What happens when grief strikes

Losing a parent is one of the hardest things in the world. Yet, it is a part of the natural cycle of life. A daughter takes us through the five stages of grief she underwent on the loss of the father she idolised

I have always been a daddy’s girl. My father was my rock, my support, my counsellor and my guide. With two very strong clashing personalities in the house—my mom and me—my father was the one who navigated our family out of troubled waters time and again. A medical legend, he started his career with treating blood diseases in children, so it was ironic to find that at the height of his fame and career, he was diagnosed with an end-stage rare and very aggressive cancer that had spread into his blood. Despite the poor prognosis, he continued his work as a global advisor for public health and community health projects to national and international governments and non-government agencies. But to irony over irony, he contracted the public menace—dengue—in his weakened post chemotherapy state, and passed away fighting the same diseases he spent a lifetime saving others from.

I had always read that grief has five stages, but you always think that these things are what happen to others. And then, I had to face them myself.

Shock

That moment, when the doctor walked out of the ICU to tell me my father had suffered a cardiac arrest, will be etched in my mind forever. Even as they tried to save him in vain, I stood by his inert body in utter disbelief. Three weeks earlier, he had been hale and hearty and his normal self. All kinds of hospital emergencies imaged from movies and TV serials went through my mind. I remembered those scenes where the doctor would tell the loved ones to speak to the patient, and the heart of the patient would miraculously start beating again. I tried cajoling him, pleading with him, shouting at him, even outright threatening him. But the heart monitor did not respond. I thought of scenes where someone would bang on the chest and the heart would start beating again. But no amount of CPR brought him back. In the end, I had to face the fact that he was gone.

It is a moment where different parts of your being seem to operate at different speeds. The past, the present and the future seem to collide in disjointed images, and the overwhelming feeling is that of shock and bewilderment. People around you tell you things, and you are both listening yet not listening at the same time. Perhaps this is the feeling of your soul being ripped apart, as part of you dies with your loved one. And yet, the rest of you is anchored in reality, where there are others to take care of and formalities to get through. And you plunge into a haze of activity as you try to banish your loss to the deepest and darkest recesses of your mind.

I had always read that grief has five stages, but you always think that these things are what happen to others

Denial

No one is prepared for death of a loved one, whether it comes suddenly or after a long illness. But time doesn’t give you the luxury of grief immediately. In my case, I was immediately plunged into formalities—getting the hospital paperwork completed, making arrangements for the body to be taken home. These days you have mobile mortuaries that keep the body preserved at home till it is time for last rites.

I remembered my dad telling me stories of when my maternal grandfather had passed away and he had, with much difficulty, arranged for huge blocks of ice, that were salted to keep from melting, so that they could keep the body at home. And it hit me—I was already referring to Dad as a body. The thought seemed to freeze every molecule in me. This could not be happening. This wasn’t true. Dad was not… I could not even bring myself to say the D-word mentally. Someone asked me a question, and I shoved these thoughts away, again into far corners of my mind, in vain hope that if I don’t think of it, it won’t be true. And paradoxically I plunged into the next formality that needed to be completed. The body needed to be dressed properly because if you wait too long, the body goes cold and rigor mortis sets in. In this state, the body goes rigid and inflexible, and it is next to impossible to dress or re-position it. With the clock ticking, all these transactional activities kept me going, till we brought Dad back home, late at night, and there was nothing left to do till morning.

No one is prepared for death of a loved one, whether it comes suddenly or after a long illness

Anger

As I lay down in bed, wide awake at 3am, all the thoughts I had been shoving away spilled over. This is the time when you should never be alone, even if the other person is sleeping or doing something else. The sense of loss, of loneliness, of all the things that will never be, hits you with a force that can take your breath away. Indeed, for a while, all I did was sit and count my breaths as time and distance warped in my mind. Snapshots from the past, his voice, his little actions, his idiosyncrasies all tumbled together in a kaleidoscope with what had been an expected future timeline with him, morphing to a timeline without him. And then came the rage, the injustice of it all. My dad, who had spent a lifetime saving others, had been failed by the very people he had taught. He, who treated and cured others, was lost to the very diseases that he had fought. Anger against cancer, against dengue, against the hospital, the doctors, against fate. Rage, disbelief and utter loneliness ripped through me night after night that first week, as sleep remained elusive.

Bargaining

Surely it had not been his time yet. His own father had passed away just seven years ago. His own uncles were still alive. Dad easily had another 10 – 15 years in him. He was beyond particular about his health, waging war on salt, sugar and oil at home and at work. He meticulously monitored all his vital signs. When he passed away, apart from his blood report, every other report and organ was normal. He was a prime specimen for his age, even after cancer had decided to strike. In truth, he did not suffer much, as it had been just three weeks when we first discovered something might be wrong, and just one week from final diagnosis to his death.

The sense of loss, of loneliness, of all the things that will never be, hits you with a force that can take your breath away

Acceptance

The last stage of grief is acceptance. There are moments where I feel I have accepted his absence. And then something triggers and I find myself back at one of the earlier stages. Sometimes I wonder if I really want to reach acceptance. Would it not be a travesty to not honour his loss? At other times, I tell myself, this is what he would want. To keep his memories alive through practising all that he taught me, and honour his life by living mine to the fullest, just as he did.

I don’t know what the future holds. I just know that I still expect him to walk through the door, with a smile on his face and a project on his mind. And if he saw me crying, he would just sit with me in silent support. In spirit, he will always be with me.


A version of this article was first published in the January 2016 issue of Complete Wellbeing.

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