Contributed by Root & Seed Co-Founder, Anika Chabra

As someone who has lost a parent, therefore lost profoundly, the concept of grief in both small and big ways consumes me.

I have very few regrets in my life especially in the relationships that I have prioritized and nurtured. That attitude of living fully in relationships extended to my relationship with my now late mom. It wasn’t always perfect and perhaps never was - grief does tend to put “rose colored glasses” on memories. My teenage years were riddled with me acting out and lots of episodes of disrespect. I conflicted with my parents over differing values. I pushed the boundaries and felt stifled by restrictions that I chalked up to being mostly cultural - even though my parents were pretty progressive for South Asian parents at the time.

As I got older, our relationship improved and my mom became a strong force in my life. We shared so many life moments - she got to see me graduate school and choose my life path, get married and have children. I, in turn, got to rely on her experience - to me she had done it all. I felt the safety net of a blueprint - even though times were different, I had someone very close to me who had done the things I planned to do in my life and I could play in that sandbox pretty freely, knowing that I could rely on her experience.

Importantly, I could decide how I wanted it to be the same and how I wanted it to be different.

That privilege in shared experience was never extended to an inevitable phase in everyone’s life - grief. They say that when you lose someone, the very person who you lost is the person who you need the most to be here. To me that was my mom.

Through my work with Root & Seed I’ve been able to reflect on her life and document what I do know of her life journey. I’ve been able to piece together what I call a pretty special life. That said, without her physically here, I accept the fact that there are things I will never know. I rely on the stories in our communities to lift me up, to inspire me, to make me feel less alone.

What I have discovered is that for so much of her life, particularly the first half, it was in fact filled with grief. After losing her father suddenly at the age of 18, her whole family foundation was disrupted. She hardly spoke about him or his ailments - all I heard about was that he didn’t handle the devastation and after effects of Partition well and that his health declined as a result. I knew that this was a soft spot for her and I knew that she didn’t respect that weakness in him, even though it wasn’t ever vocalized.

At that young age on the cusp of adulthood, she decided to pursue a “second life” of sorts. Worked hard to get higher education, a Bachelors and a Masters degree, enough to make her life distinguishable and attractive to both a life partner and to the eventual country that they decided to call home - Canada.

That ensued the next phase of grief in her life, best articulated in the concept of cultural bereavement:

The loss of one's social structure and culture can cause a grief reaction, as has been described by Eisenbruch (10,11). Migration involves the loss of the familiar, including language (especially colloquial and dialect), attitudes, values, social structures and support networks. Grieving for this loss can be viewed as a healthy reaction and a natural consequence of migration.

Without any family or community to support, she left her homeland for the hope of a better life. While the conviction to move was unwavering and India was squarely in her rearview mirror, the bereavement of leaving her family and charting a new path was met with confusion and disruption. Without technology to support, I recall the international mail that my mom would write in her beautiful “teacher handwriting”, filling every square millimeter on that thin blue paper to her widowed mother, my Nani. When we did visit India, I remember the tearful goodbyes between her and her family, exasperated by generational trauma of leaving their wealthy lives in pre-Partition India. Muscle memory in its worst form, passing on to generations, now resurfaced with each visit.

I’ve wondered that perhaps I felt that same feeling of sorts of “cultural bereavement” when my mom passed. Suddenly the most intimate connection that I felt to my culture had disappeared. On top of that, like many of the other reasons I looked up to her, she was a symbol of how to do “culture” right - if there is such a thing. She was respectful yet choiceful on what she brought into her life. And allowed herself to ebb and flow with that cultural relationship as her circumstances and life stage changed. I wonder if that’s why I love to hear the relationships that our podcast guests have with their heritage and backgrounds - it’s not linear, it’s personal and sometimes circumstantial.

It’s also struck me that cultural bereavement can happen in more micro ways, even if the loss still feels big and macro. Moving neighborhoods, switching schools, moving companies. It impacts families and communities. And it hurts. It takes effort and conviction to keep ties, deciding on what to leave and what to take forward. At Root & Seed we talk about this as “sifting and sorting”, and owning your stories and future as you do so.

Perhaps the idea that both my mom and I have now gone through grief and cultural bereavement gives me solace. That even though we never shared this “phase” of grief in a physical way, that I am indeed charting my path with my relationship with the inevitable. 

In our death-denying culture, are we ever fully ready to share grief in an anticipatory way with others?

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