My nephew is undergoing a small surgery. My logic understands that the surgery is very small with a hundred percent success rate. We know the surgeon and that he is very reliable and we have already planned his homecoming. But there is this strange feeling the whole day. And it bothers me. There’s a tingling inside of my tummy, alongside a few mandatory butterflies, some strain in my shoulders, a sudden missed heart beat when I am in my OPD, a squeeze in the heart and a strange shiver along my spine when I think of tomorrow. Just the fact that he is undergoing something which is unnatural, increases my level of discomfort. How much ever my logical brain tries to convince itself, my emotions refuse to obey and remain subdued. It irritates me, makes me scared and wants me to delete the whole day and wake up tomorrow morning to find that it is all a dream.
In these terms,December this year, has been a month of such discomforts. Eventful, scary and sad. In the span of one month, I heard of about ten accidents back to back and lost quite a few near and dear ones in the process. Those who survived, are right now still in bad shape. A surgery scheduled in the midst of all this. And just when the dust seemed to have settled, the news of the senseless terrorist attacks in Peshawar!It sort of shook me and dragged the rug from right under my feet!
Here I am, trying to plan my future, our children’s education,my son’s birthday party and what to read this weekend when boom! You are no longer living! It sure is a scary thought. I know I am being morbid, which I should not be, as it is close to Christmas, and new year is just round the corner,blah, blah — but this whole week, thoughts of death and sickness have enveloped me. It was weird writing about this. I had never imagined in the wildest of my dreams that I would one day write about death and the like, but the more I thought, the more there seemed to be things which were queer about how we face death and sickness.
The first thought was: what exactly is it that makes you feel bad when someone suffers or dies?
Well, when you open the newspapers early in the morning, it is quite likely that you hear about at least four to five deaths. Murders, suicides, accidents, sometimes old age and ill health; the reasons are many, but a lot of them attain in death probably what they did not achieve in their lifetime- a mention! But have you ever wondered why it is that we feel bad only for a few people, and not for the rest? The answer, it seems, is a word called empathy. Empathy literally means putting ourselves in someone else’s shoes. I recently read an article in “The Week” about empathy which said that we end up feeling some sort of emotion only towards people who are similar to us in race, ethnicity, religion,education or situation! I was denying this fiercely in my mind, when I realized that I was actually doing what the article said! When I read, hear or see something bad happening to Indians, women, children, mothers, doctors etc.. I end up feeling a little more sadness and a state of understanding, than I do for everything and everyone else. I tried telling myself that I had felt really sad about Philip Hughes death, and so I am empathetic towards all! But when I rationalized, the sadness was more for his parents because they had lost a child and that loss was irreplaceable(this I can understand, because I am a mother!). I felt sad about the Malaysian Airlines tragedy a few months ago, but that was more distanced compassion and sympathy than an acute sense of grief! So you see, the article seemed to be right after all. Maybe to preserve our sanity and a sense of calm, our mind processes only what is similar to our lives and leaves the rest to a mild apathy! Try it on yourself. It is strange, but true.
The second is the aptness of reaction.
Quite a lot of times, professionally and personally, I have been in a slightly uncomfortable position of dealing with the aftermath of death. The consoling of the survivors. Sometimes, I have to go with the oft repeated ‘ It was for the best. He was suffering so badly. At least now he rests in peace’ to ‘ This was so unexpected. I can understand how you must be feeling’ and finally, when I feel most inadequate, just ‘I am so sorry’. But what ever it is that I say, I feel a sense of inadequacy, that I have somehow failed to do my job as a consoler well. I immediately end up thinking of the next few days – how dependent the survivor was on the deceased or vice versa, how their home will seem empty from now on, how photographs or familiar places will bring forth a barrage of memories and emotions –so on until I make myself miserable, and the discomfort becomes mine!
The worst was when I read about the terrorist attacks in Peshawar. I have never blanked out so badly. I really did not know how to react. Any of the dialogues I’m so used to made any sense in that situation. I crossed out emotions in my mind. Anger- no use; shame- I don’t know; sadness-woefully inadequate; fear- but for how long and where?. Basically, empathy failed me. But this horrible discomfort stayed. I could not be myself for the next three days. Then, time slowly eased me back into normalcy. Day by day, the weight on my shoulders and the tightness in my chest when I woke up in the morning eased. I started laughing more normally and became calmer about my children going to school. I used to feel that by consoling the relatives, I was helping them ease their suffering a little bit. But I realized that grieving often is a very lonely process. Kind words help, but do not lessen the grief. As time passes, and life goes on, we learn to live with it and start taking it for granted. That is when it stops hurting, but yet, it does not go away! So, a tight hug and holding on to a bad feeling inside of me,is probably the best way to react! It makes me feel that I am partly bearing the burden of their grief. It is not necessarily an overt, over the top reaction, but one that makes me feel that I have actually done my best.
I have finally made peace with the butterflies in my stomach and my nephew’s surgery. I accept the discomfort and will hopefully understand it better.