The basic right to grieve a loved one is not given equally to men and women
Trigger warning: On grief and loss and women's courage in the face of it all.
This might have been the toughest post to write so far. I have no jokes, no anecdotes, no GIFs to begin this piece with. So diving right in.
People who have had near-death experiences often talk about seeing loved ones waiting for them on the other side. Whether you believe that or not, love does seem to be the only lasting currency in this life. And possibly beyond.
So what happens when you lose someone you love? Everyone has their own way of dealing with such an irreparable loss. Some of us cry our eyes out, some shut down, others get on with doing what needs to be done while they process their feelings on the backburner.
Even animals are known to grieve. Some species, like elephants, are even known to hold elaborate funerals for their departed. It seems like a very basic right, then, for everyone to grieve the way that comes naturally to them.
But do we even accord this basic respect to all fellow humans in their time of grief?
“Ladka hota toh achha hota”
A few months after Amrita's 18th birthday, her perfectly healthy father suddenly took ill. He passed away within a matter of days.
Her mother had not even returned home from the hospital to break the news to Amrita and her younger sister and brother when she started getting calls from relatives, saying, "Sabse bada ladka hota toh achha hota" (It would have been nicer if the eldest child had been a boy).
When it was time for her father's last rites, she said she wanted to accompany him on his final journey.
"My uncle said that girls are not allowed. I cried a lot. But he was adamant. It is something I still feel badly about. They took my 8 year old brother along, but left me behind. They said women are too delicate to handle a funeral. Adult women cannot handle it, and little boys can?"
Amrita had just got into an engineering college when this happened. She spent the next few years working hard to get herself a good job. As soon as she did, she began supporting the family in every way imaginable - financially, emotionally, guiding younger siblings with their careers, investing in land/property, etc. She became her mother's sounding board for all family decisions, big and small.
"I matured really fast after my dad passed. I had to. My family needed me. And yet, I would hear every now and again from the extended family how a son in my place would have been a good support at this time. It made me question myself - what had I done wrong to deserve this?"
Today, Amrita and both her siblings are well settled in good careers. People compliment her for rising to the occasion in her family's worst hour. And yet:
"They compliment me by telling my mother 'Oh Amrita toh ekdum bete jaisi hai' (Amrita is just like a son). No one ever simply says 'Amrita is a great daughter'. I did everything right, but the highest compliment they can still think of is to compare me to a son."
“They took advantage of a young woman in her grief”
Susan lost her father - an Army officer - when she was just 3 years old, and her elder sister was 12. She recalls developing a high fever and needing to be hospitalized soon after the news came.
"My mother says the only reason she could live through the nightmare of her husband’s death was that her young daughter needed her more."
That set the tone for the kind of parent Susan's mother would be for the rest of their lives.
"When my father died, my mother didn’t know how to do anything – how to open a bank account, how to pay electricity bills, or even change a light bulb. Nothing. She had to teach herself all these things. Plus take up a 9-to-5 job. Plus look after her children and parents alone. She had never even ridden a bicycle but she taught herself how to drive a moped in just three days, because she needed to drop us to school. I remember finding it funny that my mother was the only woman driving a two wheeler with two kids behind her on the roads of my city."
The family wasn't remotely rich but Susan only remembers growing up with "good clothes, good food and a lot of inherited spirit." As they grew, their mother began working even harder. The family's standard of living rose with each passing year - much to the chagrin of the extended family.
"Every time my mother took a decision that was at odds with the norm – taking us for a vacation abroad, for instance – there were people reminding her that she had ‘two daughters to marry off’. When she bought our first car, they told her that a widow should sit at home and mope."
The world's attitude to Susan's mother's way of coping with her loss was opportunist at best, and exploitative at worst.
"They took advantage of a young woman in her grief, even in her husband’s last rites. My father was buried at his ancestral village because his brothers pulled the 'our mother would want to see her son' card. His wife and the mother of his children was not given any say in the decision. They never gave her a single paisa to help raise her kids. In fact, they were waiting to watch us fail so that they could jump up and say, 'This is why women can't raise kids on their own.'"
Sadly for them, it was not to be. Today, Susan and her sister are both in great places in their lives and their mother has been responsible for their success - single-handedly and against all odds.
"My mother is the strongest person I know.", Susan says.
Pain comes in many forms. The pain of your own loss is something one can at least wrap one’s head around. But the pain of being assigned blame for another's loss is uniquely inflicted on women, even when it defies every rhyme and reason.
