It’s not like there’s ever a “good time” for someone to die. Even the long, drawn-out deaths — the ones that you know are inevitable — still come as a shock. You’re never really prepared for it, as much as you may think you are.
This was supposed to be an exciting year for my family. My eldest cousin was finally getting married — our family’s first wedding in years — and we all booked our tickets for the grand event this past June. My dad and his three siblings were all bringing their families to Chennai for the family reunion of the decade; it would be the first time we would all be in the same place at the same time and the excitement was palpable. My cousins, aunts, and uncles spent months buying wedding lehengas and kurtas, reserving banquet halls, and figuring out decorations and logistics. We were going to go all out for this wedding. Then, early this year, we got the news: my Athai, my father’s eldest sister and the mom of the bride-to-be, had been diagnosed with cancer.
Writing this is hard because I feel like I have blocked out so much of her diagnosis and her treatment. Half of it is probably because of how my family chose to keep me and my cousins in the loop; since me, my brother, and two of our cousins were all only 20-24 and living in the States, we didn’t really get to know all of the details about what my Athai was going through. We were informed about big surgeries and given general updates on her health once she started chemotherapy, but that was pretty much the extent of it. With COVID bringing most of us back home, we would sometimes be able to schedule FaceTimes with her and hear about her latest treatment. But again, we never really knew how bad things were. Whether that was intentional or not, I don’t know. Either way, it’s like my mind doesn’t want to think about the things she went through or what had happened; everything comes up as a total blank. All I can really talk about is how I remember feeling when her diagnosis and death became real for me, and how I have handled things since then.
With COVID ruining our plans to go to India in June, the wedding was postponed to Aug. 30 — the day before my Athai’s birthday. Everyone got dressed up in their homes to join the Zoom call that would see my cousin get married. And it was such a lovely wedding. Seeing my family’s smiles, even while they were going through so much hurt and worry, gave us so much hope and just filled us with happiness. My Athai was able to watch, too, from the comfort of her home so as to not risk exposure. Everyone was making jokes about what was happening at the wedding, sending pictures and sharing outfits, catching up on each others’ lives, and just basking in the pure good fortune that we were able to make it to that special day. But this happiness was short-lived. Within hours of the wedding, on my Athai’s birthday, she suffered a heart attack and was immediately taken to the hospital. She died at the hospital early in the morning on Sept. 2, barely making it through the two days after her daughter’s wedding.
I guess there was some comfort in the fact that she was able to fight long enough to witness something that gave her so much happiness; this momentous occasion that she had been looking forward to for years had finally come to fruition. But to me, there’s just been sadness. The comment that stuck with me and broke me immediately after her death was my dad stating simply that his “family has become so small.” From a family of six to a family of three. What kind of world rips you from your family mere days after such a happy event? How does my cousin ever think about her wedding anniversary without conflating it with the immense sadness of losing her mom? How do my dad and his other siblings cope with the realization that their sibling is gone, only two days after her birthday where we celebrate her life? Every celebration from now on will be sullied with grief.
It’s been over a month and a half since it happened, but it still hurts as badly as it did when I first heard about it. I’m now faced with the task of living a life without my Athai’s presence, and navigating grief at a time when the school year is just beginning — and my friends are all celebrating being back on campus — has been an endeavor I never imagined I would have to go through.
At first, I thought that I would be able to handle the grief by pushing through it and going to classes. I never imagined that the loss would debilitate me; after all, I knew that this was coming. Her health had been deteriorating quickly to the point that she did not even look like the same woman I knew as a child. Cancer ate her up. I immediately emailed my professors, and seeing as this was only the second day of classes, told them that this death had happened but that I would be able to participate in class as normal until I was to travel to Georgia to be with my family. Maybe I thought I would be able to handle it, or that I would be seen as a “bad student,” or set myself up for later hardships in my courses if I shirked my responsibilities so early in the semester. I spent the next two weeks not attending classes, just sitting in my room crying about the immensity of death and mourning the first real loss I have ever had to deal with. Every day I would email my professors, telling them I thought tomorrow was the day I would return, and then barely had the motivation to turn on my camera, let alone do 10-page readings or participate in a discussion. I said no to every invitation to hang out with my friends, and on the rare occasion that I did have fun, I felt guilty. How could I be enjoying myself, while my aunt just left this world?
But through all this, I realized — we have been so conditioned to minimize our emotions for the sake of productivity or fitting in. If I chose to stay in and contemplate the meaning of life and watch movies on my own, that was okay and natural. If I chose to hang out with friends and have a laugh, that was okay and natural, too. However I choose to deal with this grief is okay, and not every waking moment has to be filled with sadness. And this fact is something that I am still learning to internalize; there are good and bad days, and I do not need to force myself to be emotionally in a place that I am not ready to be at just yet. There’s no real “happy ending” to this story — it just ends with me realizing that grief is an incredibly personal and unique experience. Death isn’t convenient, and there is no way I could have prepared. Hopefully it stops hurting so badly soon, but it’s all about taking things one day at a time and doing what feels right in the moment. And I think my aunt would agree, so that’s good enough for me.