So, I’m in my therapist’s room before my first session, feeling so sure that she’d never understand the pain of losing a father. That she could never really help me and being completely certain that this was a colossal waste of my time.
My relationship with my appa (meaning father in Tamil) had blossomed from its turbulent teenager phase, into what I thought of as a friendship as I entered my 20s. As a woman who was so dependent on her father, as time passed, I gradually saw those tables turn when my father became more dependent on me. Both physically and mentally. He had been quite ill for the majority of my life and though death is inevitable, his passing was always going to be inevitably sooner. Therefore, when I made the difficult decision to pursue a PhD 300 miles away from home, we both knew we’d miss the hell out of each other. The day I left for Newcastle, whilst boarding the train I found appa sobbing like a baby as he started saying his goodbye. Naturally, I laughed in his face in a feeble attempt to try and lighten the mood. I was simultaneously holding back my tears but also taking for granted how important it was for a father to be vulnerable about his emotions towards his daughter.
My appa passed away during the middle of my PhD. Having a relative with a long-term illness and a 'timely' death is something they say, ‘you can be prepared for’, but it completely caught us off guard when it did happen.
The night he passed away, I took a cab home in the middle of the night, all the way from the North of England to East London, as there was no other way for me to get home. I, therefore, reached home 6 hours after he had passed and just before I entered the house, I put on my best ‘keep your shit together’ face in anticipation for what was about to come.
That time of my life was such a blur. Everything happened so quickly. All I can mostly remember is not being allowed to do things. My sister and I were constantly being told ‘no’, ‘that isn’t how we do it’ and ‘you’re a girl you can’t do that’. I wasn’t allowed to go to the temple, unfortunately this didn’t come as a surprise. Growing up as a Hindu female you become very familiar with a monthly temple ban. However, it still hurt to be outright forbidden from revisiting happy memories that I’d once had with my appa at the temple. All I wanted was to feel that presence again, which I was repeatedly denied. Feeling broken and exhausted, I decided that fighting for my temple rights was not a battle for today. My sister and I became each other’s confidant and I was so grateful that during these testing times, at least we had each other.
My amma (meaning mother in Tamil) also had her own stresses. She was told to not wear her thaali anymore (a sacred necklace the groom ties around the bride's neck during the wedding, indicating that she is married) and that she also shouldn’t wear any brightly coloured sarees. Being a widow, inhibited her from standing at the frontline of Hindu matrimonial rituals and she was told she wouldn’t be able to give me away at my Hindu wedding; though non-existent at the time, we were still reminded of it constantly. Even if she wanted to brave and defy these rules, she would then have to deal with the whisperings of a judgemental community. As women who had lost the ‘man of the house’, we were reminded every day that we would never be as adequate. But alas, I digress.
I began to have horrific nightmares. They mostly surrounded my denial of my appa’s death. As my nightmares worsened, so did my sleep. Or there, the lack of it. I constantly dabbled in the thought of going and seeing a therapist, but I wanted to see if I could work on my well-being on my own first. So, I did everything. I dove into anything that could distract me. I started painting, reading, writing, travelling (a lot), meditating and even dating (although I quickly realised, I was carrying way too much baggage for another person to bare) and it kept me going for another year or so. I genuinely had convinced myself that I was ‘dealing’ with my grief. I thought the worst had passed, but spoiler alert; I was totally lying to myself. Denial isn’t just a river in Egypt. Admitting to myself I was still grieving even after two whole years of my dad passing away was something I just couldn’t bring myself to do. I had completely caged my grief and shoved it to the back of my mind, and a few dark thoughts later, I knew I had to do something about it.
Cut to sitting in a bright and spacious room - I see a frame holding a painting of tides coming in on the therapist's desk, creamy white walls, a box of tissues directly in front of me (as you can see I’m really trying to set the scene here) and the therapist asks ‘so what can I help you with today?’… and I begin talking. Telling her why I was here led me into a fit of tears. Like seriously, full on ugly crying as if the chamber of secrets had finally been opened. Recounting my relationship with my father, the night he passed away and how much I was really struggling had split open the broken heart that I had temporarily glued back together.
I was labelled as this ‘happy, outgoing, she’s-really-picked-herself-up-from-her-fathers-death’ person, but truth be told I was so far from it. Within my community, I’d hear ‘she’s doing so well’, ‘she’s going on holidays’, ‘she’s not living at home you know’ and whenever I tried to defend myself I’d be met with, ‘she wouldn’t talk like this if her dad was here’ and my personal favourite ‘she’s too educated and that’s why she’s so rude; thimir ’. Though I’d laugh it off, having just lost the person who was the most protective over me, I felt like prey. Sometimes I still do. I was feeling powerless and shocked that my own people were somewhat grief-shaming me. During my sessions, we’d brainstorm and troubleshoot how to deal with these frustrations until my therapist decided that perhaps I needed a little nudge in the right direction. She revealed that when she was annoyed with the world, she’d regularly go down to the bottle bank and smash a few bottles and as surprised as I was, I also thought … damn, what a legend.
On my last session, I still felt that I hadn’t really ‘progressed’ with my grief and that I wouldn’t ever be over it. I told my therapist it felt like time was moving too fast and that I was still miles away from being ‘okay’. She stopped her writing, looked up and asked, why was I measuring my grieving process and why I was in such a rush? I was stumped. My only answer was that, though it felt like common sense, when you’re carrying this kind of burden with you every day, you just wanted to get rid of it …ASAP. I still feel that way sometimes. And then she told me something that was so simple, but it stuck with me. She told me that the textbook ‘stages of grief’ are to be taken lightly (to be honest she used a swear word, but I’m trying to be professional here). She said grief is a cocktail of emotions that shouldn’t be defined chronologically. As we are all so unique, so are each of our grieving processes. Being the textbook geek that I was, I had never thought to reorganise a system. Being a neuroscientist, when she told me to stop comparing the works of the human brain to one of my two-week science projects; it left me feeling stupid as hell. Accepting that this journey wasn’t going be an upward one, but more a wave of highs and lows is something I am still working on.
Between the ‘stiff upper lip’ British culture and the ‘you’ve-got-too-much-freedom-after-your-dad-passed away’ comments, finding the right mental balance is the hardest thing I’m having to do. Over the last four years I’ve questioned so many things; from why talking about grief is taboo, to wanting to unwind the mystics of the afterlife … if you’re into that. I have however made sure that I just let myself feel a lot more. To the point, that I will well up during literally any movie scene that involves death, from Mufasa’s in Lion King to Sivaji Ganesan’s in Padayappa … I become a not-so-hot mess.
Looking back at it now, I feel more and more grateful to my past self for speaking up for herself when she needed to. Telling someone I was not okay and asking for help was the best decision I have ever made, whether it be to a professional or even just a friend. I know that these are my version of events, and if you’re reading this and going through something similar, you’ll be going through a whole other narrative and an entirely different experience. I only hope that if you do find yourself reading this, you feel a little less alone and a little more understood. Just make sure you’re finding ways to let whatever it is you feel…out.
So, I will end this here by saying that if you do find yourself annoyed with the world, I hereby cordially invite you to join me at the local bottle bank to smash a few bottles.
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