Kiran was dating her now-husband in college. In their final year of college, his father fell seriously ill. As soon as they graduated, his family told the young couple that seeing his son getting married might help cure the father's (terminal) illness.
"We got married on a notice of just a few days because they believed that 'bahu ke aane se khushiyaan aati hain'. (A daughter-in-law brings good luck and happiness to the family). I had secured admission for further studies abroad. I had to give it up and get married instead to respect their wishes."
But Kiran was aware that her father-in-law's illness was terminal and the family was finding that hard to accept. She feared that their superstitious belief in ladyluck would prove to be a double-edged sword.
"I was afraid that when the inevitable happens, I will be blamed for bringing bad luck to the family."
Your wedding is supposed to be the best day of your life. But for Kiran, it brings back traumatic memories.
"My father-in-law had to be rushed to the hospital hours before the wedding reception. The air was thick with tension. I was scared to even smile for the photographs. My parents were being treated horribly by the extended family while the immediate family was at the hospital. The horrible memories of my wedding still haunt me."
As the doctors had predicted, her father-in-law passed away a month after the wedding. And as Kiran had predicted, the family seemed to feel she was responsible in some way.
"People made comments like, 'Arey humein toh laga tha bahu ke aane se ye theek ho jayenge' (Oh we expected the daughter-in-law's arrival would cure him). In the difficult years that followed, I would hear them say, 'Pata nahi jabse bete ki shaadi hui hai, kaisa bura waqt aa gaya hai' (God knows what misfortune has befallen the family since our son's wedding)."
Kiran has been married for a decade, and after all these years, still senses undercurrents of this blame in her in-laws' attitude towards her.
"I was treated like a punching bag for grief. I accepted every mean comment, every harsh remark they threw at me in silence, hoping that it would ease their pain. But it didn't. It only magnified mine."
“People want to rub your grief in your face”
When Latika was 10 years old, her father passed away due to a sudden cardiac arrest. An only child, raised so far by two loving parents, she says she literally could not function without her father.
"My mother was in a full-time job in the defence sector, fully supported by my father. He even gave up his plush job and started a self-owned business so he could work from home and take care of me. For months after he passed, I was unable to even give a name to what I was feeling. He was my entire support system. Studies, reading, dancing, art, school competitions - he guided me in everything I did. I knew that I would not be able to do as well at school anymore. I literally had to learn how to be alone."
If Latika had it this hard, she cannot even fathom what her mother went through.
"I still had a parent. But my mother lost her only soulmate. Yet, she put her grief aside and stepped up for me. She raised me, gave me the right education and values, let me know I was loved, worried about my safety without curbing my freedom, taught me how to fly but also grounded me. And she did all this while doing a full-time job and excelling at it! Both professionally and personally, my mother is an extraordinary person."
Latika feels that living with such a loss has many aspects to it for women that men might not even be able to imagine.
"As women (and even young girls), every day we walk out of the door, we have people staring at us from top to bottom. This hits you even harder when you know that your dad is no longer around to protect you if things go wrong. Subconsciously, you start scrutinizing your every action, fearing the worst."
Society, of course, leaves no stone unturned in actively making things worse for them.
"At family occasions, you are suddenly branded as the girl who lost her father. Your mum is no longer just a woman, her only identity now is being a widow. We were working so hard to deal with our grief, to grow out of it, to move on. But people want to rub your grief in your face with thoughtless comments. Some even started treating us a bad omen! I cannot imagine anything more cruel. People seem to momentarily forget that we are all mortal."
And that, ladies and gentlemen, is the whole point of this piece: We are all mortals. Grief is the worst, but also the most universal, part of the human experience.
Then why, and how, can we not empathize with someone going through a time like this?
Loss is painful for everyone. Next time a woman you know loses someone she loved, don't be (or tolerate) the despicable person who makes it worse for her.
Don't tell her how to grieve.
Don't throw the funeral rule book at her.
Don't expect her to process her loss or move on from it in the way you think is appropriate.
Life is hard enough for women. Death is hard enough for everybody. Let’s try not to make both worse.
May you and everyone you love live long and prosper 🖖
This newsletter comes to you free of cost. But that does not mean that it costs nothing.
Womaning in India is a physical, mental, and emotional labour of love. If you appreciate the work I am doing with it, you can show me your love by buying me a coffee.