SOUTHSIDE STORIES

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Lockdown Prescriptions: Getting to grips with Grief

By Dakshina Gammanpila

A few weeks ago I wrote about lockdown and routine and the importance of structure and last time’s prescription focused on loss and creativity. In the first article mentioned I quoted a dear friend who had been in hospital and exhibited wonderful humour and positivity. She was indeed a creative soul, her well-known Delhi business in homeware and textile design. That special soul lost her battle. I started writing this article the day following news of her death. I awoke that morning in shock with the realization that she is no longer with us and that loss (as much loss does) has taken on an unreal quality. It has taken me a further two weeks to complete writing. 

I understand what it is to grieve having lost my Father, the best soul I have ever encountered, and although that was three and a half years ago I feel his absence every day and I feel it keenly. Where does such energy and enthusiasm go? How can such a contribution in life vanish into the ether in death? In truth it doesn’t disappear. My father gave so much to so many communities and when that is the case the repercussions ripple far and wide. That is also true of my friend. Such loss not just personal loss but loss that affects so many in different communities are profound.

The conversations we had on the phone whilst she was in hospital were lovely and will stay with me. Yes, about diagnosis and treatment; but we also spoke of everything and anything as women do. About the important and the frivolous, the deep and the meaningful and our children both of very different ages and stages. We spoke about life events and birthdays and Mother’s Day about vaccinations and kindness. We sent each other thoughts for the day and love.

When someone we care about is ill we feel impotent we want to do something, anything to alleviate their pain or suffering or to know that things will improve. Sometimes you are patently aware of the ultimate outcome. This was not the case here, a few weeks short but now seemingly endless weeks ago there appeared to be more than hope that she would come through this. The cruelest aspect was that she was apparently turning a corner, yet that was not to be. When that person is in hospital everything is so much more difficult, but during Covid and when they are isolated it feels impossible. She had not seen her husband for a month. Imagine that separation when you are so vulnerable.

What she was managing was serious complications with her own layered chronic medical condition and uncertainty. However she still found moments of levity and humour. As I wrote previously, she was joking about not knowing that it was Saturday as all days seemed the same and attributing it to medication, then sending the video of ‘Hymn for the Weekend’ partly tongue in cheek and partly for the sheer joy. I wished her a happy Mothers Day – she was a very loving Mum. She, like me, is British Asian and celebrates Mother’s Day in March tied to the idea of Mothering Sunday and the British Christian tradition. We spoke about cooking with our sons and how we enjoyed it. She added well, it’s Mother’s Day every day. Even though her kids are adults and mine are teenagers I knew exactly what she meant. 

I had seen a good friend after a long time and as a gift as well as the customary bottle of fizz had a plant for her lovely garden as near an approximation to bluebells as I could find and a candle scented ‘bluebell wood’. She had married in bluebell time in England and I had married in wisteria time – May. As we sat down at the dining table set with linen and crockery from India I noticed a spoon designed by my friend and we spoke about her and that she was in hospital but recovering. My English friend had also experienced her kindness when her family first arrived in Delhi. I agreed and said she was a constant in my life there. 

These networks were lifelines in Delhi when we are far away from family and friends back home. I had by chance met up with some girlfriends with whom I had shared years. We saw each other a great deal in Delhi, had things we did together during the day, our children of different ages were friends and the husbands and wives socialized as a group. We were a surrogate family. We spoke about our friend thinking she was on the road to recovery. The following day, trying vainly to process what had happened, another group of friends scattered in France, Spain, England, Luxembourg and India got on a call. It was vital to connect. We had spent time together in India and had holidayed together there and overseas and shared our experiences of loves and challenges. We were all desperately upset. One of the group spoke about the fact that even though we were separated by Covid and circumstance, that she thought that somehow we would come through, it if not unscathed, intact. We haven’t and deep down we know it. We have lost loved ones, and the carefree spontaneity that so characterises expat life. 

As is customary Nature beckoned and I went for a walk in the woods sunlight filtered through new leaves dappled shade birdsong the brook babbled away and I tried to imbibe its soothing quality. It evaded me and instead I spoke to my daughter who had known that my friend was in hospital and had heard that she was recovering. I held her hand and broke the news. I decided to walk alone for a short while and have a little conversation with Risham. To tell her I loved and admired her. 

During our conversations in hospital I had said to her that she was a wonderful Mother and friend. My daughter said that it was a good thing to have written that, to express that love and know it was received and felt.

I recall my Father and I telling one another we loved each other very much. My friend had said that even though we could not see each other it was good to know we were in the same city. She welled up reading my message and that ‘that thread is there no matter where we are’. I clung to that thread as I walked and unexpectedly came across a sheltered patch of bluebells – well passed their prime – but there clinging on. I was overcome. I adore bluebells and have not seen them since leaving England 14 years ago. They flower in late April and early May. In fact my mother-in-law, knowing that I love bluebells, had taken a photo of a bluebell wood near her and sent it to me on my birthday last year. We were on strict lockdown in Delhi and she hoped the image would bring a little cheer. I touched the petals and thought of Risham.

A week later, the day following her funeral a group of friends who knew Risham gathered virtually; we knew we needed to speak about her especially as we are in different time zones all over the world. One of the group said how much she loved us as friends. Another reminded us of a message that Risham has shared ‘the circle of women around us weave an invisible net of love around us’. That thread again that I clung to. This time’s Prescription is to take time with grief. We all experience relationships differently and therefore grief too. Be gentle with yourself and others in times of grief and take steps to give and receive support.

Dedicated to the memory of Risham Kaur Chawla, a wonderful unique spirit who was dearly loved and will be missed.

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