Still Grieving

Four months ago, on the day of the one year puja for Mamu, the priest tied red doro strings around our wrists in blessing. A similar red string is tied on during Indra Jatra, a festival in late summer, and cut off of the wrist and tied to the tail of a cow during Tihar. You only wear the Indra Jatra string for a few months, but I wasn’t sure how long we were supposed to wear these ones. “I guess until they get frayed and lose their color,” Tri told me when I asked him.

Finally, yesterday, my sting fell off. It just kind of unwound and came apart, and I started to reflect on the last four months that I’ve been wearing it.

When mamu died and I first became aware of the Hindu mourning process, I was shocked at how involved it is. 13 days of wearing white, eating only one meal a day, and seeing visitors all day long. 45 days of no meat. 1 year of no celebrations. All of that was such a contrast to the Western tradition with its one day of mourning, but I accepted it because I had to. Overtime I felt that the mourning period had its upsides, and I think we found solace in it.

Somehow, though, I thought we would be released at the end of one year. Like we had punished ourselves enough, we’d put in our time and could clock out and move on but it hasn’t been that easy. I remember during the one year puja for Mamu’s death, I felt a huge sense of relief. Getting the tikka and blessing from the priest after the hours-long ceremony made me feel like I could join the world again. But as the months have passed since that day in April, things haven’t felt all that different.

Overtime, the sad feelings and shock have ebbed, but our grief is still palpaple. For both Mamu and for my grandmother. I was looking at a pair of earings I wear that my grandmother gave me, and I just burst into tears thinking about her. I really miss her. I grieve for Mamu in a different way. I grieve for the person she was and the person I knew, but I didn’t know her for that long. Mostly, I’ve grieved through Tri and his family and for what I imagine our relationship might have grown into.

I just read this great book called Wild. It’s a memoir written by a woman named Cheryl Strayed who hiked the Pacific Crest Trail a few years after her mom died. After she experiences the heart-wrenching, premature death of her mother, she goes way out of wack, cheats on her husband, does heroin. Spending three months hiking helps her to bring her life back into focus. I loved the author’s voice and the stories she had to tell, but by the end of the book, I felt a false sense that everything had been fixed. It’s tempting to believe that doing something crazy or intense will cure all of our troubles. From what she writes, the journey seems to have re-centered her, removed her far enough from the infidelities and drugs so that she could move past them, but I doubt that she stopped grieving afterwards.

I guess what I’m trying to say is that I thought that having the one year period to grieve would give us a way to fast track our grief and move on and be okay. Part of me desparetely wants to forget about everything so that we can live our lives. But really, I don’t think there’s anything that can dull the pain and confusion and anger of death except maybe time. We just have to grieve until we’re ready to be done.

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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.

Biggest Earthquake in 80 Years

I just experienced my first earthquake. We were all over at Mama’s (maternal uncle) house; Tri, Mama, Tri’s 3-year-old cousin, and I were on the roof, looking over the city, and the water tank started to shake. Mama yelled buichaalo ayo! “It’s an earthquake!” and grabbed Tri’s cousin.

I didn’t know what buichaalo meant; I thought it was some kind of animal, so I started looking around the roof. Then we heard Tri’s brother yelling at us from outside of the house. “Come down!” he was saying in Nepali. I finally figured out what was going on, and Tri, Mama, and I started running down the stairs.

The whole house was shaking. Once we made it outside, we saw all of the other neighbors had come out too. We stood around, shocked, but after a few minutes decided that it was safe to go back in.

When we got back inside, we turned on the news and found out it had hit much of northern South Asia. Sikkim was at the center. We’re watching the news right now, and there’s been some damage in Kathmandu, and at least three people died. It’s apparently the biggest earthquake in 80 years and lasted for about 30-40 seconds. Here’s some more information  from US Geological Survey.

Update: Here’s an article from The New York Times about the quake. It reports 6 dead in Nepal and a total of 91 people in India, Tibet, and Nepal.

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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