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Archive for February, 2014

Notes of a Nobody: A Thing About Grief

Posted by Vish Mangalapalli on February 11, 2014


I have started to realize that human grief has a strong gender orientation. Men and women grieve very differently and for very different reasons. A man’s grief, I suspect, mostly has a material basis. Loss of job, property, money and wealth affect a man more than other kind of losses. Whereas a woman is affected the most by the loss of relationships. Material things do affect them but they do not go to pieces the way a man does. The most certain litmus test for ascertaining this orientation in grief is the unfortunate death of a child or an off-spring in a family. I have seen men recovering and carrying on with their lives after some time as if nothing has happened but women get shattered completely. In time, the tragic incident becomes an “avoidable memory” or better still an “avoided memory” for men but for women it acquires a nature of “essential memory” which they carry with them fresh to their graves

I lost a maternal aunt of mine in her childbirth (she was one among the nine siblings of my mother) and it pushed both my grandparents into an extended period of grief. Gradually and over a period of time my grandfather recovered but my grandmother never did. She lived for another two decades after this incident yet there was not an occasion my grandmother did not remember her lost daughter. A festival when we all gathered together, a sweet dish cooked, a voice heard, a specific sound, a particular coloured saree bought, a song on the radio, an actor or actress on the TV were all triggers for teary remembrances. It was a common occurrence with my grandmother that pointing to one of her other daughters she unintentionally called out the name of my dead aunt and inevitably burst into uncontrollable tears. There was a time when I deluded myself that she has overcome her grief. But that was not to be. Her grief was like a smouldering ember covered with ash giving a deceptive sense of forgetfulness, making peace or worse still a complete recovery. I have a distinct memory of the dying days of my grandmother: she was crippled and down with osteoporosis and even on her death bed, in a voice that was growing incoherent, she used to call out my aunt’s name. This was always accompanied by either the sad sardonic smile of my grandfather or his frustrated gentle chiding of her inability to not let go of things of the past. For him, my aunt became a thing of past but somehow my grandmother managed to keep her memories of my aunt fresh and ready on call.

Not surprisingly, memories of grief and how they get handled have become the rich raw material for writers of stories and books. A very fine treatment of this essential difference in the capacity to handle grief and distress is to be found in John Steinbeck’s classic “The Grapes of Wrath” where Ma Joad says this to Pa Joad:

 No, it ain’t “ Ma smiled. “It ain’t Pa. An’ that’s one more thing a woman knows. I noticed  that. Man, he lives in jerks – baby born an’ a man dies, an’ that’s a jerk – gets a farm an’ loses his farm, an that’s a jerk. Woman, it’s all one flow, like a stream, little eddies, little waterfalls, but the river it goes right on. Woman looks at it like that. We ain’t gonna die out. People is going on – changin’ a little, maybe, but goin’ right on….. Ever’thing we do – seems to me is aimed right at goin’ on. Seems that way to me. Even getting’ hungry – even bein’ sick; some die, but the rest is tougher. Jus’ try to live that day. Jus’ that day”

And on a very arbitrary note, I also suspect that it is in this essential difference in the way both sexes handle grief, lies the survival and adaptive instinct of the human species. For the exact dynamics of it… well… that is the topic for another day


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