For survivors of suicide loss, there is a fracturing of personal continuity in life. Previously secure coordinates suddenly seem frail.The struggle is to work through these ruptures and weave the broken threads of life into a new and meaningful narrative. The process of scripting an alternative narrative through recuperation can often be arduous and demanding.— R Raguram, psychiatrist
The Oxford English Dictionary defines a widow as a woman whose husband has died (and who has not remarried). I was not just a widow. I was a widow whose husband had died by suicide.
The Scarlet Letter W for widow dangled like an albatross around my neck. I was determined to wrench it away, to refuse to give up my power to regressive societal norms of womanhood and widowhood. The dictionary may contain the literal or denotative meaning of words. However, any word, in any language, has a host of connotations and associations.
Through my deep engagement with feminism in South Asia, especially in India, I was only too aware of the implications of my new-found status. Although much has changed in terms of how Indian society perceives widowhood, there are several unspoken assumptions that still hold weight. For instance, a widow needs to minimise or downplay herself in terms of the way she dresses and the space she occupies. In my own dignified yet assertive manner, I was determined to reject every one of these disempowering and dehumanising stereotypes.
I did not have to wait too long. When I first left my house, a friend remarked, “You wear such bright, colourful clothes!”
I replied firmly but politely, “I am a butterfly. I cannot change into a moth!”
Stony silence met my response.
Another friend said to me, “You still wear your nose ring?”
The jibe was astringent. Did she mean to emphasise my new-found status? Or was it just an insensitive remark that was not intended to hurt? I had no way of knowing for sure. Overburdened with grief, I felt the need to stop seeking explanations for the behaviour of others and, instead, acknowledge my own feelings of hurt. I learnt that intent does not matter as much as impact.
I responded with a tone and demeanour that indicated my surprise at someone like her, modern and well-educated, subscribing to regressive stereotypes such as insisting on marital markers like nose rings being removed after widowhood. In better times, I would have engaged in a conversation that may have helped push boundaries. I would have, perhaps, got her to see that wedding rings and mangal sutras are merely external markers of matrimony, that the commitment to a relationship goes much deeper.
I shared this incident with a close friend and told her, “I am determined to be a glamorous widow.” We roared with laughter. Humour, I was soon to discover, was the best antidote to pain.
Daughter, sister, wife, mother and daughter-in-law are just roles that a woman may take on at different stages of her life. No single one can be equated with her entire identity – her sense of who she fundamentally is. As far as I was concerned, although my role as a wife had ended, my life did not have to end or be minimised or deglamorised because of this. Perhaps, as my friend Usu, a feminist activist from Kenya, would tell me later, being ‘strongly grounded in feminist consciousness’ was also critical to my healing as a survivor of suicide loss.
Like most women, hadn’t I simply gone from being someone’s daughter to someone’s wife? So, who was I now? My past – largely anchored to my role as the wife of a well-known doctor – had been wrenched from me. The clinical, aseptic world of medicine and surgery that permeated my life were no longer my reality.
As the thirteen-day period of mourning, part of the post-bereavement tradition in my community, drew to a close, I felt like an actor on the proscenium, who takes her final bow at the end of a performance that will never be repeated. There were no encores, no applause, no standing ovation, just silence. Soon, the flood of people who had come to condole me morphed into a trickle and my solitary journey through grief began.
As I sat on the porch, flanked by Malli and Minnal, the metallic wind chimes that Murali had chosen brushed against each other in the gentle breeze. I sensed his presence in the pauses between the chiming, in the silence between the notes. Even today, the tinkle of the wind chimes attunes me to Murali’s presence – a wordless comfort for an aching longing.
How was I to navigate the landscape of grief when my internal GPS had crashed?
I felt like a cork tossed around in the turbulent ocean of pain, unmoored and unanchored. Ironically, the source of my intense pain also enabled me to touch the core of my being. But with every onslaught of intense emotion – anger, sadness, fear – I became more vulnerable and fragile.
The most difficult part of losing someone you love is not their physical absence but confronting the huge void that stares defiantly and mockingly at you, threatening to destroy you like a raging fire. Could I be in the presence of pain and immerse myself in it? Could I, as one of my favourite poets Oriah Mountain Dreamer put it, “sit with pain, mine or your own, without moving to hide it, or fade it, or fix it”?
“Suicide can shatter the things you take for granted about yourself, your relationships, and your world,” writes Jack Jordan, clinical psychologist and co-author of After Suicide Loss: Coping with Your Grief. He talks about the popular “flu model” approach. This standard quick-fix attitude to dealing with grief assumes that grief is unpleasant but relatively short-lived. After a stay at home and a period of mourning, the bereaved person is expected to jump back into life. However, when you transpose this to suicidal grief, you encounter even more roadblocks – the stigma, shame, secrecy and silence around suicidal bereavement make the grieving process more complicated.
The silence, in particular, can be deafening.
The silence around suicide prevents people, both those at risk and families impacted by suicide, from speaking up and asking for help. The more we choose not to talk about it, the more difficult it becomes to effectively address the problem. How do we shatter this festering collective silence?
We are deeply ashamed to even admit that it was suicide in the first place. Instead, we tend to create “acceptable” explanations for the cause of death, like, “It was a heart attack”, or provide a similar socially acceptable reason. Can we learn to talk about the sense of shame associated with the act and the people who have died this way? This is neither to glorify suicide nor to condemn it. People who die by suicide are not heroes, nor are they cowards or criminals. Suicide is not a crime. It is a public health crisis, a mental health issue that may be treatable and even preventable.
How can we create spaces to change the language we use to talk about suicide, to create shifts in the predominant mindset? This can happen only with the language of love and compassion, not judgement, ignorance and fear.
Excerpted with permission from Left Behind: Surviving Suicide Loss, Nandini Murali, Westland.