Love means never having to say goodbye

More than ever, we need stories of love now to help us grieve and heal collectively.

* She left us last night./ My whole heart. My whole life. The only god I know./ My Amma, I’m sorry I couldn’t save you. You fought so hard, my mama. My precious. My heart. You’re my whole life.

A heartbreaking and poignant love letter by a daughter to her mother.* The lyricism, the beauty, the grace of what we call life, loving and death encapsulated in a few words. As I read and reread them, the pain in these words choked me, but the love in them made my heart sing. If I were to die, I would want my children to remember me with, “You fought so hard, my Mama. My precious. My heart.” That would be the love story I would want them to cherish me with.

We make stories, and stories make us. We make sense of this world through stories; they give meaning to our life, and our death. Maybe what we need, more than ever, are stories of love, of those lost to COVID-19. Countless images and news showed the indignity and injustice that people faced, even in death. Maybe it will help to grieve and heal collectively by telling and retelling love stories. Stories transcend death, love stories transcend generations and become legacies, and in stories of legacies, people live on forever.

Normative ideas on grieving — largely colonised by Western psychology — define its stages as denial, anger, bargaining, and then, acceptance. The problem is that it’s prescriptive, it obscures cultural context or how each person might grieve in their own way. We aren’t assembly-line products that must tick boxes of quality control — “acceptance successfully attained and now ready to move on with life” — otherwise slapped with a diagnostic label of Prolonged Grief Disorder. Defective product — not ready for consumption!

History shows the only way people have healed or made sense of the savagery of our times is by telling stories. The savagery of India’s Partition, atrocities of the Holocaust or the genocide the Tutsis endured in Rwanda. Many of us would have heard blood-curdling stories of Partition from our parents or grandparents and, at times, even rolled our eyes at how they kept at it like a broken record. And yet, with each retelling, they seemed to heal. In a curious way, making them reclaim homes, valued possessions and relationships that were lost in the painful journey.

My Rwandan friends wrote me a love letter of solidarity recently, and I resonated with the way they described their journey with suffering and pain, “It is like a lamp that has been filled with smoke, and light can’t pass through, but whenever the lamp gets someone to clear the smoke off, light shines again. In Kinyarwanda, they say, “Nta joro ridatya,” loosely meaning, “No night that never weathers” — this too shall pass. I wrote back, “This night is dark, very dark, and your letter was like a sparkling flame of the lamp that gives us company till the night is ready to weather. Thank you for sharing with us what helps you clear the smoke as we find a way to clear ours.”

Our memories shape our storylines. What memories we are going to carry forward from this pandemic depends on the stories we craft together. Will these be stories of dark smoke, despair and brokenness, or will they also be about the sparkling flame of the lamp, hope and solidarity?

My grandfather, “my dadu, my precious,” died more than 20 years ago, but is more alive to me than ever. A freedom fighter, changemaker, storyteller, his stories nourished the soil I stand on. As Thich Nhat Hanh, the Zen Buddhist master, puts it, “All of us are interbeing: we are all connected. When I die, my body will turn to the soil, and that soil will nurture a sapling, and life will continue.”

Love does not die, relationships do not die, and love stories do not die. Let’s together write letters to our loved ones for us to heal, make sense of their senseless deaths and strengthen our connection with them. I have a few questions (adapted from David Denborough’s 2014 book Retelling the Stories of Our Lives), you needn’t answer if your grief is too raw, but come back when you’re ready:

– What words would you use to describe a person who has passed on — what they stood for, what they did that was important to them, who they held precious, what about life you learnt by observing them?

– What are your favourite memories of them?

– What did they appreciate in you that others might have missed?

– What would they say about the role you played in, or the way you contributed to, their life?

– Have you carried out any small ritual to give them a dignified “send-off”? What stories about them would they want to be recounted? How will you do it?

– How have their connections helped you in realising your dreams and hopes? What would they say about these hopes?

– How do you think you’d make a difference to this world and what words of encouragement would this person offer?

A story isn’t a story until it has found an audience. Share this love letter with as many as you like, with family and friends. Write it on a piece of paper, email it or post it on social media with the hashtag #loveletter. These love letters need to spread out wide, find wings like doves of hope for us to collectively honour our dead, uphold what they stood for and take their legacy forward.

* Written on Instagram by actor-comedian Mallika Dua for her mother Padmavati “Chinna” Dua, who recently succumbed to COVID-19

(Shelja Sen is a narrative therapist, writer, co-founder of Children First Institute of Child & Adolescent Mental Health. She is a TED speaker, an international faculty at Dulwich Centre, Adelaide, and Tutor at University of Melbourne. Her latest book is Reclaim Your Life)

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