It’s strange that we know how to deal with inexplicable happiness, even if it is second-hand, but grief feels alien, a feeling we want to distract ourselves from right from the moment it starts sinking in and sinking us.
One day I read a New York Times article about the neglected middle child of mental health — Languishing. The term was coined by a sociologist named Corey Keyes, who was struck that many people who weren’t depressed also weren’t thriving. If you’re feeling joyless, aimless, lack motivation to work or focus, you’re probably languishing. Psychologists find that one of the best strategies for managing emotions is to name them. I took that advice seriously and added it to my lexicon. “How are you?”, a colleague would ask. And I’d say, “Umm, I’m languishing.”
But then one day grief knocked languishing’s door. Despite not being the primary attendant, a colleague had been actively invested in her uncle’s treatment — looking for bed leads, oxygen, medicines, even driving almost a hundred kms to find an injection. And then one morning she called, “Pooja… My uncle passed away.” At that moment, a single second felt like a decade, and I felt what I had been trying to escape from — grief.
I knew it was grief. Because the insides of my body felt heavy. The knot in my stomach tightened, the lump in my throat grew bigger. And whatever that was in my chest, yes, that weight all of us have been feeling for months, it started weighing a few extra pounds in seconds. I kept the phone down and, in an attempt to dismiss the grief that was setting in, I messaged a colleague to inform her about this loss to, well, align work expectations.
So stupid, I thought dealing with this through professional commitments would help me escape the gravity of grief creeping in. But little did I know, bad news has many sources. When I messaged her, she replied informing me about someone from her team who had lost her mother the night before. Her father had passed away last year. And now she was left with her brother.
As I held my phone, reading that message over and over, I decided to not be numb; to not dismiss grief. I let myself have a breakdown. I let myself feel everything I had been dismissing. My partner, sitting an arm’s distance away, moved to my side of the couch, hugged me, and just let me grieve — no questions, no answers, no words; the sniffling of my despair filling the room.
And then one day, I was sitting alone in my room in my parents’ house. It was about 2 am. In my quiet revolt against languishing, I kept aggressively hitting the next episode button each time it popped, scared that if I stop, the feeling I’ve been feeling the weight of, might take over and consume me.
Almost an hour later, realising that this escape is actually a trap, I gave in. And there I was, at 2:42 am, grieving. It’s only when I let myself feel, and think, and grieve, that I realised the grief was stemming from the fear of losing my family. But grief leaves the door when you start making sense of it. So I’d recommend: Do not try to make sense of anything when you’re grieving. Just let yourself be. Acknowledge the fact that you’re feeling something, and keep feeling it wholly, until you don’t.
The next morning I woke up and thanked myself for allowing myself to grieve. I felt better, was more grateful for the meals I was having with my family at the dinner table every day, and was able to go back to languishing, a privilege in these times.
And then one day, a few days ago, my brother came up to my room at 12:30 am. I assumed it’s one of those days where he’d like to smoke one in peace on my balcony. So we settled on the balcony floor, a cigarette each in our hands. As he lit his, he took an unassuming long drag and said, “Pooja, our uncle passed away.”
In any other moment in time, when I was the old me, I would have been in disbelief, and I would’ve shut myself down. But now that I had learnt to allow myself to grieve, we sat there, in the quiet of the night, our sniffling filling the void of sound, and the amber of the lit cigarettes lamenting with us.
A friend said, “To cope with death, we’ve learnt to expect it. Nothing shocks us anymore. Makes us numb perhaps.” But I’d say —
If you’re privileged enough to be alive to mourn, make time to mourn. Allow yourself to grieve. However you’d like to grieve — in silence, in tears, in thoughts, in anger, in a conversation, alone, or in company.
Grief makes us human and humane. And we all need that, more than ever before, now, every day, and on that one day.
Brave when you don’t grieve. Braver when you do.