There Is No Shame In Loss

I loved the movie O’Brother Where Art Thou. There are a couple of related scenes from that movie that came to mind recently. For those who haven’t seen the movie, it’s set in the south — Mississippi, I think — during the Great Depression. Three escaped convicts, with the authorities in hot pursuit, end up at the farm owned by a cousin of one of the three men. As they are sitting at the kitchen table eating, one of them asks his farmer cousin about where his wife is. The farmer glances at his son sitting across, then back to his cousin. He first says something to the effect that he doesn’t know. Then, in a matter-of-fact manner, he adds, “Mrs. Hogwallop up and r-u-n-n-o-f-t.” We can see that he is trying to protect his son from the devastating truth about the young one’s mother.

A couple of scenes later, when the authorities have the convicts surrounded at the farm, the young boy comes driving the family car and offers to help the convicts escape again. And he says, “Get in boys. I am gonna r-u-n-n-o-f-t!”

Suddenly the audience realizes that the kid knows more than his father thinks he knows.

I am reminded of this scene every time I am with friends and relatives who try to speak of Uzma in hushed tones when the kids are within earshot. They think they are protecting our kids by not making them think of their loss. Like the father in the movie, they are well-intentioned. But they just don’t get it.

Our children saw their mother live with cancer. They saw how she chose to live life fully despite her illness. She made many new friends in her last few years. She wrote a blog. She wrote a book. She was a model for a nationwide beauty store chain. The saw all that.

When Uzma was around, she was the one who first greeted them when they returned home from school. When she was well, it was she who took them clothes’ shopping. She cooked their favorite meals. She arranged their play-dates. She nursed them when they were sick.

Then they saw their mother gradually become weak. She stopped doing most of the things she used to do for them. They saw her become unable to climb stairs, bathe, use the bathroom and even get into her bed on her own. They were next to her when she breathed her last. They lay next to her for several minutes before the funeral home staff came to take her away. They felt her get cold and stiff. The saw and felt her die.

Whispers and hushed tones are for secrets, especially shameful ones. Uzma’s death is not a shameful secret that must be whispered about.

The way she lived it and way she died is burned in my and our kids’ memories. Whether we speak of her every day or not speak of her for months is irrelevant to us missing her. How is it possible that not speaking about her in our kids’ presence will make them feel their loss any less than daily absence does?

There’s no shame in loss, no guilt in grief and no embarrassment in mourning. And let’s not make our kids think so.

 

First Flight Without Uzma

As we settled into our seats on the plane, Gauri said, “Our family is sitting together for the first time.”

“What do you mean?” I asked.

“I mean Mama is not with us. So no one has to sit on the seat there.” She pointed sadly across the aisle.

We were in a plane with 3 seats on each side of the aisle, heading to Boston to visit a friend. It was a trip that Uzma and I had really wanted to make last summer, but never could make it work because of cancer.

Sometimes I felt guilty saying we couldn’t visit someone because of cancer. It’s not like we didn’t travel at all during Uzma’s last year. We took a trip during the kids’ spring break. We also went to Niagara Falls on the fifth anniversary of Uzma being diagnosed with cancer.

Originally, Uzma had planned to celebrate that milestone in New York City with a couple of breast cancer survivor friends. By the time the day drew near, she knew she wasn’t really feeling well enough to coordinate anything with friends. Less than a month before the Niagara trip we had found out that yet another treatment regimen had failed her. We ended up planning that break for the falls just 3-4 days before.

This is what I remind myself when I feel guilty about not visiting people who mean a lot to us in the last few years. Cancer, it’s treatment, and side-effects of treatments kept us from making any plans with friends and relatives. It felt easier to make last minute plans by ourselves.

When traveling on a plane with 3 seats on each side of the aisle, we had seen families of four split up a couple of different ways. Either they would sit two by two, usually in back to back rows. Or they would split up across the aisle. We preferred to sit in the same row. That meant one of us — Uzma or me — sat across the aisle from the rest of the family.

Now that it is just the three of us, our amputated family sits together. How will we manage traveling on a plane with only 2 seats on each side of the aisle? Will there be an argument about who gets to sit with whom? Deciding not to worry about that now, I started thinking about life without Uzma.

This was the first trip ever without Uzma. You could tell. I thought I had managed to get us all packed and ready on time. As we settled in on the plane, it dawned on me that I hadn’t taken anything to keep the kids busy. Uzma always used to make sure they had enough activities to stay occupied — books to read, books to color, sheaves of loose paper, pencils, coloring pens, and pastels. You name it, she would pack it. There was no chance of boredom. I had packed nothing. Zilch.

Fortunately, the plane had a screen for each seat. It had a decent selection of kids movies to choose from. That made the 2-hour flight really fly.

Not really though.

