The Other side of the Fence: Dealing with Death

candle‘Death’ was the last word in my dictionary of sunshine and happiness when I was handed a word puzzle. I arranged the letters and it spelt : D E A T H. Disbelief followed a heart-wrenching, gut-wrenching feeling of helplessness. I looked and re-looked at the lifeless, cold body that I once called my husband. People spoke of responsibilities as a mother, some spoke about the soul being around always, but above all what stood in front of me was Death.

Dealing with death is the most difficult part of survival. Nothing helps, believe me, NOTHING helps. But yet as I came face to face with death I realised that having a helpful and rational bunch of people around, always helps – not to ease the pain but to reduce the after-effect – the trauma that follows. One big truth that I have come to realise is the effect of death of a loved one becomes more and more profound in the days that follow. Facing death is a surreal experience – a zone between reality and disbelief; the hard-hitting realisation comes in the days that follow when what is left behind is a handful of memories and a whole lot of trauma – especially if the death is an unexpected one!

Having gone through the experience myself there are several responses I really wish the society shuns or follows, just to make ‘handling death’ an easier experience. These are my personal opinion and I am ready to be branded a social outcast for saying what I feel.

Allow the freedom to choose rituals: After a month long battle at the hospital for his Dad and after a night long fight with destiny, when my teenage son finally arrived with his Dad’s body, he hardly had time to say a proper good-bye to his Dad, he could hardly sit beside him to kiss his fore-head as a final farewell. Instead he had to take part in rigorous pre-cremation rituals that was not just taxing on his physical well-being but also his mental well-being as well. And after all this when he was asked to put fire on his Dad, he couldn’t take it anymore…..It is more than a month now, and every single night he shudders and cries remembering the rituals. And it is not with him alone, he shares the same trauma with his school friend who too had to undergo similar process when his Dad passed away a few years ago.

Call me blasphemous, brand me anti-religious, I don’t care. As a mother, it is my appeal to the society as a whole – move on…allow the families the freedom to choose the rituals. It is absolutely fine for a son or a grandson to follow every ritual respecting the last wishes of an aged father or grandfather. But at the same time it should be equally fine for a married daughter to light her mother’s funeral pyre if she wishes to and it should be absolutely fine to spare a father from putting fire to his young daughter. It doesn’t matter which religion, but please cut down on the rituals. Facing death itself is a tremendously traumatic experience, don’t add on to the grief by piling on rituals. Trust me, every soul reaches where it intends to go – the mountaineer who loses life during a climb and whose body is never found, a victim of air-crash who never gets a proper burial, a homeless aged man who dies on the roadside….they all go where they have to, if at all. Even Kalpana Chawla, I am sure found her space in the space that she deserved.

So, if you ever find a family that is trying to do it differently, be firmly beside them. Give them the courage to face social ridicule. In our case, thankfully a few rational souls did come forward in support of my child and hence he was spared from further post-cremation rituals. And I really wish that our society improves in the number of such rational population and spares yet another child of a post-death trauma.

Your role doesn’t end here: Most people leave after cremation or funeral. If in your capacity, begin your role from here. The grieving family is often tired, hungry and yet may have guests at home. Please partake in the arrangements. In our case, in the night of the cremation, we were just seven people – my in-laws, my children, myself and two male guests who were sons-in-law from my in-laws side. Apart from the unending turmoil within, I had a splitting headache where I could hardly open my eyes. But I had guests and children. Thankfully food was arranged by my father. But how I wished there were a few more people to do with serving, cleaning and making arrangements for sleeping! You needn’t stay back for the night but do stay as much as you can to help the family. My friends came with a brilliant idea the next day where they proposed that they would make arrangements for a part-time domestic help who would look into the small nitty-gritties at least for a few days. At the time I had refused. But looking back I think it was a brilliant idea that they had proposed! It definitely helps. It is an equally good idea to supply cooked food or provide grocery supplies for a few days of the mourning for the family, of course with their permission and if it is not against their ritual.

Be Sensitive: Death is the time to really portray your human self . How you behave, what you do, what you say – every small detail can make or break a grieving family. Be sensitive! I still remember, while waiting for my husband’s body to arrive, holding my crying daughter’s hand, I suddenly discovered two of my very close relatives standing close-by and sharing a hearty laugh! At first it was disbelief and then it was a piercing pain. My point is, either you are there or you aren’t. Please do not attend the last moments if you do not genuinely feel about it. Don’t make it a courtesy visit!

Similarly, if you do not have anything good to say, do not say at all. A day on after my husband’s death, a member of his family went on and on about how my husband never followed rituals, how he was ‘egoistic’ as to not ask help from relatives etc. Any other time and occasion he would have perhaps ended with a broken jaw but I chose to merely ignore him. But those words are still pierced as glass shards in my heart! Be sensitive! Saying, “He lived a long and hearty life and now that he is dead, don’t be sad. Thank for his long life instead.” or “Oh, thankfully she is now relieved of all her pains”, definitely sounds cool but the person you are referring to is someone’s father or mother. For him, it may not be the ‘relief’ that you are referring to! If you do not find words, just stand….at times silence speaks a thousand words.

Hear Out: At times it helps ease a lot of pain for the family members if they are allowed to talk – of memories they shared, of good times, of bad times, of challenges ahead. Lend a patient ear. Hear Out. Let them speak. Trust me, it does wonders for the wounded souls. Even today I can go on and on and on about my husband…It helps!

