#inspiringwomen: “Breaking down was not an option: I had to carry on for my son”

It’s been four years, but the evening is still fresh in my mind. Arnav was home playing with Ayushman, when a neighbor came by and told me Ayushman’s father is seriously ill. Kapil rushed out to assist and I ran out a little later with emergency medication for a heart attack. Downstairs, I found Ayaan slumped in a wheelchair surrounded by neighbours. Surprisingly, the doctor not only refused the medicine but even the suggestion to take him to a reputable private hospital nearby. He just recommended we take him to the nearest local hospital. I didn’t know it was already too late to do anything for Ayaan.

Soon after, Kapil called me to the hospital. I was tasked with breaking the news to Antara, Ayaan’s wife. His cousin did not have the courage to do that. I didn’t think I had either.

I don’t know how a woman is supposed to respond to her husband’s untimely death. Will she cry? Scream? Collapse? Faint? I don’t know. Antara took the news without any reaction. Her first sentence was, “How will I tell Ayushman, He is so close to his father. He is only six”. From that day to now, I have never seen her cry. She has hidden her grief and tried to keep life as normal as possible for her son. This year Ayushman will turn 11.

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I asked Antara with trepidation if she would like to share her story with the world, not sure if she would be willing to share a loss as personal as this. But she took the challenge. As she has, these last four years. I worried if she will break down sharing her story. But she didn’t – just as these last four years.

Antara was born and brought up in Kolkata, had a happy, uneventful childhood. An only child, she preferred being on her own and had select but close friends. Her parents gave her the freedom to be – her mum wanted to work, but could not, so she always encouraged Antara to be independent, have a career. Her dad was busy with work and mom dominated all household decisions, like all Bengali households, she laughingly tells me. That open upbringing and a strong mother figure, made her into the strong woman she is today, not afraid to deal with life on her own terms. The foundation laid by her parents, is what has helped her get through the hard reality of life she faces every day.

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She met Ayaan while doing a two-year course in computer programming and coding. They became friends and were part of the same group. While Antara was reserved, Ayaan was her total opposite. Outspoken and friendly, Ayaan made friends easily.

They started dating only after both started their jobs. After finishing their studies, they kept in touch and slowly an unsaid bond developed. Antara says there was never really any proper proposal. They both grew into the relationship and neither had to formally ask the other. Ayaan moved to Delhi for work and Antara followed a year later, when they got married.

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Ayaan was an ambitious, hardworking young man. As Antara says, he was self-made – he got through most of his education on the back scholarships he earned. He wanted to make sure they had their own house before having a child. They both worked hard to achieve that goal and shifted into their new house, three months before their baby was born.

“Though he never mentioned, I think Ayaan was not very close to his mother. However, he really cherished the relationship he had with his father.” Perhaps to compensate for the fractured relationship, Ayaan loved his son to the hilt. No wish went unattended, Ayaan showered Ayushman with toys, gifts and most of all his time. The two developed a very close relationship and Antara feels that Ayushman is probably still not as close to her as he was to his father. The threesome loved holidaying and spent some cherished vacations together. But time was short.

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9th April 2014. Antara had a job interview and Ayaan offered to drive her to the venue. On the way back, he complained of a slight pain in the chest. Shrugging it off as a gastric issue, he came back home and took some medication. When he didn’t feel better till evening, they decided to go to a doctor and Ayaan went to change. Antara was in another room, when she heard a strange gurgle followed by a thud. She ran to the room and found Ayaan lying on the floor, unconscious. She screamed.

Too soon it was all over. He was declared ‘brought dead’ – and was no more a person. Ayaan had become a ‘body’. The hospital could not release ‘the body’ till a post mortem was done to find cause of death. A police report was required.

And in the middle of all this was Antara. Surrounded by women – mostly neighbours – no mother – no sister – no friend. No one she could lean on and cry with. So she just held everything in. Steeled herself to go through all the processes.

Antara had decided to take Ayushman for the cremation. A psychiatrist told her that it was important for Ayushman to understand his father was no more. We all collected at the Lodhi Road crematorium where we waited for Ayaan’s parents to arrive. They reached soon after we did, and I will not forget the cries of a woman who has lost a young son. Crazed by grief, she was in stark contrast to Antara’s composure. Two women who loved the same man, bound and separated by his death.

