The Delights of Distraction 69: Notes on grief, loss, hope and my father

Hello glowbugs,

Yes, it’s been a while since you've seen us dropping into your inbox. Thank you for your patience. We took a break over October and November. Vivita's father had a stroke, and he passed away a few days later. This sudden and formidable confrontation with his loss meant that writing this newsletter was untenable for a while. It was hard to authentically bear witness to the depth of sadness; or turn it into something meaningful for you to read.  But happily this week, we finally managed to bear one out .

The rest of this letter will be in first person from Viv ; a eulogy she wrote for her father's memorial, in celebration of his full, wonderful, maverick life that was suddenly brought to an end at age 67.

When I was 6 years old, my father came to my annual sports meet. At the end of the day, I was tired and ready to go home.  But there was still one competition left: the parents race. Other parents, most especially a gaggle of school mothers, insisted my dad stay to participate. My dad looked at me -  I was sulky and cold and longing to go home. He then decided to scoop me up in his arms and proceeded to run the 100 m race holding me like a baby throughout. He won!   

At the podium, as both of us stood on the blocks accepting a gold medal for his surprising win, an audience of an even larger gaggle of school mothers gathered in adoration. I looked at him, awe and admiration shining from my eyes like only a little girl’s can when her father conquers the world.  “Bug, I can’t believe you won!”. He knelt down and said, “No darling We Won! I was just leaning in to kiss your check and that propelled me forward.”

That was my dad for you, he lifted you up, carried you to the finish line, made you feel like a winner and let you bask in the warmth of the victory.   

As a child, like most dads are to their kids, he was my superhero who would quash all my demons and  write all my homework essays - albeit a farting, belching superman with food stains on his chest, who would bawl his eyes out every time  he watched the Lion King,. As I grew older, I realized he couldn’t just be MY superhero anymore - I had to jealously share him with others as he was always the cynosure of many who demanded his attention. His immense generosity, his searing intelligence, his curiosity to keep learning, his physical grit, his devilish charm, his undying loyalty, his joie de vivre and buoyancy made him the kind of man that held almost everyone he met in his thrall. 

You would think I would have grown out of my silly superhero fascinations as time went on, but they only changed into something more adult, more Batman-Christopher Nolan-esque. My father was larger than life, a force to be reckoned with, and though I could see his flaws, his feet firmly planted in mortal clay - he still took on mythical proportions. I only wish I didn’t feel like such a shadow against the force of his stature. 

When someone you love very dearly passes away, you go through the cycles of grief: shock, anger, denial. One of them is bargaining.  What I would give up,  to just have one more day with you Bug. I remember  you made a similar bargain when you stayed up with me all night when I was  8 years old crying from an earache. You told the universe to take the pain from me and give it to you instead. Well, I would take all your pain - the pain of 11 days in ICU, the pain of disappointment every time I didn’t turn up for dinner, the pain of incomprehension at having an inscrutable daughter like me, the pain of missing the time I would finally make you proud.. . 

I would take all the pain, just so that I could see you again for one day.  You would come in your inimitable uniform of  orange Polo shirt and frayed dockers.  We’d go for a walk to Lodhi garden, and I’d pack your favourite foods:  chicken sandwiches, milk cake and cold coffee for a picnic. 

The sun would start to set over those Lodhi garden tombs and I would beg you to please stay a little longer...that the world will never be the same without you. More importantly  - that I still needed you, to lift me  and carry me to the finish line.   I would ask for forgiveness for every regret I had on all the times I skipped out on time together.  I always thought there would be so much more time. You would laugh and tell me never to waste a moment  wishing for what could be, but to embrace every moment for what it was. Gratitude viv, you would say - each day is so very precious. You would then touch my shoulder and entreat me to listen to you one last time: “Viv, you have always been so vulnerable, but that makes you stronger than you know. I cannot fix the sadness for you, it cannot be fixed -  but you are strong enough to carry it. And you don’t have to carry it alone, you have many who love you who will help carry it with you.”

You would then walk ahead of me, swing your hands in a golfing motion, crack a bad PJ, and disappear with the sun. 

