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IN LIEU OF DEATH ~ Sushant Singh Rajput

Death came for me on the 14th of June. No, it did not arrive at all in the way I had always expected it to – there was no blinding white light, or some demon dressed in black. It came like an assassin in an unruly ambush, and took me as I was, totally unprepared. 


It left me to grieve the loss of someone very dear. Only I’m just not sure who: whether it was the someone dear who went with bodily death, or us, that the someone dear left behind as dead, I do not know. I only know that this is going to be a yearly occurrence. 




In an hour of my having posted that on Facebook, the doorbell went off. I answered the door in my boxers to see a friend who said she was giving me exactly ten minutes to change into something more presentable. Once I was changed into jeans and tee, she towed me along to a place I had not been to before: an assembly of individuals who had faced the loss of a loved one. Not someone comfortable in unfamiliar environments, I began to feel queasy, but before I could have a word with my friend, a woman called out to me and invited me to join her and five people that had gathered in a small circle. I ambled along and drew a chair as a pleasant sounding man looked at me. “You are new here, right?” he asked me as I sat. Dumb question I thought, and wanted to tell him to get to the point, but, of course that was not how I would behave, and so I said nothing but merely moved my head in agreement. “What’s your name again?” he said. Another dumb question because I hadn’t shared my name yet. I turned and smiled at my friend collectedly, in order not to make her feel awkward, because I knew she was reading my facial vocabulary, and it reflected that I thought rather poorly of such support groups. I kept a straight face and stated my name. “Welcome, Mr Khan,” he said in his pleasant voice, “is there anything that you would care to share with us?” I shook my head. He didn’t take that as a rebuff and went on about how I should start to tell them who I was grieving for. I looked at the ground for a few seconds and thought that the floor could make do with a bit of cleaning. Then I breathed and looked up. “My best friend.” He gave me a look of having understood me, which I am certain he did not, but since he was trained to talk and behave in a particular way, he pretended he had understood me, and I pretended to let him fool himself that he had. “And did you lose her recently?” he asked. “A little over eleven months ago,” I replied. “And may I ask how you lost her?” I looked at him piercingly at first, and then calmed myself in a flick. “Suddenly,” I said, “I lost him suddenly.” He once again made a face with the expression that he had understood what I was feeling when he did jack. “Well, would you like to share with us about how you are feeling, or?” I shook my head and turned again to my friend who muttered a muted please. “Look, um, I don’t intend to sound . . .” I paused, reflected, “but this whole process,” I glared at the man directly, “I–I think that I’m at a different stage, or . . .” He cut me and said, “Well, the healing process of grief takes place in five different stages.” I was now furious at this dumb-fuck talk, and it was openly showing. “And what does this process do? Does it deal with my loss by helping me bring the person that I have lost back into my life?” He was flummoxed at my brazenness. “Any process is only supposed to act as a framework, a loose framework of the grieving process, accounting for everything from the grief of losing a loved one to the grief of somebody who is dying himself.” I lowered my head and reflected for a second, gathered myself and stared square into the man’s eyes – “Is there a difference?” He was quiet. “Is there?” I asked again. “Um . . .” he said, his demeanour a clear indication of his own inability to help me in any manner possible other than what his training or transcripts had taught him. I dipped my head, more as a token of politeness, and then stood up, winked at my friend, who was now thoroughly mortified at my behaviour and walked away. 