Be there for the Post-Death Memorials/ Rituals: I have already written a Facebook post about it and I want to emphasise on this once again: if there are any memorial services or rituals organised by the family and you are invited, please attend. Having gone through the phase myself I realize that it is tremendously challenging to put an act together in such a short time and yet, at times, it becomes important for the sentimental values attached to it. Death is always a sudden event and hence there are huge constraints – financial, mental, physical….Even then the families do try to organise. It is much important to honour such an event than a well-planned wedding. Every friend who attended the little programmes organised by us, really gave us much happiness. Also, if you hear of such an event being organised and you know the family, do not wait for formal invitation, do visit the family. It would give them the much needed encouragement. I had a few friends doing just that and I shall remain forever grateful to them.

Do not play the match-maker: Our society has a strange and funny approach towards young widows and widowers. If it is a young widow, the discussion veers around her future financial needs, while if it is a young widower the game of match-making begins even before the ashes of his wife cools down. From “How will he manage everything alone?” to “He is still so young and such a long life ahead.” – the excuses are one too many. Hence the hunt for the wife aka governess for his child begins even before all the rituals are over! For heaven’s sake, stop playing the match-maker! A spouse is a partner – a part of one’s soul and existence, it isn’t easy to ‘get going’ just because the society is not used to seeing a young father bringing up a child on his own! The same society however doesn’t have a problem with a young mother bringing up children single-handedly, She is then just a ‘poor thing’. And all this I write from own personal experience – I have seen both! My request is to let them be! If a young man finds love again, let him marry but don’t thrust a relationship down his throat just because a society isn’t used to a single father as a parent.

If you are thinking of help, think of concrete plans: This stems from my previous point – nothing can undermine a financial support in a post death situation. In today’s world where both the spouses earn, do not make it a gender issue. If a young widow needs financial help, so does a widower and so does a retired father who has lost his son or daughter. But instead of a token support, spell out concrete plans as to how they may use the money. I’ve been very lucky in this front. There have been friends coming up with different forms of ideas of probable way by which they could support us. Like one of my cousins gave money to my son to buy books for his new class, a few of my friends handed me money for my son’s admission fees. Yet another group of friends offered to pay the monthly fee of either of my children. Death is so devastating a crisis that it often leaves a sense a bewilderment and a sense of helplessness. Hence a concrete financial support and advise goes a long way in planning! Offer unusual but extremely useful help – like sponsoring a part of the expenses of post-death rituals, offering to pay for monthly medical bills of the ageing parents, sponsoring monthly grocery coupons, an education related fixed deposit, offering to pay the monthly electricity bill! Sounds weird but in my kind of situation such help would go a long, long way in bringing up the courage to lead the family alone. And once again, do not make it gender-sensitive! Everyone needs help.

Do not limit your thoughts to financial support alone. Death leaves an unimaginable void – an unexplained loneliness.A warm and friendly company is worth more than many thousand rupees. If there are aged people having lost their son or daughter, do visit them whenever you can. it would ease out loneliness. If there is a young man or woman losing his or her partner, do talk to them whenever you can, visit them, try to engage them in different activities.

Play the Santa: Small children have different ways of handling death – they either become recluse or become over-reactive. I see the second type of trend in my younger child. Being the closest to her Dad, she suddenly has begun considering everyone to be against her. She is cranky, irritable and extremely adamant right now and exhibits extreme form of mood swings. Every now and then she looks at the photograph of her father and complains to him. And I know that she is missing her Santa.

If you ever find a child going through the agony of facing death, play the role of a Santa -please do. Children need very tiny things to make their life better again – a story telling session perhaps, a small surprise gift, a little outing or even a cuddle gives them enough happiness to tide over their sorrows. You can never replace the ones they have lost but you can always prevent a tear drop from rolling down their cheeks!

Same with pets. Pets too sulk with death of their loved one. They often end up with severe depression.If you are a pet lover, offer to take them for a walk or play with them. It helps them tide over their depression.

Trust me, nothing would give you more happiness than a genuine laughter of a child or a pair of thankful googly-eyes!

Tough call? It is! The choice rests on us – you, me, we…..How we respond as society shapes our tomorrow. A morally responsive and responsible society can make or break the fabric of a society. How we deal with death and help others deal with the same can build the foundations of a socially sensitive society. Are we prepared ?

(Image Courtesy: Pixabay)

2 thoughts on “The Other side of the Fence: Dealing with Death

Add yours

  1. Sri I am amazed how courageously you have rationalized so many points and how you looking at things from such a different perspective, I can’t fathom the pain you are bearing inside you but still you are writing these important posts which are so rational and important at the same time. Your each post is making me think and correct my behavior for impending future. I must accept that I have been guilty of going into shell when faced these situation. I remember when I was 20 something when one of my close friend lost his mother, we were so young we didn’t knew how to help him, for days I didn’t had the courage to call him up and ask how he is doing, or anything at all. He came from orthodox family of gujars, so he asked us not to visit him at his home. Now looking back I think the problem is when we are children our parents shelter us from death too much and sometimes when we grow out of that stage we still don’t know how to act in these situations. I think instead of sheltering children we should be teaching them how to empathize in these situation with other people. Thank you for writing these posts.


  2. Reblogged this on ametalk and commented:
    How someone can help a family dealing with a death of loved one. You might learn something and correct your behavior for future.


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