There was a stranger across the aisle.

So, What’s New?

The other day, about 3 weeks after we buried Uzma, I was getting a haircut at the neighborhood barber’s. The friendly guy that he is, he asks, “So, what’s new?”

Do I tell him Uzma died? Do I not? I decide not to dwell on the question too long. A pregnant pause with one’s barber at this point would be weird. In a split second, I reply, as if instinctively, “Not much. How about you?”

He starts telling me of the vacation he is planning with his family for summer. My mind wanders off.

I have forgotten how to plan vacations this far ahead. The last time we planned a vacation, staycation or even a weekend trip months ahead was a while ago; looking back at Uzma’s stage 4 cancer journey, it seems like a lifetime ago. Most of our trips in the previous few years have been last-minute adventures. If Uzma’s condition and treatment were stable close to some break coming up for the kids, we would go. “I should also start making plans now,” I tell myself, “so that once again we can start getting whatever qualifies as a bargain these days for air tickets.”

How do we decide who to tell and when to remain silent about a calamity that has befallen us? I’m not sure there are any rules for this. Will people know what to say? Will they become uncomfortable?

Will they say something irritating like, “You’ve to be strong for the kids.” As if I don’t know that! Or will they say another common line, “At least she is not in pain any longer.” Yeah, that’s because she is dead! “Is that better?” I feel like asking. But I don’t. I don’t want to make them uncomfortable. Some people will say, “I am sorry for your loss. I wish I could do something that would ease your pain. I am here for you.” When said sincerely especially by someone who you know will check in on you soon, those sentences have an intriguing soothing power.

In the South Asian community, Uzma and I often heard of and from people who didn’t share their cancer diagnosis even with close friends. Sometimes, not even with close family members. We would often wonder what that was about. Why the stigma about something no one could accuse you of bringing upon yourself? After all, cancer is not like a mental illness whose victim can be casually and cruelly blamed for bringing suffering upon herself. It couldn’t be blamed on a lack of willpower.  Uzma believed it had to do with the practice of arranged marriage in our community. If it became widely known that a parent had cancer, her son or daughter might be shunned when it’s time to search for a bride or groom. I don’t know if that is the reason, but it seems as good as any.

Uzma did not hide her suffering. She shared it. She hoped to inspire more people to share and be open about their cancer so that all could learn from each other. Sharing brought incredible emotional support from both friends, old and new. Not just to her, but also to her family. Whatever she gave of herself, she got in return many times over. I am not sure about the term “Facebook friends.” It is often used with some disdain. But I’ve seen Uzma form meaningful emotional connections with people she has never met in person. When you do that, isn’t a Facebook friend just a real friend we haven’t yet met?

Hospice staff encouraged us to tell the kids’ schools about mom being in hospice. We did. I also told the schools when Uzma passed away. I let the parents of the kids’ closest friends know. “Who else can we tell?” some asked. “Tell whoever you think would want to know,” I said. I am glad I did. Many of our children’s friends came to the funeral with their families. Some of their teachers came too. Our kids felt incredibly supported. Many friends offered condolences in their own way when they went back to school. But one boy kept telling our daughter that he didn’t believe that her mother had died. That it was a lie. That little twerp, I thought. But he was the exception.

“How do you like it?” asked the barber as he handed me a mirror so I could see how he had cut my hair on the back of my head. It was fine. I paid him, tipped him, made some small talk and left.

That evening I resumed my train of thought, how should I have responded to that question, “What’s new?” Obviously, a lot is new. Uzma is not around. I am a single parent. The only breadwinner, not just the primary one. I am no longer one member of a team of two responsible for the physical and emotional wellbeing of our kids, I am the team. All family decisions, big and small — from what to cook tonight, to which dishwasher to buy to replace the one that just broke, to the kids’ education are now mine alone. Soon Uzma’s name will no longer be there on various financial accounts, tax returns and even on return address labels. It won’t be on travel itineraries. Until our son grows up a bit more, I will have to get used to being the only one driving the family around and doing so with an empty seat next to me. She won’t be there on her birthday, on Mother’s Day, on the kids’ birthdays. All that, and much more is new.

I am glad I didn’t unload all this on the barber. If only he knew the bullet he dodged! So who should we tell, and who should we leave alone. I am sure there’s no one single approach. I could take the path of looking back at my last meeting with a person and recalling wither she asked about Uzma then. Uzma’s existence had to have mattered to them for her non-existence to matter.

Clear cut this approach might be, but it would be antithetical to Uzma’s attitude, from which I could learn a lot. Her stance was one of openness to new emotional connections. After much reflection, I decide that my rule of thumb will be to share my loss with anyone if the setting is conducive to active listening. A barbershop is not, so it was still okay that I replied, “Not much.”