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On loss and bereavement

Photo courtesy Tamil Guardian

‘This is how we felt after the tsunami, stunned, bewildered.’  So many friends in Sri Lanka said this to me in days following the Easter Sunday suicide bombings this year. I could see what they meant. Not only were the bombings utterly horrific, but they were also outlandish and unforeseen. They struck on a holiday and were aimed at families gathered in celebration, relaxation, and prayer. Fifteen years ago, on the 26th December 2004, the Indian Ocean tsunami, too, hit with no warning. It was unfamiliar and unimaginable, its cruelty wanton. I was on holiday on the south-eastern coast of Sri Lanka with my husband Steve, my sons Vikram and Nikhil, who were seven and five years old, and my parents, when that furious wave appeared. Only I survived.

Over this year I’ve learned about those killed in the April bombings – nearly two hundred and sixty women, men and children – who only moments before held a hymnbook in a church or sat down to breakfast in a hotel restaurant. And I’m acutely aware of the torment of the families who’ve been left in ruins.

Images in the media have stilled me. A woman in Negombo bent over next to photos of her husband and her two teenage children, who were all killed. Young parents in Batticaloa whose children died in a church compound. A father and husband who returned to the UK alone. The parents and sibling of an eight-year-old boy from Dhaka. A father in San Diego faltering as he spoke of his dead son on TV. The list goes on. And each one of them now faces the treacherous task of living after losing their world.

Our experience of, and response to, catastrophic trauma and grief is unique and individual. So I write this cautiously. I don’t assume that my own case overlaps entirely with others. But, fifteen years on, I have some clarity about the whorl of terror and pain I found myself in for a long time after. Now I can better see and feel the various textures and strands of my own experience of traumatic loss. And I can also identify what sustained me and what eventually helped me to gain balance and revive.

There will be those who lost their dearest in the bombings who feel they cannot go on. Where is their meaning now, they will surely wonder. In the immediate aftermath of the tsunami I did not want to live; my world had disappeared, my agony overwhelming.

A sudden loss just cannot be absorbed. In a stupor, I groped at what had happened. Had my family vanished in an instant? ‘They are dead, they are dead,’ I kept telling myself. A truth so unreal, I tried to learn it almost by rote.

“My family is dead, other children are alive.” I strained to hear a mother say this in Sinhala in the background of a TV broadcast from Sri Lanka that week of the bombing, the commentary in English almost drowning her words. She seemed to be simply mouthing this to herself. She, too, was perhaps trying to make this unfathomable fact sink in.

I often think of this woman; her bewilderment. Like me, she would have been forced to stop everything she did with her family. But she would have had plans with her children for their school holidays. Her family, like ours, might always have had hoppers on Wednesday nights. She cannot just turn all of this off. In the months, and even in early years, after the tsunami, my mind toppled.  How do I stop doing what we do?  How do I make us dead? What do I do with our plans?

There is the on-going terror. Even though I was thrashed about by those waves and eventually clung to a branch, my greatest fear in the early years was not of the ocean. My terror was of the ordinary and every day: a cricket ball, a pair of small blue flip- flops, the slant of the four o’clock sun on a Sri Lankan lawn, another child, our home in London. These specifics that my family had been robbed of, they panicked me the most. All I wanted was a dark room with life shut out.

Catastrophic loss cleaves life into a ‘before’ and an ‘after’. During this year, those bereaved by the bombings may have found life becoming an endless series of ‘first times’. I was hyper-alert to the agony of this. There was the first time I saw a bird ‘after’ and quickly turned away because my boys would never again see a crow or a flycatcher. The first time I walked on a street  ‘after’, I didn’t know what to do with my arms, my boys not on either side of me to slip their hands in mine.

Like the Easter bombings, the tsunami was utterly unreal. One strange effect of this, for me, was that it made my life up to that point seem unreal. Did my family ever exist, I would wonder. The fact they vanished in a moment meant that I lost certainty about this. On one level I knew they did, but this knowing turned fuzzy. My mind couldn’t find my sons’ faces. Was I ever their mother, I questioned. Suddenly, I was a stranger to myself.