Sometimes, the best way to keep the people close to us alive, is to forge the best inside us to become the best of them.  

So when I'm prone to wallowing in sadness and loss - I hope to assay my father’s courage and joie de vivre, his funda to never waste a minute of life drowning in self pity. 

When I'm busy counting all the ways in which I lack, I hope to channel his gratitude, and count all the ways in which I've been gifted so much, that my heart would burst.

When I compare myself negatively to others, I hope to instead conjure up the pride and inspiration he shored up for everyone’s successes around him.

Bug  ever the maverick,  you never did what you were  supposed to do-  like not obeying traffic rules.  You were supposed to leave us 20 years from now. You were supposed to come back from the hospital, and teach me how to solve the damn cryptic crossword.  You were supposed to fade into old age, like a benign grandparent, slowing down and letting us take care of you. Instead, you blazed out at your peak, a living legend, in a fireball of glory lighting up the night sky. For the rest of my life, the roaring bonfire of your spirit will light up my heart. I love you forever my bug...more than you ever knew. 

People die and we find it baffling. Our grief is inexplicable, too painful to cope. We try to find solace in a predetermined checklist of emotions that tide us to the other side of the river of grief in one piece. But I’ve learned that we can’t just float over the river, you need to swim though the damn river.  The sorrow is fluid, never ending. It changes…and we in turn, are changed by it. 

Here are some resources, quotes and words and personal experiences that I found useful to cope, as I slowly took the shape of water:

1. “There is a sacredness in tears. They are not a mark of weakness, but of power. They speak more eloquently than ten thousand tongues. They are the messengers of overwhelming grief, of deep contrition and of unspeakable love.”― Washington Irving

The tears come - in unexpected bouts of emotion. Don’t try to suppress them or race to process them. They remain an intimate and beautiful way of staying close to my father. Let them flow. Grief, afterall,  is just overwhelming love that has no place to go.

2. James Baldwsin said, “You think your pain and heartbreak are unprecedented in the history of the world, and then you read.”  Reading allows you to dissolve into the echoing pangs of another kindred spirit; that breaks you down and builds you back up a little so you can move freely through the world. Here are some books I recommend, they have Amazon links, but would urge you to please buy at your local bookstore if you need a copy.

A. Joan Didion’s, The Year of Magical Thinking  — a record of the year following the death of her husband of four decades, offers a soul-stirring meditation on grief in all its unimaginable dimensions. 

B. Grief Is The Thing With Feathers by Max Porter, an short offbeat, melancholy distillation of a family’s expression of loss. Grief has no trajectory, no clear shape, and Porter exquisitely charters this territory of pain and confusion. 

C. Meghan O’Rourke and Cheryl Strayed have both written beautiful novels trying to make sense of their respective mothers’ death.

D. Poetry: David Whyte’s Consolations, Refusing Heaven by Jack Gilbert, Ted Hughes cycle of poems about ‘Crow’. 

E. This article by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie on her father’s death from Covid complications  and her book, Notes on Grief , a tribute to remembrance, hope and gratitude.

3. I don’t believe in an afterlife, I am not religious, so I don’t have any answers to  where my dad is... but I do know my dad is contained in the hearts of his family and many friends. I seek them out constantly, to tell me stories of him - to spark his spirit back to life, if only for a moment.  Right now there is nothing that swells my heart with joy more, than being told by someone he knew that they see some of him in me.  I too possess his absent-mindedness, and knack of misplacing keys and phones; a tendency for much of his meal to end up not just in his tummy but also on his face and shirt ; his semi-intrusive curiosity about people and what makes them tick ; turning up for a formal event oblivious to an unzipped fly, his propensity  for cracking highly inappropriate remarks at a somber evening..and his dubious skill of being considered drunk at many a soiree despite being stone-cold sober. Now every time a dollop of gravy sneakily finds its way to my shirt, instead of irritation at the thought of my dry cleaning bill -  I smile and think of him.

