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On Death, Loss and the Spiritual Wisdom of Ancient Rituals

Updated: Feb 26, 2020

I recently returned from a week or so in India, mourning the tragic loss of my beloved cousin brother, Kaku. The wider circumstances associated with this life gone too soon are not mine to share, but my experience of mourning his passing was quietly, but powerfully transformative. I left India feeling whole and held; feelings that have come to exist in harmony with my sadness, but that give my grieving a different texture. In life, my relationship with Kaku rooted me deeply, providing some belonging in a familial dynamic in which I was still finding my place; this was the first place that I came to experience freedom in our family. Our relationship also opened my eyes to the poetry hidden under the frenzy of life in Delhi. It was one of immense beauty.

For me, the importance of reflecting on my experience lies in recognising that for those of us who may belong to transplanted or diasporic communities in the west, maybe there are times when the chaos of our strongest, most unruly feelings can only be soothed by the metaphysics of deeply convening with gifts that ancestral bonds provide us with. When I missed Kaku’s funeral due to my visa taking just that little bit too long, I was devastated. I was so sad to have missed my chance to see his face or hold his hand one last time, but somehow, I never doubted that the very mitti (soil) of Delhi held something for me - and so I went.

I hadn’t known what this ‘something’ would look like, but it came in the form of a different, daily ritual that opened up spaces for collective grieving, communal sense-making, practices of holding space open for one another to express our loss in the ways we needed to that went beyond the funeral. Despite having spent a lot of time in India, the thing that I really experienced for the first time, over a prolonged period of time, was the extent to which rituals gave me something. Sometimes courage, sometimes groundedness, other times allowing or enabling vulnerability which would improve the quality of connection either with myself, or with and between other people. It was also important that all of this happened in either Punjabi or Hindi, the very nature of which allows me to live in the world, and express myself differently; to be alive in a different shared spiritual discourse and ontology.

In the past, rituals like this felt very performative to me; my anxiety was often fed by the idea that I wouldn’t play my part correctly. For the first time though, in the face of unimaginable loss, I experienced our mix of Sikh and Hindu rituals as a journey towards acceptance, strengthened bonds between family and an incredibly metaphysical connection with the many generations of elders that had come before those of us still present on Earth; they generously held and guided us with such vision that we were tethered deeply once more with the earth, with ourselves and with each other.

On the day that I arrived, in the evening we all sat together and did the Sukhmani Sahib Ji’s paath, a long prayer which poetically speaks to us about peace of mind; about the limitations of ego and body and of the meaning of joy, life and death. The ritual which accompanied the reading mirrored meditative chanting, rhythmically bringing peace, designed to help us all transcend the room and to move to another place. We read this together many times that day.

The next day, the entire community gathered to mourn our collective loss and disbelief; we read Sukhmani Sahib Ji’s paath again, and listened to our emotions sang back to us in the form of keertan, allowing us to sit and cry together, quietly, in a house of spiritual safety designed especially for us. We ate langar together, our family served food, we talked about Kaku, processed our shock, people told me how important they knew I was to him, and how sorry they are. I was acutely aware of the love that surrounded his life, and the love that remained for me here.

The next day we took a pilgrimage to Hardiwar, to the Ganges to lay him to rest in his final place, and to become part of the earth once more. We took one last journey with him, and came to understand that while our spiritual journey together would continue, our physical journey together ended here. There was a sort of peace in that. Within all of this, we shared tender moments with each other, with friends and with strangers. Each of these rituals on different days fed our souls a different sort of nourishment, and fed the quality of our relationships together in different ways. We weren’t able to hide from our sadness, or from each other’s either.

The idea of ‘community’ is undoubtedly complex, and I know that rituals like this can sometimes feel unsafe for many of us for lots of different reasons. Let me also say, when I first found out about Kaku passing, I was very grateful for the space to have a beer and a cigarette (sorry mum!!) on my balcony alone. My family, in its own amazing way has also generally embraced the idea that the rigidity of rituals is no longer conducive a healthy family dynamic, especially when our family is so global, so we were also creolising. We have, and I have done a lot of work which allowed me to experience being held by this experience, and not totally lost within in.

The question that transcends this personal experience for me though, the one that I am left with is: where do we look for healing? Where might we find food for our souls, or connections that fill our yearnings. Let me tell you, I couldn’t find what I needed alone with that cigarette on my balcony, not long term. As people of colour, or people who belong to ancient traditions, how might we honour the sedimentation of tradition that lives within us, and speaks to the longing that we suppress unknowingly? These are big questions, but important for us to contend with. Especially if we want to do the work of building a life which embraces the fullness of who we are.

As always, we are trying to create an engaged learning community. If this piece spoke to you, please share - and maybe make space for reflections - so that others may engage with your thoughts, and with ours.

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