She broke down once again, when they laid her son on the ground. In her grief, she wanted Ayushman to touch and feel his father for one last time. The little child, not seven yet, froze with fear. Unable to comprehend what was going on around him, he wanted to run. I took him away with me, holding him, playing with him while the last rites were being completed.

Ayaan had been very popular and loved wherever he went. Many of his friends surrounded Antara and helped her with all the arrangements, the paperwork, the post mortem. But they all also had to get back to their own lives. One by one they left. And Antara was left alone to pick up the pieces of a life that once was.

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Kapil turned 40 last December. The exact same day Ayaan would have turned 40 too. I remember feeling that death had prowled our corridors that fateful day and took Ayaan finding him home. Even now I shudder at how close by death had been. I am once again reminded how important is each moment lived. And how lives can change in a minute. Here one minute and gone another.

I am reminded of Sheryl Sandberg, who lost her husband a month after Antara did. She wrote on her FB, “I think when tragedy occurs, it presents a choice. You can give in to the void, the emptiness that fills your heart, your lungs, constricts your ability to think or even breathe. Or you can try to find meaning.

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As we talk, I tell her how amazed I have been with her self-control. She says she doesn’t know where it came from. Even her mother says she had no idea how brave her daughter was. As far as Antara is concerned, she knew she had to be strong for her son. She did not show her grief, so her son could retain a sense of normality.

She remembers the evening of the cremation. When she came back home, it was empty. Silent. Her mum had not come yet and Ayushman was with us. She just sat down in the drawing room, soaking in the silence. The cacophony inside and the chaos outside needed to be silenced so she could think. But even then, she did not cry.

When her mum came, she allowed herself to grieve a little, but something still held her back. A close friend called from the U.S. and she was crying on the phone. Antara did not. Her friend told her she needed help and advised her to see a psychiatrist. Antara is glad she took her advice. The first time she really let go of her emotions was with the psychiatrist. Perhaps, it is easier to be vulnerable in front of a stranger.

Till almost a year ago, Antara would suddenly go blank, in the middle of things. But she has been getting better. For almost nine months after Ayaan was gone, she could not bring herself to go out and resume working. (I wonder how she even had the energy to get out from the bed every morning.) But life doesn’t give us so much time. There was a house to run, home loans, Ayushman’s fees to be paid. Some people even advised her to move Ayushman to a cheaper school, but Antara chose not to. She wanted things to run the same way.

With the help of her mum, who moved in with her, she restored normalcy to life. Four years down the line, life is not ideal, but they are happy. Ayushman is a cheerful young boy. They go out for vacations. They celebrate festivals. She goes out with her friends. She is living her life.

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Antara says she has matured as a person. She was very emotional earlier – could get upset at small things, now she learns to ignore such incidents. She was also a very carefree person, “I didn’t even buy a packet of milk – Ayaan would do all that.” Now of course she has the responsibility of running the whole house.

They have almost lost touch with Ayaan’s family, but she holds no grudges, “I don’t expect anything from anyone anymore. I just believe in carrying out my own responsibility.” “I have also learnt, that money is important. It may not be everything, but it is needed to live a life.” She worries about Ayushman, “What if something happens to me?”. She has heavily insured herself. But now she reads the small script carefully. Four years later, she is still submitting papers for Ayaan’s insurance claims.

Have you ever thought of remarrying, I ask. “No. I am content. I have already led a happy married life and I don’t feel the need.”

“And I miss him so much……………………………”

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Do share this if you think it can inspire someone.

Have you been Feeling Low lately? Don’t Ignore.

I am asking this because for some time now, I have not been in a great place myself. Those who know me personally or have been following my blogs would know that I have had a tough two years. A difficult twin pregnancy followed by premature birth, discovery of one twin having special needs and more recently my father’s passing. Before having had time to recover from one shock, I was handed another! Add to that multiple changes at the workplace, and the cocktail becomes lethal, with no safe haven remaining – neither work nor home.

