I have lately become very interested in our capacity and ability to cope with grief. There is an expression in Urdu that very aptly describes the feeling one has -- repetitively -- when one experiences loss. It literally translates into, “My heart is drowning. Mera dil doob raha hai. This is so accurate when one is dealing with grief. The chest feels laden, air is inhaled in large gulps, and there is this acute sensation of not having one’s bearing in the world, sinking.
Even immediately after experiencing a tragic loss, after drowning over and over, your body achieves homeostasis. You gravitate towards liquids at the very least to satiate your thirst even if your stomach will not accept solid food just yet. That, too, may be a physical manifestation of the psychology of grief. How can I eat to sustain my life when my loved one can no longer do so? It feels like a betrayal. And yet, food monopolizes the healing process. The bereaved family’s fridge fills up. Their counter-top is never clear. Someone is always bustling in the kitchen. “You must keep your strength up,” one hears. “You need to eat.” And despite the grief, despite the absence of appetite, one relents. One swallows a morsel after another until one’s heart leaps and sinks again, drowns again, survives again.
Beyond the immediate aftermath of a loss, however, grief evolves differently for individuals. We all deal with loss uniquely, we process tragedy in our own way, we heal on different timelines. Some people may like to talk about their loss. Others retreat into silence and introspection. Writers might experience a sudden burst of cathartic expression, or a deep freeze of it instead. Gradually, though, the bereaved begin to plateau and mirror each others’ level of grief peppered with some particular peaks and valleys. What happens then? What happens during this plateau stage, because we hear over and over that grief doesn’t truly go away. It lurks. It blossoms and withers, but never disappears.
A case study for such a plateau period of grief is a happy occasion. How do the bereaved prepare themselves to feel happiness fully while also acknowledging their deep loss? Perhaps my view is biased because I am leveraging my own experience of having grieved and subsequently compartmentalized it to experience joy, but this is what’s true for me. The absence of the dead becomes a real, palpable entity. The void left by your loved one is there alongside you in that happiness. It is as though the person is gone, but this empty space is a living thing, a proxy, just as real as one’s hands clapping, as real as the palms slapping against each other, as real as the sound that results from this action. And this post-grief happiness is a fragile thing. One needs to nurture it like a fledgling bird, take it under one’s wings, give it the room and security to grow, or it will never thrive. But one also has this sense of the absence -- the very real absence -- encouraging the post-grief happiness, permitting it, and dare I say, blessing it.
And yet, the heart drowns at unexpected moments, maybe even in the infinitesimal silence between the clapping of one’s hands. It drowns and emerges again. And one braces oneself for the sinking, which will inevitably come when one least expects it.
Photos by Rebecca McCue