Notes on Grief, Loss and Remembering My Grandmother

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Artwork by Jr Korpa on Unsplash

On 27th May 2022, around half past seven in the morning, I got a call from my mother. Dadi (grandmother) had breathed her last. I was in Dehradun at the time, and instead of sadness or shock, I felt a vague sense of relief on hearing the news. Dadi had been in bed for almost a month, her body giving up one organ at a time, although with great rapidity. I booked a bus to take me home. I could have made it to her funeral, had I taken a flight. But I am, firstly, not crazy about attending funerals, and will avoid them at every given chance. And then, I reasoned if attending the funeral would make any difference after I had failed to be with her during her last days. 

That entire day I remained untouched by the gravity of the loss – during the bus journey back home, and even when I found myself surrounded by her children, grandchildren, sisters and neighbours in the room where dadi and I used to often sit together. It was only the next day that tears began to flow down my cheeks as we sat together in a collective three-day long prayer. Like dadi’s sickness, the sense of loss did not hit me suddenly, but grew more real with each passing moment.

Before the death of my dadaji in 2018, I had been curious about what it might be like to lose someone you’ve known all your life. In the days following his demise and when his last rituals were being performed, the house seemed to be enveloped in a dense cloud of gloom. I remember watching a movie on the night of his funeral to escape the heaviness. But his death did not move me, not a single tear was shed. I felt the effect of dadaji’s death only through the loneliness it brought upon dadi. 

A year later, my nanu passed away. This time I witnessed my mother and my maasi’s grief and I, too, broke down. On some days, I would visit nani at her house and nanu’s absence would strike me. But it did not leave a hole or even a dent on my life. My stoic response to the death of people I had known so closely left me feeling confused and, perhaps, even a little proud. But with dadi’s passing, the illusion of stoicism made way for a grief so strong and persistent that it left me sick. 

I returned to Udaipur to join the office while my family traveled to Haridwar for the last rites. My everyday life resumed and I interacted with everyone around, the way I had when dadi was still alive. However, after a few hours of being awake and working, my body would struggle to move or sit still. It longed for the all-accepting embrace of the bed. I would push myself to be more active, but an overpowering sense of fatigue would set in. I could find no strength to clean my room after returning from Dehradun and subsequently Delhi, none to even watch a movie or read a book. I started skipping dinner as my appetite shrank, but also because I had no energy left to help cook, or to fetch food from the kitchen. My hair started falling out in bunches – they were all over my pillow when I woke up, on the marble floor after I combed, on the bathroom drain after a wash. My gums became swollen and itchy. I peed a different colour and smell. 

But these bodily dysfunctions did not happen all at once on a particular day. It began with fatigue, and other symptoms followed in no particular order (or in an order I don’t remember). I struggled to decipher the message that my body was trying to convey. Could my mind be playing tricks on me, instead? Did I simply have to push through harder? Was I being lazy? I felt confused. I wasn’t PMSing, which could have explained at least some of the symptoms. I wondered if it could have anything to do with dadi’s departure. But I brushed off the thought. No one had ever told me that grief could do bizarre things to your body. And then, I didn’t know I was grieving. Dadi’s death, as had her sickness, left me sad, but hadn’t I already made my peace with it? Hadn’t I allowed myself to cry it out while I was at home? Why, then, would the body take it upon itself to grieve so dramatically, I wondered.

I got some tests done. Except for cholesterol marginally crossing the upper limit and signs of fatty liver, the report declared me healthy (I learnt later that grief could cause inflammation, and fatty liver could be a sign of acute stress). It was only when a friend suggested that my body seemed to be continuing to mourn the loss, that I found myself googling physical symptoms of grief. In a personal blog that I am unable to locate now, a woman shared how her hair started falling out after her mother’s death. Fatigue, loss of appetite, nausea and inflammation were some of the other symptoms accompanying grief commonly listed on general blogs. 

I began looking for other people’s experiences of grief as reassurance. That I was not alone. That I was not “over reacting”. That it was not just my mind playing tricks on me. The search took me to a quote from C.S. Lewis’ book “A Grief Observed” that he wrote after his beloved wife’s death-

“And no one ever told me about the laziness of grief. Except at my job – where the machine seems to run on much as usual – I loathe the slightest effort. Not only writing but even reading a letter is too much. Even Shaving.”

The lines pacified my anxiety to some extent, and I felt less alone. I was not overreacting. Neither was I being weak or lazy. It was grief. I was grieving. I began reading the book for the same reason Lewis had written it – “as a defense against total collapse.”

For many days after her death, and after my body had recovered from its shock, I carried the realisation of my dadi’s absence like a shadow – the shadow that grew darker, and somehow more dense every time I visited home. There was no more stopping by at her floor when I stepped outside, or into our building; no more sleeping at the ground floor every night because dadi was scared to sleep alone; no more nagging sense of responsibility to alleviate her loneliness; no more watching reality shows with her on weekend nights; no more hot rice served with her exquisite Burmese dishes and condiments; no more visits to the Saturday market from where she would promise to buy only a few things but would inevitably end up with a bag full; no more assisting her to see photos and videos that her extended family and neighbours sent on WhatsApp; no more bringing maawa from Rajasthan each time I visited; no more hearing same old stories about her life in Burma; no more making tea for her in the evenings; no more being told on the phone – “Ritu, kab waapis aayegi, mann nahi lag rha” (Ritu, when will you come back, I feel alone); no more ringing of the bell to give us pakoras made crispier with rice flour, sherbets made from fresh fruits, sweets of all kinds and other things only she could make. 

No more dadi. There was no dadi anymore. On one such visit home, I remember breaking down silently for three consecutive nights. The sadness felt unbearable especially as it came without an invitation or intimation. It had caught me inattentive, and it held me hostage in my own house, in my own bed until I had no tears left to spare.

As the year passed by, the awareness of her absence felt less continuous. Time heals, as the cliche goes. I sometimes found myself staring into the void where dadi would sit – always the first seat of the sofa from the left, next to the hand-rest, facing the flat screen. It would be harder on festivals and weekends but my attention was directed to the void less frequently as time flew by. It felt that I had finally made peace with her departure. 

That was until a week before the day that would have marked the first year since her death. The familiar sense of fatigue had returned. Once again, I was waking up tired. Once again, I was finding it harder to push through the day. But this time I could recognise it as a visit from grief. I had read about the recurrence of grief, and daresay, I almost expected it to find me again – sooner or later.

Tonight all the hells of your grief had opened up again; the mad words, the bitter resentment, the fluttering in the stomach, the nightmare unreality, the wallowed-in tears. For in grief nothing ‘stays put.’ One keeps emerging from a phase but it always recurs. Round and Round. Everything repeats …How often will it be for always? How often will the vast emptiness astonish me like a complete novelty and make me say, ‘I never realised my loss till this moment?’”

Once again, I took refuge in Lewis’ words, written in grief, so much more intense than mine. I never realised my loss until this moment. Like time, grief too is a mystery one can expect to know intimately but never understand. 

I wanted to finish writing about my relationship with dadi before the first anniversary of her passing. I had started writing it shortly after her death, but life and feelings of inadequacy took precedence. I restarted it several times as the year closed in. However, whatever words I could find would be accompanied by spells of crying. After several unsuccessful attempts, I realised that I needed to first write about what her death meant to me. Only then could I hope to find words and the strength to write about everything dadi meant to me while she lived.

Ritika photo

Ritika Chawla

“I am skeptical of bios. The idea of a string of words about me suspended in time, long after I have outgrown them, makes me uncomfortable.”


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