<Originally published at https://medium.com on April 26, 2019>
It has been three years since we lost our father to cancer, and like most of those that grieve, I went through different stages of grief as well. While I can’t say if I will ever be completely over the loss, I am certainly not depressed, angry, or in denial. I am able to recollect his fond memories without any sadness. Most importantly, I am not guilty about what-if scenarios.
While I am no expert in grievance counseling or support, here are some ways one to help someone going through a loss (or yourself).
Compassion, more than empathy
While empathy is one feeling the same feeling, compassion is recognizing the feeling and acting on it. One of the mistakes I made during my grieving process was to expect empathy from friends and family, where compassion would have helped me the most. It took me a while to recognize that we may not have the ability to empathize with situations that we don’t have the first-hand experience of. However, we all be more compassionate.
It also took some time to realize that compassion, at times, can across as indifference. If you want to help someone who is grieving, please show more compassion than empathy. Please also realize that your compassion can be seen as indifference. While this could drive you crazy, please realize that you may be in a better position to ensure that it is not coming across as indifference, than the person who is going through the loss.
If you are going through the loss, please understand that it is our fundamental nature to show support during the loss. We may not express it in the way as the one at loss wants it though. It is often hard to understand that when you are at loss, I agree, but that is what helps.
I was mad at my friends for not reaching out to me to show their support. It appeared that they were hesitant to open up the subject and wanted me to talk about it first. Turns out, it would have helped better had I reached out sooner. Yes, it takes courage to reach out, but sooner it is, better. So, reach out.
If you want to help someone who is going through the loss, please reach out. It is OK to ask if they want to talk about it. If they are not ready, they will say so. A simple hug would go a long way.
One’s own path
I had been conditioned to believe that family mourns together. Turns out it is not — grievance is personal. Even among siblings who grieve the loss of a parent, it is personal. Why is this important?
Whenever I used to share my feelings about my loss, some of my family and friends would ask me to move on. It felt cold and heartless, but one needs to learn to move on. They might have had the best intentions, but the missing piece was I was not ready to hear that. I hadn’t crossed the bridge yet.
When someone is in the stage of anger in their grieving process, the last thing they would want to hear is to be asked to move on. They may even take it on you — when all you wanted was to help them. Relationships get broken in such situations. If you want to help, please realize that this is just a phase. If you want to get help, please realize that sooner you get out this phase, better.
We are not only the species that mourn the loss of loved ones — elephants are known to exhibit behaviors that appear to be some type of mourning process. Cultures across the world have different ways to mourn, respect, or remember those passed away. In our culture, there are bi-monthly (on every new moon day)/ monthly rituals (called Tarpana), and annual rituals (called Shraddha) to offer oblations to the deceased.
I firmly believe that anyone who wants to perform these rituals should be able to perform them (as opposed to restrictions based on gender, is one the eldest or not, etc). I’ve also noticed that even people who may not believe in rituals otherwise, tend to follow these rituals — there is something to do about paying oblations to the deceased :).
After these threes of performing these rituals, I have a different view on them — they offer much-needed closure to me. It is more about this closure than oblations to the deceased.
We are but product of our memories and our reality is influenced by our memories. Though not physically present, the deceased continue to live in our memories. Our memories also get imprinted into our DNA and hence passed through generations. If so, does one really die?
Quoting the immortal verses of one of my favorite poets Kannadasan here
மானிட இனத்தை ஆட்டி வைப்பேன் அவர்
மாண்டுவிட்டால் அதை பாடிவைப்பேன் நான்
நிரந்தரமானவன் அழிவதில்லை எந்த
நிலையிலும் எனக்கு மரணமில்லை
(roughly translates to)
I’ll rule over the human race,
I’ll also sing when they pass;
I am permanent, will never die -
there is no death to me in any case.