Dying for love

By Shunashir Sen | Mumbai

A talk at a city college, inspired by a published personal account of death, will offer lessons on coping with grief

Armaan, Anil, Aarti and Ahaan Raheja

Death. Read that word again - death. Feel it. Face it. And let it evoke an image. It can be the face of someone you've lost. Or, someone you fear losing. But then it can also be the picture of a vague memory, maybe of a place, or of a moment. For, death is more than the profoundly mundane act of passing away. It is, in its very essence, the birth of an emotion. That emotion can be guilt. It can be grief. There are times when it can even be relief. But it's yours, whatever it is. It's yours to accept, yours to process, and yours to go to sleep at night with.

That's how deeply personal this aspect of the human condition is. But we are also flesh-and-bones products peopling the world at the end of the day. So, if death takes away a loved one, most of us feel an overriding sense of trauma that drives us helpless. Sometimes, however, we have the luxury of preparing for it, like it may be with an ailing grandparent. At other times, the ground is taken away from beneath our feet. And a parent losing a child is possibly the closest example of death socking a person under the chin, knocking the lights out without warning.

It's what happened to Mumbai-based couple Aarti and Anil Raheja on October 18, 2010. That's the day Ahaan, their 12-year-old son, died. It happened overnight, and the cause of his death was a mystery. But that didn't alter the reality of his physical body flatlining. And Aarti and Anil couldn't at first come to terms with what had just happened. They felt as shattered as any other parent in their shoes would be.


The father with his children

Be open to spiritual intervention
But over time, a series of steps helped them journey down a path of acceptance that made the loss easier to bear. The winter of despair turned into a spring of hope, with the first rays of consolation arriving thanks to Armaan, their second son, who was only nine when he lost his brother. And the couple eventually chronicled this transition in a self-published book, Where One is Not a Number, in which they describe how, as a family, they filled the void they had been left with.

Now, one of these coping mechanisms can be bracketed under the label of spirituality. "But honestly, neither Anil nor I were religious or spiritual to begin with. I don't even like the word as a person. And being from a Hindu family, we would always hear talk about the soul - the aatma - being alive, which we would dismiss as b*llshit. We thought it was only a case of grabbing at straws because you're hurting," Aarti says, before adding, "But then Armaan came to us one day and said, 'I am talking to Ahaan.' We were shocked, and thought he needed psychiatric help. But he told us not to worry and spoke to us about God, seeing an eternal light, and feeling a divine energy. And hearing a nine-year-old child talk like that, I was like, 'What the hell is he saying?'"


Aarti Raheja. Pic/Ashish Raje

The episode led the Rahejas to open themselves up to the idea of visiting the shrine of a spiritual leader near Mumbai. This began their process of accepting the concept of a life beyond death, which brought them succour because now, Ahaan didn't seem like he was dead anymore. Instead, he was alive in a different dimension. But the fact is that this notion - of the soul existing in another realm - isn't set in stone. You might subscribe to it, but we might not.

Deal with it in tandem
What was more important in the case of Anil and Aarti, then, was that they chose to go down the same road hand-in-hand. "He was a huge source of support because if I had to fight Anil, that would be another battle. If he'd said, 'You've lost your marbles,' I'd be depressed about him not understanding how I was trying to rise above something. And the beautiful thing was that when I was down and out, he would pump me up, and vice-versa," Aarti says, indicating how, for a couple that has lost
a child, it's vital to fight the grief as a team.

Overcome the guilt
But it's as important, she continues, to overcome an initial sense of guilt. "When you face such a loss, you somewhere hold yourself responsible for it. You feel that the whole onus of your child's life was on you. So, their death makes you feel like you have failed as a parent," she tells us, before talking about how reading up on the experience that other grieving parents had gone through was a handy way of overcoming this guilt.

The book also details how it's important to feel oneness with the universe when faced with the loss of a child, and Aarti will be touching upon some of these subjects during a talk at St Xavier's College. But Anil won't be there, though. For, he passed away three years after Ahaan, and as unexpectedly. "But you know, after the initial shock, when his body came out of the morgue, I was filled with only a sense of love and affection for the life we had led together," Aarti says. And that, she adds, are the two most crucial emotional weapons that help deal with death, no matter what avatar it presents itself in.

CALL: 9820711280 to register for Aarti's talk at St Xavier's College, which will take place at 8 am tomorrow

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