My friend followed up behind me. “I took you there for a reason you fool,” she scowled, “I took you there to help you overcome your grief, and also because I am so fucking worried that if you don’t talk,” she halted and looked about here and there, “that you might also end up dead . . . so at least you could have heard them out, right? At least!” I took in a lungful of air. “This ‘at least’ is what fucks everything up,” I told her, exhaling the air with a rather dramatic air. She narrowed her eyes and glared at me frostily. “People say all sorts of rubbish and then fit in words like ‘at least’ which are most unnecessary.” She hit me on my chest with her bag. “You’re being an arsehole,” she said. “Am I?” I asked, “Because as much as I appreciate what you are doing for me, I think that each of us have our own narrative of how we would like to deal with our angst . . . and the last thing anyone wants to hear is bollocks like it will be alright, or at least they lived long enough, or it was god’s plan, or they would want you to, or the classic – everything happens for a reason, etcetera, etcetera.” She hung her head down. I could see she was mildly ashamed. “Come on,” I said, grabbing her hand, “let me get you an ice-cream.” We got our cones and sat quietly on a bench as we watched people go by. “Were those people that repulsive?” I licked my ice-cream, spun round and faced her. “Like I said, everyone has their own method to process their pain, there cannot ever be a formula for it. Telling people to look at the bright side of it is like un-ringing a bell.” She smiled and repeated softly – un-ringing the bell. “What?” I asked. “Nothing,” she said bashfully. “When someone is in agony, being real may sound a bit rough perhaps, but it helps,” I said, “Something like – ‘I know what you are going through is hard, and I cannot say I understand what you are going through because I don’t, and I only hope that in time you will come to terms with it.’, can be one way to make someone feel real about it.” She reached out to my cone, took a swirl of my ice-cream and handed it back to me. “What’s been the hardest part of this for you?” she asked as she ruffled my hair. “Also, ‘Would you like to talk about it, or would you like to talk about something else?’, works splendidly too,” I replied. She smiled. “I get it.” I smiled too. “We just have to let people know that we are with them . . . we shouldn’t be putting words into their mouths because that is not what they would be needing. Practical support, even if it means to be with them in silence, is sufficient to get most ships across to the shore.”


When a person close to us dies, everything changes. It is as if a cyclone has swept and washed everything away. Everything appears meaningless, unfamiliar and empty. Some even tend to question who they are considering that a large sense of their identity was bound to the person they have lost. Dogmas, optimisms, aspirations seem utterly vain and tend to dissolve with time, and as cliché as it sounds, time stops. 


“So what form of death do you think is the hardest to accept?” she asked, slurping from her hands a large drop of ice-cream that had trickled down. “You think one can rate one over the other?” I asked, rather puzzled at her query. “I mean, you know,” she said stammering. “It could be the passing away of parents, siblings, partners, friends, spouse, it could be the loss of an unborn child to abortion or miscarriage, anything can cause bereavement.” She was absorbing what I was telling her, and it was evident that she was thinking something as I was speaking. “Out with it,” I said. She giggled. “I think tragic and violent deaths might cause more pain than the others.” I rolled my eyes. “Say an accident, a murder, a drowning, or suicide,” she paused, “disease, heart attacks too.” I nodded at her rather harsh reflections. “Expected or unexpected, gradual or sudden, any death is devastating,” I added. She got up and walked a few steps ahead, spreading her hands wide as the cool breeze caressed her skin. “Why did you behave that way in there?” I got up and walked up to her. “Really? After all that I’ve told you.” 


While she thought that talking to strangers would help me get over the loss of Sushant, it would have been impossible for me to make her understand not to meddle with the agony of others after I had already made my mind clear to her. What was it with some people, I wondered to myself – they are helpful and they are caring, but do they ever get anything?


“Tell me? Tell me!” she nudged me. I said nothing although I knew that her intentions were noble, only her intent was enormously incorrect – it was difficult to make someone understand that you miss the time you had with them, and that you may get over the pain in time, but you don’t really get over the passing of someone important to you, and this is the fundamental aspect of mortality that the world at large gets fully wrong. The people who care about you, they want to help you, they are worried about you, but the truth is that nobody can help you, nothing anybody says can make a difference. 


“What are you thinking now?” she asked me. “About the positive side of loss,” I answered. She studied me warily. “I think that while the death of the loved one destroys you, there is also a great positivity to be found in it.” Her eyes now became attentive. “We change as people . . . radically change . . . and this results in people becoming more open, intuitive, realistic, self-loving and gentle.” She slipped her hand into my hand. “I know what you mean,” she said kind-heartedly, “I have observed that people adopt a fresh set of values in life. They develop a stronger desire to help others, contribute to the world, prioritise relationships over money and materialism and spend more time with the ones they love.” I grinned upon hearing those words from her as I thought to myself that the one thing that is clear is that life chugs along, you accept and adjust without the person in question, but you do not get over the bereavement, ever. 



*In memoriam of my friend Sushant Singh Rajput (1986-2020)