When customs hinder your grieving

In the last few weeks I’ve undergone an unbearable pain I wouldn’t wish on anybody – the sudden loss of a parent. I’ve lost close relations in the past, including my grandparents, which meant the mourning process was done in our home. But this time everything felt so much worse, for all the wrong reasons.

Maybe it’s my age – I’m older thus more involved in everything. Or maybe it’s because the person I loved more than anybody else, who meant everything to me, who I revolved my life around; was suddenly snatched away by fate.

From the start I’ll specify I’m about to explain the British Sikh way of mourning. In India, it’s quite different. And elsewhere, I have no idea what grieving families are expected to do leading up to the funeral.

In Britain, Sikhs usually start a Sehj Paath (prayer) in the house the day after a relative passes and lay white sheets on the floor until the funeral (depending on whether a post mortem is needed or availability of the crematorium; this could take a week to even three weeks). The prayer means two meals must be cooked daily to be blessed by a priest – although this doesn’t necessarily have to be cooked in the same house. And the door is left open during the day for people to come and go to pay condolences. Tea is served throughout all of this, as well as the blessed food.

It’s not guests eating I have an issue with – they don’t always expect to be fed a meal and some travel from different cities so its fair play. But it’s the custom of providing food at such a tragic time in a household that I don’t understand. Historically, people would travel by foot or cart to villages or towns in India to pay condolences. So food would be provided because of the distance they’d travelled and the time it took with restricted modes of transport. Moreover, as Sikhs we provide langar (blessed food) wherever the Guru Granth Sahib Ji (holy book and living Guru) is kept.

But in an age where virtually all households have a car, thus travelling is more efficient, people paying condolences don’t necessarily stay for long enough to expect a meal. As for those close relatives who are there round the clock – and they’re the ones who do much of the cooking and housework – of course they would need to be fed. But maybe we should adopt something similar to Muslims – relatives bring dishes to the mourning house. No cooking is done in the grieving house. Or what Namdharis (Sikh sub-sect) do – food is provided at a certain time of the day and anybody to arrive before or after is only served tea.

When you’re coming to terms with the loss of your mother, you barely have time to shed a tear or see to guests when you’re consumed in cooking two meals a day. You spend much of the day in the kitchen cooking and cleaning when your deceased parents’ blood has hardly gone cold. To any other community, such a custom would seem unbelievable. And as Sikhs, yes, it’s in our faith to serve and provide food but essentially that’s for the needy. A lot of what happens has become custom because of societal expectation.

You may think I’m coming across as unwelcoming; ranting about having to feed guests. If you’ve ever been to my house you’ll find my family’s very much feeders. We don’t let guests leave without providing food. But at the most tragic time imaginable, such a practice feels overwhelmingly tiring and unfair on a grieving family.

Aside from this are the comments you have to hear. I’ve lost my mum, the person I loved most in the world, the person who I revolved my life around. And I have biddies saying: “Your mum has gone, you’re all alone now, you’ll never get a mother again, mothers are irreplaceable.” – don’t you think I know all of this? Are these meant to be consoling words?

The worst has got to be: “If only she married you off first then died the following day”… f***ing unbelievable. And what hurt the most was: “Your brother will be happy in his family, your sister will be happy in her family, but you’ll be all alone now.” Wow. So apparently I have nobody left in the world now.

I appreciate people come to pay their respects and say what they feel is best. But at times like this, the less said the better. There’s no ‘right’ thing to say but all of the above are definitely the wrong things to say.

Despite all of this, my family and close friends have been an absolute Godsend. Their continued love and support has been the strength you need to cope with such a loss that makes you feel crippled. And it’s times like this you realise who will be there for you. People I least expected have put themselves out to show their support. Whereas some of those I’ve grown up with have shown their true colours.

Ultimately, it’s all an eye-opener: how unhelpful Punjabi customs can be, how insensitive ‘standard’ comments from the community at bereavements can be and how distant you feel from people you once considered your dearest. Conversely, it’s the love from the genuine friends and relatives that is your biggest strength and a blessing from God.

Rant over.