4. I also seek out my people. Though there is little from them to say to me; what do you say to someone who has lost a loved one that is of itself any real help? Language falls short before the immensity of experience of sorrow. There are simply no words. And yet, my family and a small crop of friends have done a heroic job of rescuing me from my catastrophic heart - through organizing the painful logistics of death, through distraction in entertainment and food, through just holding space. My gratitude for them goes beyond, and yet like the language of grief, words fall too short. I have learnt to allow myself to be cradled in their love, to become my spiritual and emotional companions, to guide me forward as things get better. Because they do get better. 

5. When I lost my dad, I felt, like many do, who lose a parent - a loss of identity. You feel like you lost a part of your childhood too, when someone important from your childhood disappears. You also have a palpable feeling that anything good can disappear at any time. And yet, though I felt more anguished... I also felt more alive than ever. That is the paradox of mourning: incredible sadness carries with it an ability to touch the purest strain of joy, to experience an almost ecstatic release, to see the blinding, undiluted beauty in everything. I am more grateful for this messy, inspiring, chaotic, transcendentally, inexplicably magnificent world than I ever have been.  I hope this feeling stays with me, even if it extracts the price of deep sadness. I’m told that letting the pain in and growing with it will give me strength and resilience that I can pass on to other people in ways I can’t possibly understand now. I hope I do. 

6. A dear friend, who lost his dad when he was 28, gave me advice on coping that provided me succour: That my relationship with my dad didn’t have to end. I could still continue to have conversations with him, think of him when I read a particularly punny joke, or ate some of his favourite foods. Joan Didion revealed in her book, “I could not count the times during the average day when something would come up that I needed to tell him. This impulse did not end with his death. What ended was the possibility of response.” So I could keep my conversations with my dad going, as long as I didnt expect any answers.

7. In the same vein, my sister-in-law who lost her father while she was in college, shared this poem with me by Henry Scott Holland, on the boundaries between life and death being blurry - who's to say where the one ends and where the other begins?

“Death is nothing at all.
It does not count. 
I have only slipped away into the next room. 
Nothing has happened. 

Everything remains exactly as it was. 

I am I, and you are you, 
and the old life that we lived so fondly together is untouched, unchanged. 
Whatever we were to each other, that we are still. 

Call me by the old familiar name. 

Speak of me in the easy way which you always used. 
Put no difference into your tone. 
Wear no forced air of solemnity or sorrow. 

Laugh as we always laughed at the little jokes that we enjoyed together.

Play, smile, think of me, pray for me. 
Let my name be ever the household word that it always was. 
Let it be spoken without an effort, without the ghost of a shadow upon it. 

Life means all that it ever meant. 

It is the same as it ever was. 
There is absolute and unbroken continuity. 
What is this death but a negligible accident? 

Why should I be out of mind because I am out of sight? 

I am but waiting for you, for an interval, 
somewhere very near, 
just round the corner. 

All is well. 

Nothing is hurt; nothing is lost. 
One brief moment and all will be as it was before. 
How we shall laugh at the trouble of parting when we meet again” 

8. I found I can be happy, can move on, can cry tears of joy and still love my father as fiercely as ever. Even if I can’t talk to him, or hug him, my love runs as deep. His love is channeled through my will to live, to love others, to form connections with those around me. Those connections make me stronger than I thought I could be.  This song by Nina Simone is what tided me through his time in hospital -  a haunting song that speaks of the yearning and inexorable march of time, and yet the re-discovery of the world with a child-like wonder. 

My father loved this newsletter. He would love to whatsapp it to his friends, and ask them their thoughts on the concepts in the articles linked. This one is dedicated to him, from all of us.

I would like to end with this quote by the Goddess of grace, writer Anne Lamott:

“You will lose someone you can’t live without, and your heart will be badly broken, and the bad news is that you never completely get over the loss of your beloved. But this is also the good news. They live forever in your broken heart that doesn’t seal back up. And you come through. It’s like having a broken leg that never heals perfectly – that still hurts when the weather gets cold, but you learn to dance with the limp.”

Wishing you a week of serenity, grace and some wisdom, 

Viv & Ami