call that his mom was in the hospital, Tri booked his flight to Nepal. He left that evening. His mom had been put on a ventilator, to keep her heart beating so that Tri could see her one last time. Once she was officially dead, he, his dad, and his brother went into the 13 day mourning period required for Nepali Hindus.

For the first few days, I had no way to contact him because he wasn’t allowed to use his computer, but then I was able to talk with him on gchat during parts of the day. About a week and a half after his mom died, while we were on gchat, Tri told me that the remains of A’s body had been found in India along the side of a cliff. This friend had gone to visit another of their friends in India, and at one point, he went hiking on his own. When he didn’t return, his family called the police. A’s family went down to India to help look for A, hoping that he had just gone off with another friend and had failed to contact them. After looking for about 10 days, they found the remains. Apparently A had been hiking and, as far as they could tell, just slipped and fell.

These three different deaths were each been different and hearbreaking in their own way. Tri’s mom’s death was sudden. It made me sick to my stomach, completely knocked the wind out of me. Although she had been sick for many years, we never expected her to die so suddenly and so soon. She was only 47.

A’s death was quite different. It was sudden, like Mamu’s, but more tragic in a way. When Tri told me about his friend’s death, I burst into tears. Some of the tears, I’m sure, were renewed grief for Mamu and some of them for A and for the way that he died. He was so young, only 25 and perfectly healthy. A’s death helped me put Mamu’s death into perspective. Although she was young too, she lived a full life, had an incredibly loving husband, and raised two sons to adulthood. A had barely made it to adulthood.

Now, as I start mourning for my grandmother, although I am sad, I don’t feel as bad as I might. Partly because I knew her death was coming, but also because Mamu and A’s death have put my grandmother’s death into perspective. It’s still really painful. I can’t go home and mourn with my family, and I can’t support my mom, aunts and grandfather as they mourn the loss of their mother and wife. But I know that my grandmother lived a long, full life and had a large supportive family that really loved and still loves her.

Living in Nepal has also given me some perspective on death. People die here all the time and very suddenly. Just last night I heard of a bus that crashed in far Western Nepal, killing at least 16 people. At least once a month, I hear about someone being hit and killed by a motorcycle, car, or bus. We hear about incidents like that all the time, plane crashes, bus accidents. People here also die of dysentery and other, often treatable diseases, that don’t kill in the West. Of course people die in the US too, but I think their deaths are often less sudden or maybe less tragic; there seem to be fewer death caused by accident and fewer early deaths from disease. Being around all this death in Nepal hasn’t helped me to understand the phenomenon any better but has helped me to accept death as a fact of life.

A few weeks ago, I tried to start reading a book called The Year of Magical Thinking, written by Joan Didion, a woman whose husband died suddenly while her daughter was sick in the hospital. Her daughter then died a year later. The book was way too sad for me to continue, so I put it down after a few pages. But one thing I got out of the part I did read was that grief comes in waves.

And this really rang true to me. As I’ve been grieving for Tri’s mom these past 8 months, I’ll have a span of days where I won’t think about her death at all. Everything will seem normal and okay, but then I’ll miss her suddenly, all at once. These times of intense grief come when I see her picture or cook Nepali chiya (tea), something she taught me how to do, or when I see Tri’s dad looking teary-eyed and know that he’s thinking about her. But these waves of grief have lessened in frequency and intensity with time.

I’m still waiting for a greater understanding of death grief to come. People say that when faced with diffficult situations, you’re supposed to gain wisdom and understanding, but somehow I just feel like a deer caught in the headlights, still in shock and unbelieving of what’s happened.

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Shradda

Mamu’s shradda was on Thursday. After someone dies in the family, if you are Nepali Hindu, you have a priest perform puja (religious prayers and worship) for that person every month for a year. After a year is up, you must do it once a year, on the day he or she died. This is called shradda and is done to feed the deceased.

On Wednesday, the day before, Tri, his brother, and his dad had to refrain from eating meat and eggs and could only eat one meal of daalbhaat (rice and lentils). We weren’t sure if I was supposed to fast or not so to be on the safe side, I didn’t eat meat or eggs either. And I actually made a mistake that day. Usually we have rice in the morning and roti for dinner. Because I had eaten about 6 rotis for lunch (they were really good), I didn’t want to eat them for dinner, so I made myself some rice. After I started eating, Tri’s brother told me I wasn’t supposed to have more than one meal with rice the day before shradda.

On Thursday morning, Tri and his brother had to fast until the puja finished. All of this fasting has to do with purity. To partake in the puja on Thursday, Tri and his brother had to be pure. Neither I nor my father-in-law were part of the puja for my mother-in-law because only the sons of the deceased have to perform shradda, so we didn’t have to fast that morning.

After the priest came over, he arranged some flowers, fruit, and spices in pots specially used for puja and in bowls made from dried banyan leaves. After he finished getting ready, Tri and his brother went to the roof of the house, where the puja was taking place. The priest recited prayers, gave them some special water to drink, and gave them each a new sacred thread to wear. The long white string is worn like a sash inside of the clothing. Traditionally Hindu Baun (Brahman) men were supposed to wear this sacred thread all the time, but I don’t think it’s as common today. After the puja finished, we all sat down to have daalbhaat.
            On Friday, we had another shradda for 16 generations of my father-in-law’s ancestors. This puja occurs only once a year and is also done to feed the ancestors. It reminds me of a book I read by Lisa See called Peony in Love about a young girl in China during the 17th Century. I’m skipping over a bunch of the story, but from what I remember, the main character dies and becomes a ghost. However, because her funeral rites do not happen as they should and no one in her family sends her offerings, she starves in the afterlife. We were talking about this tradition in the context of Hinduism, and Tri made the point that if your ancestors have already been reincarnated, why would you need to feed them? I’ve learned a lot about Nepali Hinduism in the last few years, but I still have so many questions.

Remembering Mamu

As many of you know, Tri’s family must remain in mourning for a year. He cannot celebrate holidays, go to weddings, or do anything religious. Last week, Tri and I were invited to the wedding of one of his high school classmates, and we were hoping to go to the non-religious part of the celebration. Tri’s dad said that even that is not allowed, that they probably wouldn’t want Tri to be there because it’s bad luck.

There’s an interesting Newar festival going on today called Gai Jatra that addresses death and loss. Those who have lost a loved one in the last year must lead a cow in a procession around the city. It’s also a time when people dress in costume, tease, joke, and laugh. It was started by a Newar king when his wife couldn’t move past the death of their son. Tri told me that the king then ordered those in mourning to process around the city to show the queen that she was not alone in her grief, but Wikipedia says that the king also promised to reward anyone who could make her laugh. Either way, both the tradition of processing and laughing are still practiced today. Not only does this holiday remind those who are grieving that they are not alone, but it also promotes them to forget their troubles for a while by joining in the joking. Tri’s family is not Newar, so they aren’t going to the Gai Jatra celebrations, but I really like the idea behind this holiday.

Before I left for Nepal, my family and I were talking about this year-long period of mourning, and how, although it’s limitations are frustrating, they are also good for the mourners. This year is set aside to mourn and remember the person who died, but after the year is up, you have to move on. Anyway, I’ve been really thinking about Mamu (what we called Tri’s mom) lately. I was looking through some old photo albums and found some pictures of her as a young woman…

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