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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Why We Married Young and Thoughts on Married Life

Tri completely changed the direction of my life. If I hadn’t had met him, I would likely never come to Nepal and never have learned to speak Nepali. I would never have realized my interested in Linguistics, probably would not have majored in that subject, and would never have thought about getting a masters in what I’m hoping to go to grad school for. My own habits and manerisms have been deeply affected by my husband and the time I’ve spent abroad. Without having met him I think I would be a very different person with a very different life. And this same goes for him. I know that I’ve changed the way he thinks and experiences things, his view and opinions, and goals. I don’t credit or blame him for every success and failure I’ve had, and I certainly am my own person, but he was one of the major catalysts that set my life going in the direction it has.

I met Tri when I was 18, pretty young to meet your future spouse (although not out of the question), and we got married when I was 21, soon after college graduation last spring. The last year of our lives has been a whirlwind of activity and emotion, filled with a lot of sadness but excitement too. What happened during this time that led us to marry at a young age was a set of events that we could never have predicted.

Everything started in the early spring of 2011. Tri and I had been dating for about 3 years at that point. Right from the beginning of our relationship, we knew that we were in it for the long haul. Everything just felt right with him and always has. I know that sounds horribly cliche, but it’s true. We had always talked about getting hitched sometime after my college graduation (he graduated two years before me), so last spring, we started talking to both of our parents about the possibility of getting engaged over the summer. We didn’t want to get married yet…we didn’t feel like there was any reason to, but we thought it would be nice to take the next step in our relationship.

Both of our parents were very happy with this idea and supported our plan to have an engagement ceremony in Nepal. We all thought that an engagement in Nepal and then a wedding in the US a few years later sounded good. But then Nepali culture and the rules that go along with it kicked into high gear. In the process of planning for our wedding, Tri’s mom consulted an astrologer. He felt like it wouldn’t be appropriate for us to just have an engagement ceremony, that we needed to get married as well. In Nepal, people don’t often have long engagements. Usually they have a khura chine ceremony and then a wedding a few weeks (or sometimes days) later, so the astrologer felt it would be culturally inapropriate for us to have just an engagement ceremony.

Tri’s mom started talking to us about the possibility of upgrading our engagement to a wedding. I think we were both a little bit in shock at this idea. Of course we had thought about marriage and wanted to be married someday, but it was strange to think it would be happening so soon. But after talking about it, the idea started warming up to us, and we agreed.

That set the wedding planning in motion. Tri’s parents were choosing a location, compiling a guest list with hundreds of people, and doing lots of shopping. I was excited to be getting married but a little bit freaked out too. I was trying to finish up my last semester of college and frantically look for some kind of employment. Doing that on top of preparing to be married in a foreign country was a bit overwhelming.

And then everything came to a horrible halt. Tri’s mom died suddenly in April, 2011. I don’t feel like going into the details of what happened because it’s still very painful to dwell on, but maybe later, when we’ve come to terms with her death a little better, I can write more about going through those initial days and weeks of grief.

Everything was put on hold, the wedding, Tri’s job, our lives. Tri left for Nepal within 12 hours of getting the horrible phone call, and I felt stranded and alone. Getting through those last few weeks of my last semester of college was hell. But I do have to say, my friends and family were incredibly supportive and helpful. You know who you are! And I love you guys.

About a month later, after the funeral and initial grieving period in Nepal were over, Tri came back to the US with a plan for us to return to Nepal to live with his brother and dad. I was incredibly supportive of his decision.

But in order for me to stay in Nepal for an extended period of time, I had to be married to Tri. As I’ve mentioned before in this blog, Nepali Hindus believe that having any kind of celebration, doing puja, or going to weddings, etc. is not allowed the year after a family member dies, so us getting married was a bit of a problem. That’s why we decided to have the simplest wedding we could manage, nothing religious and without any bells and whistles. We had the mayor of our small town marry us at my folks’ house. Because it was such a small ceremony, we didn’t get an opportunity to celebrate with most of our family and friends, but we’re not going to leave them out. Tri and I are planning a wedding ceremony that will hopefully happen in about a year and a half…a topic for future posts.

Anyway, some Nepali people were very against our marriage at the time because of breaking the one year rule, but we had no choice. We both felt that Tri needed to go back to Nepal, and there was no way that Tri and I were going to be separated.

In the craziness of those few months and the aftermath of that period that included moving to a new country, lots of culture shock, and language learning, I haven’t really had the time and energy to process and understand the fact that I’m married and what that means for my life and relationship.

It’s only now that I’m really starting to think about how my life has changed after marriage. Being in Nepal has definitely had a huge affect on those changes.

In Tri’s parents’ generation, marrying young, even for educated women living in urban areas, was normal. Tri’s mom was 19 when she married his dad. Even now, women in rural areas marry young, sometimes as teenagers. But it is a bit unusual these days for a woman who comes from an urban, middle class family to be married at age 21. Because I’m mostly around people from urban, middle class families, I sometimes get surprised looks when I tell them I’m married.

I think part of it is that some Nepalis have certain stereotypes about Western women, about them having many different partners and marrying very late, so I don’t fit into their stereotype. But it’s also that there has been a push in Nepal from NGO’s, social service organizations, and other influences for women to marry later.

When I was in Dhampush, I made friends with another one of the girls on the trip who is about 27 and was married last year. We stayed in a lodge, and one day we started talking to the owner about her daughters. Like me, they married in their very early 20’s. My friend started scolding the lodge owner (in a friendly way), telling her that she should have made them wait, finish school, and then marry. But then my friend looked at me and remembered that I was 21 when I married too! We both laughed.

Besides getting some funny looks and reactions from Nepalis about being married young, I’ve also received greater acceptance.

Before getting married, I had some people tell me that life after marriage didn’t change their relationship with their signficant other one bit, and I’ve had others say it changed everything. I’ve found that the way that Tri and I treat each other hasn’t changed, but the way that others treat us has. This is particularly true in Nepal. Our relationship wasn’t really valid in the eyes of many Nepalis before we were married, and although Tri’s parents accepted our relationship, they were hesitant to tell others that Tri had a girlfriend. When I was in Nepal for study abroad, I stayed with Tri’s parents and brother for a week here and there, and they only revealed to their closest family and friends that I was Tri’s girlfriend. Being married has made our relationship in Nepal valid in the eyes of others, which is honestly a relief. Some say that that validation from others shouldn’t matter, and our love for eachother is definitely more important than what others think, but having that societal acceptance does make things easier.

I’ve also found that women treat me differently. For some reason, I think being married has made other people, especially women, see me as more of an adult. They talk to me about more adults things and divulge secrets with me that I probably wouldn’t have been privy to before. Part of this may be the fact that I’m older. But I think it’s got something to do with being married.

Since we were only in the US for about a month after being married, I don’t know if others there will treat us differently as married people. I think that they probably will but maybe not to the same extent that people do in Nepal. I guess I’ll find out in a year or so 🙂

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.

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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