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Starting The Healing Journey

Sep/03/2023 / by Sweta Vikram

Grief is a process which needs you to be compassionate toward yourself

Silhouette of woman against a sunset outdoors
Photo via Shutterstock

My father loved spending his birthday in New York City with us. I have a bunch of close cousins and Papa’s classmate from engineering days lives in Connecticut. Invariably, my bua and phupha (aunt and uncle) would be in town from New Delhi around his birthday. We all looked forward to the month of August and celebrating him. My father, like me, was an extrovert who preferred intimate gatherings. 

The Final Days

In May 2023, two days prior to when the doctor informed us that my father had a few days left, I booked my tickets to India. Since Papa couldn’t travel to NYC, I wanted to be in India with him for his birthday. I am a planner, but life has a mind of its own. On May 28, my father passed away.

“I want to go to New York for my birthday,” my father whispered to me a few nights before he passed away. By this point he was partially incoherent. He said, “I will take a train, but I want to be in New York.” I massaged his head. “Papa, I will come to Pune for your birthday. We’ll do a small gathering in Lonavala with my in-laws, close relatives, and a few friends,” I told him. He looked at me with caring but vacant eyes, as if he knew the opportunity to share his deep feelings and time in this realm were limited.

A Difficult Decision

My husband and I came back to New York in June. A week into grappling with my new identity as an orphan and fatherless world, I remembered that I still had confirmed plane tickets for August. Since the beginning of 2022, I have been traveling to India every few months to spend time with my father and in-laws. It was second nature to land in NYC all exhausted and partially frustrated (the elderly aren’t easy and caregiving doesn’t come with any manuals). A week later, I would have started to plan my next trip to India.

This time, I didn’t want to go back. It felt too soon. Who was waiting for me in India? Whose address would I fill out in the customs declaration form? Sure, there are family and friends-who-are-like-family who love me immensely. “No one will give a damn if my flight lands in New Delhi or Lahore,” I paced up and down our living room. Fact: No one will love you unconditionally like your parents. 

 As luck would have it, at first the airline’s cancellation fee was ridiculously high. My immigrant mindset couldn’t think of wasting hundreds of dollars. My husband said, “Whether you cancel the ticket today or the day before your travels, it’s the same fee. You don’t have to make that decision today.” 

Reflections And Memories

In June and July, I started reflecting and writing about my father. I knew him well as a human being, not just a father—what brought him joy, what angered him, what triggered him. His first work trip to the United States was in 1980 when he and four other geeky, engineer colleagues landed in Chicago. One of them ran into the glass doors because he didn’t see the door. With shattered glass on the floor and minimal money in their pockets, all five of them worried if they’d have to wash dishes to be able to pay. Turns out the hotel was only too grateful that these men didn’t sue. There were so many more stories from this trip that Papa would share. My father always spoke fondly of the Windy City and how being there shifted his perspective. It was on this trip that he decided he wanted his wife and two little children to experience the world. 

Maybe it sounds strange to those who haven’t lost a loved one, but when confused or at a crossroads, I reach out to my father. I ask him for guidance. I told him that I loved him but traveling to India so soon after losing him would make me sick. I didn’t want to fail as a daughter by not “meeting” him for his birthday. I didn’t want to waste the money.

When Things Fall Into Place 

In the first week of August, out of nowhere, a very dear friend from London called. I told her that I was going to India and would spend a week in the Himalayas at a yoga retreat before anything else. She said, “Please don’t go. The last thing you need is to be stuck in the floods.” What floods? I have been so intentionally disconnected with the motherland in my healing journey that I had no idea. Turns out that the northern part of India has been massively hit with the monsoons this year. Same day, the airline told me that they would refund my fees fully because it was an exceptional case—the person I was traveling to India for, my father, was now deceased.  

On several occasions I wondered if my father was looking over me from the beyond. How are certain things falling into place?As soon as I canceled my tickets to India, a dam in my eyes broke. My grieving has been delayed because of two simultaneous losses in the family—my father and father-in-law within two days.

I put my grief on hold until others were taken care of. I was so stressed about my upcoming India trip that my heart refused to be vulnerable. But the day I decided I needed to start my healing before making another trip to India, my mind felt lighter. I felt unburdened. I cried in the subway. I cried in a meeting. I cried while watching television.

Going Back To The Beginning

Instead of flying to India for my father’s birthday, my husband and I flew to Chicago. My rational mind knew that the deceased didn’t appear. My emotional heart wanted to visit the city for the sake of my father. A friend told me that Hindus believe that the soul sticks around for 40 days after an individual dies. But in Tibetan culture, it’s said that the soul hangs around for 90 days and in Buddhism, for 100 days. My father’s birthday was around the 90-day mark from when he died. 

I saw childhood friends (our parents were friends), my adulthood friends, and celebrated Papa’s birthday the way he would have liked. When I think about it, Papa’s last wish was for me to take care of myself.Two days before he died, he whispered to me, “Kaisey thakti nahin ho, beta?” (“How do you not get tired, my child?”)

Thanks to him, I was allowed to be Sweta for a week. Just a human being with a grieving heart, aching bones, and a grateful mind who was in Chicago to surrender to the stories of the past and start my own healing.

“A good father will leave his imprint on his daughter for the rest of her life.” ~ Dr. James Dobson

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