This blurring of reality was partly a reflexive defence, of course. I needed to protect myself and flatten the details of our life. Looking clearly at all I’d lost seemed too dangerous then, like looking directly at the sun. How could I bear the brightness of our life when it was gone?

There is no blueprint for recovering after traumatic grief and shocking loss. Just as there are no clear and distinct stages of grief through which we must pass. What helps each of us will be specific and varied. In the early months, and even years, when we are reeling, each day must be endured.  For me, then, the support and understanding of close relatives and friends was a lifeline. They soothed me and distracted me in those endless days.

Psychological support of various forms will be important for those who were robbed of their loved ones in the bombings, as it was for me. This could be in this early aftermath, to deal with a maelstrom of extreme panic and anxiety; it could be sometime later, to slowly learn how to hold intolerable pain and to revive.

Therapy was essential for me. For a long while after the tsunami, I felt I was spinning around in tiny broken pieces. It’s possible that the mother from the bombings who was shown on TV is feeling something like this too. At the deepest level, it was with therapy that I was able to put together the pieces of myself again to make a cohesive whole. Contrary to what I would have expected, what was important for me was not ‘moving on’ from my loss but actually ‘moving into’ it.

This involved being fully open to feeling my grief and my pain more and more. In all its dimensions. In order to do this, I had to hold the memory of my family close, upfront and clear.

This was quite different from the blurring and ‘making them dead’ that happened in the desperate initial aftermath. Then, I was terrified of remembering. The more I remembered, the more agonising my loss will be, I thought – just as some of those bereft by the bombing may think.  But in the safety of therapy, I learned to unclench my mind and allow in the memory of our life together. And it came bounding in, with all its energy and joy. I learned not to panic if my mind slipped into our kitchen in London, the four of us together there, the sound of squabbling boys. The past, our life, was immediate, real, and robust. I learned to linger there, and tolerate how much it hurt.

We are sometimes made to feel that ‘too much’ memory is ‘pointless’ or that it will hold us back in our progression through grief. ‘Don’t dwell too much’, those bereft by the bombings might be advised, often by those who mean well. But pain does not disappear, even if we try to suppress it. It only warps. Pressuring the grieving to ‘move on’ can make them feel even more alone and estranged.

Pain can relent to joy. For when we allow ourselves to hurt for our loss, we also release into our love for those we’ve been robbed of.

Love never dies need not be a sentimental platitude or an abstraction. When we lose our dearest, especially unexpectedly, we often don’t know where to put our love. How do we disentangle love from the pain of loss? When our love has had the prospect of a future, it can feel hopeless to hold onto love when all expectations have been trounced.

But I had to learn that while my love for my family assumed a future, it was not contingent on it.  I had to realise that when I shrank back from memory, I was depriving myself of holding them close in my heart, just as fiercely and tenderly as I did when they were alive. It was when I re-attached myself to them and made them ‘undead’ in my thoughts and with my words, that my love could release again. Infused with the love, and with the joy of our life, I could recover myself.

As this year – and this decade – ends, the Sri Lanka Easter bombings will count as one of the most horrific events of the time, and the Indian Ocean tsunami remains among deadliest natural disasters recorded. Recently, over dinner, a friend in London remarked that with the passing of time media attention on survivors and the bereaved from catastrophes tends to focus on recovery and resilience. I remembered how in the early days after the tsunami, I was troubled by the notion of resilience (and still am, mostly). True, in the hopeless darkness of that time a tiny part of me wanted to know about the existence of others who were surviving terrible loss. But our ‘resilience’ is often also assumed, or it is celebrated as an ‘ideal state’ – something we all have or can get to.

Those bereft by the bombing will now be at their most vulnerable and helpless, and like me then, they may well resent the pressure to be resilient as they feel anything but that. Implicit in it also is a ‘rush to normal’ and almost an insistence that pain must end. Grief softens of course, with time and attention, but it does go on, surging and subsiding. So it is more useful, perhaps, for those grappling with an unfathomable loss if this focus is changed: from ending pain to holding it.

When we feel and hold our pain in its many dimensions we are much less estranged from ourselves. And it expands us, to dare to hold love, and new light.

 

Editor’s Note: A version of this article was published on The Sunday Times Magazine on 22 December, 2019.

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