I've always wanted to visit India and had an opportunity last month when my husband and I spent two weeks touring Rajasthan, the largest state in northern India. We started with the majestic Taj Mahal, located in Agra. The Taj, as it is commonly known, was commissioned in 1632 by the Mughal emperor Shah Jahan to serve as a mausoleum for his third wife, Mumtaz Mahal. As I looked at this indescribably beautiful marble structure I thought: "Men and grief, taking action is a worldwide response." Build an edifice, bring a law suite, brick up a patio, throw yourself into work, keep busy while you cope with the grief of losing a loved one.
On my last day as we were getting ready to leave for the airport our guide asked, "Gloria, how do you deal with the death of a father? I still think of mine and feel so very sad." I asked him how long it had been and was surprised when he said, "10 years." I wished I had more time to find out why after 10 years this death was so unresolved. I showed him my Open to Hope foundation website and suggested he read some articles and listen to some radio shows on dealing with the loss of a parent. It hardly seemed enough help for this lovely man. So today I am dedicating this blog to Amit and others who have unresolved grief over the loss of their fathers.
In order to answer his question I have to put it in the context of the culture. I'm not an expert on Indian culture, but there are some takeaways that I learned on our travels. Amit, like the majority of Indians, is Hindu. I learned a bit about Hindu grief and loss when we visited a village outside the city of Jodhpur. I found their burial customs to be very interesting. More than 70 percent of Indians live in rural areas. Many of them in mud huts, eking out a marginal living. While the cities are changing rapidly due to Western companies bringing investment money and building stores and factories many of the farmers are living in poverty. The government is doing what it can to raise income levels, but due to corruption and customs it is a slow process.
In the countryside and in many of the cities there are still arranged marriages where the bride moves in with the in-laws after the marriage. This was the case with Amit. One of our guides told us that his mother cried for two weeks after her daughter married and moved away with her husband. As in China, there is a male preference as male children stay with the family, bringing a wife to help the mother.
In most cases when a family member dies the body is cremated within 24 hours. If the family can't assemble within that timeframe the body is put on ice, no embalming. Once the family is gathered they hold an ancient ceremony to honor and morn the loved one. Meanwhile, a platform is built out of wood and after the ceremony the shrouded and washed body is placed on the platform and burned. The burning takes about two hours and family members are in attendance during the cremation. The ashes are then scattered, and for those who can afford it, sprinkled with water from the Ganges or a tributary of the holly river.
My thoughts on father loss:
- Father loss is more painful if you had daily contact with your father. In India where the son and wife live with the husband's family there is a strong male bond.
- The loss of a father is a highly unacknowledged loss, as people tend to focus on the widow, often neglecting the grieving children. In Hindu culture women change from their colorful saris to all white after they are widowed and adult males are expected to take over as head of the household.
- From childhood men are generally given the message that "big boys don't cry." This doesn't acknowledge that the chemistry of tears actually gives relief to the griever. That being said, women do have an easier time crying as they naturally produce more hormones that promote nurturing feelings.
- Write about the loss. Make your writing as detailed as possible.
- Cause of death
- Place of death
- Circumstances around your father's death
- What was your relationship? Were you close?
- What do you miss most?
- What do you wish you had told your dad?
- Create a ritual around your father's birthday or other significant day.
- Plant a tree or rosebush in his memory. The ashes from your writings mixed with soil make a wonderful mulch.
- Light a candle or give a toast in memory of your father at special events or just in your own quiet times.
- Forgive yourself and your father for mistakes or omissions. A life well lived is the greatest tribute a son or daughter can give the father.
These are suggestions for a normal loss, however let me say that there can be more traumatic situations where there has been a suicide or a murder or where a person has been required to give cardio pulmonary resuscitation (CPR) or has witnessed a violent death. If this is the case you may need professional help. A few sessions of biofeedback or eye movement desensitization and processing (EMDR) can help change biological responses to traumatic memories.
I offer this blog to Amit and all those who feel they have unfinished business with their fathers. I hope it is helpful. For more information go to our website and search Father Loss. Fathers are special people I miss my own father daily. He taught me to swim and ride a bike and was always there for a big hug.