May 20, 2024

5 Things I have Learned about Relationships after the Loss of a Loved One.


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May is Mental Health Awareness Month.

It’s the official start of summer, short work weeks, a season to adorn white clothing, enjoy barbeque gatherings, and throw summer parties.

May carries the good essence of Pitta season: lightness. But the month of May also feels heavy like grief and Kapha Dosha to me. That’s because the fifth month of the year happens to be my mom, dad, and father-in-law’s death anniversaries…all within a few days of each other.

In the past year, as you can imagine, my mental health has been tested on multiple levels. I am fortunate. Despite all the chaos and disruptions, I don’t have any mental health issues or diseases (knock on wood!). I believe it’s God’s grace and diligent self-care practices in place that have helped me remain anchored and navigate an insane year. I also believe my father taught me valuable, real-life lessons that helped accept that everything in life is transient, including certain relationships.

A friend reminded me recently, “Sweta, you are that person who shows up 5,000 percent in a relationship even when you have your own stuff going on.”

She’s right. I will remember your deceased grandma’s favorite color, celebrate your child’s special moments, go to the temple if your loved one is in a hospital, wear your mom’s favorite color on her birthday, cook your dad’s beloved dish even after he has moved to another realm, root for you on days when you don’t believe in yourself, remain loyal no matter what, and be there genuinely months or years after a person has endured any kind of loss. One of my childhood friends lost her mother and brother when she was in ninth grade. Every year, on their death anniversary, I send her a message and say a prayer for her family at Ganesha Temple.

A part of me used to believe (notice how I use the past tense) that doing that little extra is how we heal together as a family or community or society or world. Aren’t all of us connected and so are our sorrows and joys? Going above and beyond is how we remind someone that they aren’t alone or forgotten! Both my parents sacrificed their health and happiness for the benefit of others. I am not saying that’s the best way to live, but those were the values they instilled in me: share, care, show up, and love unconditionally. How are we different from animals otherwise, beta? My mom’s favorite words.

Saying goodbye to a parent (in my case both parents) is one of the hardest things we face in our lives. I thought now was the time when people would show up for me. Not just after Dad’s passing but throughout the year. They would ask how I survived my parent’s anniversary or my birthday or my doctoral graduation or my 25th wedding anniversary or the first Diwali in a parentless world.

A dear psychologist friend of mine, also an adult orphan, once said, “Most people are assholes! You see those traits clearly when you lose a parent.”

Here are five things I have learned about relationships:

1. Adults are self-consumed.

People are focused on their day-to-day life and own struggles. It’s hard for them to put themselves in anyone else’s shoes. But I found it interesting that many people will certainly do the socially right thing: tick the check box of visiting you once or messaging you twice or sending condolence flowers before nonchalantly moving on after seeking “absolution.” A colleague’s BFF of 30 years ghosted her a week after she lost her mother, her job, and her home, and was at her worst.

2. Your support network evolves.

I have witnessed grief transform friendships. People who you thought would stand by you ghost you and dismiss your pain. I learned that some people just don’t know how to be there for others in a way that makes them feel relevant and loved. Some are dysfunctional in moments of crisis and can only talk about themselves. I’ve also made new friends who have also suffered a loss and bring empathy to our relationship. Some cousins and friends and I have gotten even closer because of our shared experiences of loss and faith in human connection. Fact: you never know who will come through and who will fade away.

3. No one is coming to save you.

Many of my friends have lost a parent each in this past year. Every single one of them encountered selfishness from some family member and callousness from a few old friends. People forget that our grief doesn’t end after the funeral or cremation. We don’t need them to be our grief counselors, but what hurt the most was the realization that the friends and family who you thought had your back through it all, didn’t. For me, this one realization was most disappointing as well as liberating as it eventually allowed me to pour my energy into my relationships worthy of my love.

4. Your expectations will steal your peace.

Processing the loss of your loved one may have been one of the most difficult milestones of your life. Some are confused by your grief; some don’t care. Sometimes, people are jealous of the relationship you shared with your deceased loved one and silence is a way of unpacking their baggage. My father always said that expectations are the root cause of misery, anxiety, and mental mayhem. He reiterated these sentiments after Mom died and even after he fell sick. He had more experience with the world. Do what you can do to set boundaries, so emotional expectations don’t hold you a prisoner.

5. Recognize a problematic friendship/relationship.

One of my friendships and another relationship with an extended family member had felt heavy and complicated even prior to my father’s death. Because I didn’t have the space in my life to pause, reflect, and act, I did nothing about it. Don’t we all just like peace at the cost of everything else? While I enjoyed certain aspects of the relationship with these two people, I also felt drained and used for my thoughtfulness and humorous nature. The family member ghosted me the day my father died, and this friend ignored my grief and began to speak about their own needs, as opposed to listening to mine. Neither of their behaviors were surprising. Over these past 12 months, my desire to want to engage with both these people has diminished. There is pain but also immense relief.

We all need compassion and an extra hug when grief strikes. Relationships can either solidify or crumble depending on how people show up when you are deep in the trenches of grief. By not saying anything and not reaching out, you are doing the worst thing to a griever.

“Grief can be a burden, but also an anchor. You get used to the weight, how it holds you in place.”~ Sarah Dessen


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