As the second wave of COVID-19 engulfs the country, anxiety and unease suffuse the air. Instead of doom-scrolling the Net and giving in to hopelessness, I turn to books for succour. What lessons can we glean from lives that catapulted from ‘normal’ to ‘catastrophic’ in an instant?
By Aruna Sankaranarayanan,
As the second wave of COVID-19 engulfs the country, anxiety and unease suffuse the air. Instead of doom-scrolling the Net and giving in to hopelessness, I turn to books for succour. What lessons can we glean from lives that catapulted from ‘normal’ to ‘catastrophic’ in an instant? As many people are being bereaved, how can we support those grieving the sudden loss of a loved one? Two remarkable women model resilience and tenacity as they describe their harrowing journeys through grief. Through their touching and sensitive memoirs, both Nandini Murali and Joan Didion convey that however dark the tunnel of grief may be, flecks of light do penetrate and gradually morph into a beam.
Incidentally, both women use the metaphor of ‘waves’ to portray the paroxysms of pain that inundate them viscerally and psychologically. Indigestion, nausea, headaches, sleeplessness—grief leaves an imprint on the body and mind, according to Murali and Didion. In Left Behind: Surviving Suicide Loss, Murali details her experience of being bereaved by her husband’s suicide. To her, her husband’s act of self-harm killed both of them. Likewise, in The Year of Magical Thinking, Didion describes how she felt bereft after the unexpected death of her husband. One moment, the two of them were having dinner together, and the next, he was slumped over the table.
Both women endure grief that’s complicated. Murali has to contend with the shame and blame that accompany suicide, while Didion has an adult daughter intubated in ICU, unaware that her father has died. In the immediate aftermath of her husband’s death, Didion has to care for her comatose daughter, who is in and out of hospitals, for the next five months.
For days after the tragic event, Murali is overcome by a smorgasbord of emotions that literally ‘ambush’ her. Murali, being a scholar who works on gender and diversity, is sensitized to the concept of stigma for marginalized groups. Knowing all too well that she too, as a survivor of suicide loss, would face barbs and brickbats, she still resolves to speak the truth about her husband’s death rather than perpetuate the stigma, stealth and ignominy typically associated with suicide.
While Didion does not have to deal with the stigma of suicide, she too is plagued by niggling questions. Was her husband breathing when the paramedics arrived? Had she failed to notice any symptoms? Did he have a premonition that he was going to die? Though she has been married to her husband for close to forty years, she feels that there is so much more she wants to know about him. Like Murali, she too shares the belief that it is impossible to know another person inside-out. As she wrestles with her thoughts, a part of her fantasizes that her husband will return, and thus, begins her year of “magical thinking.” While Didion is fully functional and rational to others, she alone is witness to her wishful thinking that tries to rewind and rewrite life’s script.
Didion claims that no matter how calm a grieving person appears on the surface, their inner balance, both mental and physical, is likely to be disturbed. No one can fathom grief and the bottomless void that follows unless you have experienced it firsthand. A recently bereaved person may exhibit strange behaviors like shunning those whom they are normally close to. Grieving people deserve space, and we should take our cues from them and remain distant if that is what they want. Additionally, high-strung people, who are likely to jar the tender nerves of the bereaved, should be kept away.
A suicide, unlike others deaths, also evokes the best and worst in other people. Though some people are compassionate, others objectify and vilify Murali through a voyeuristic prism. Besides insensitive statements and questions, conversations are also punctuated by awkward pauses and cold stares. People’s lack of empathy exacerbates Murali’s desolation.
But instead of wallowing in self-pity, Murali tries to comprehend her changed situation by reading avidly on suicide loss, grief and resilience. Her new-found knowledge is empowering as it broadens her perspective. Rather than perceived vulnerability as a weakness, Murali begins to view it as a strength. While she cannot alter her fate, Murali has a choice on how she responds to it. This involves relearning how to navigate the crests and troughs of life.
Didion too turns to books to make sense of the twin tragedies in her life– the loss of her husband and her daughter’s life-threatening illness. Like Murali, Didion believes that information can give us a sense of control. Despite being a writer, Didion realizes that some things take more than just words to plumb their meaning.
A month after her husband’s death, Murali speaks at a book launch of a medical textbook about her experiences with spinal surgery and the recent loss of her husband, who incidentally had been scheduled to speak at that event. Moved by her fortitude, the audience gives her a standing ovation. She is subsequently motivated to start SPEAK, an organization that supports survivors of suicide loss to cultivate resilience in a compassionate and non-judgmental space. Another aim of SPEAK is to eradicate the shame and stigma surrounding suicide in the public sphere.
Didion realizes that when we mourn the death of a loved one, we also mourn the passing of our former self, as the death of a dear one irrevocably transforms us. However, she also resolves not to succumb to helplessness wherein she cannot function without her partner. Rather than give into fantastical thinking, she has to let go of her husband if she has to continue to live.
(The author’s forthcoming book, Zero Limits: Things Every 20 Something Should Know will be released by Rupa Publications.)