At some level, I think I became used to a constant low feeling, sadness, anxiety, clenched insides and suppressed grief. But more recently, I also started becoming chronically fatigued, irritable, getting sick very often and basically unable to do much. That’s when the alarm bells rang –  I quickly searched signs of depression and was startled to note that I checked almost all the boxes! I finally realised it is high time I acted.

But why am I sharing all this here? For two reasons – 1. By admitting to my situation in writing, I am committing myself to taking action, but more importantly, 2. To reach out to those in a boat similar to mine and urge them to deal with this too.

While I was mulling about writing this blog a few weeks ago, some recent incidents really jolted me. I read the news of a young man, who was denied entry to the UPSC exam because he was 5 minutes late for it. He went back home and hung himself. I cannot begin to even fathom the state of mind he must have been in all those days before this final straw made him take his own life. Was there no one who he could have reached out to, in those moments of loneliness, fear, despair….? What led him to this extreme step? And this was followed by two celebrity suicides – Designer Kate Spade and Chef Anthony Bourdain. These were people who were envied by people like us. What happened? Clearly success is not correlated to happiness. But what is? In today’s times, stress seems a more easily available commodity than happiness. And constant, unrelenting stress can easily give way to depression. In the complex lives we live, how do we then ensure that stress does not take over our lives? Let’s look at some ways to do so:

Understand the enemy: A recent article in The Speaking Tree says that depression can be caused even by a very small trigger – so small that it may go unnoticed. But once it has been triggered the first time, the brain changes, and then in the future it takes smaller and smaller triggers to enter depression, until finally almost none is needed. This understanding is key. To me it means, that while we might not be able to control the triggers – we can and must control our responses. Because that’s what our brain learns. 

Recognise the symptoms: Check if your answer is positive to many of the symptoms below.

  • Feeling sad or low for long periods – lasting weeks or months.
  • Loss of interest or pleasure in usual activities.
  • Poor concentration, slow thinking
  • Recurring unpleasant thoughts, feelings of guilt, being unworthy
  • Thoughts that you would be better off dead or of harming yourself in some way.
  • Loss of energy, appetite, sleep
  • Exhaustion, fatigue

Get your tests done: Did that sound funny? Actually, it isn’t. Physical and mental health are closely related.  Vitamin and mineral deficiencies can not only affect mental health but may even cause of depression, anxiety disorders and low mood in some people. Vitamin B, D, iron, magnesium etc are vital for good mental health as well. I got my tests done, and not surprisingly ended up deficient on many of these. Hormonal disorders can also be a big cause of depression – especially in women. So please go and get your annual health check done immediately. 

There is nothing to feel ashamed about: Depression is common. One in three people will experience a major depressive episode at some stage in their lives. While most cases of depression are mild, about one person in ten will have a moderate or severe episode. Negative feelings are a part of life. We have all felt low, lonely, sad, depressed, stressed at many points in our life. It is normal and it is not being weak. It sounds perfectly logical – but I am also guilty of undermining my negative emotions – it is hard to admit them to myself, even harder to admit to others. But if you don’t admit to it, you won’t be able to reach out. Negative feelings bottled inside us cause more harm than goodtaking a toll both mentally and physically.

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Reach out to your close ones: I am totally guilty of this one and trying to get better at it. But remember you are loved – there is always someone out there who you can reach out to. (If there is noone else – write to me, I am happy to listen) If you are not able to open up to an individual – open up in other ways. Try to express yourself through writing, music or dance or whatever may appeal to you. Believe me when I say how helpful blog writing has been for me.

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Do things you like, make yourself look good: Go out for a movie or a performance, sit by the sea, dance alone or with someone, eat your favourite food, play Monopoly or Scrabbles – do what you enjoy doing, even if you don’t feel like it right now. Push yourself. Find your stress buster – mine is a book, my husband’s is movies. Make yourself look good. Get a haircut (or a shave), put on some make up, wear your best clothes, change your appearance. I used to do this quite often – wear a bindi or kajal – so that at least the face staring back at me from the mirror looked pleasant! These are small things – but can go a long way in triggering a happy little feeling in your brain. If nothing else – find someone you can help. There is nothing better for our self worth than in being useful to someone else. (kisi rote huye bachche ko hansaya jaye – Nida Fazli/ Jagjit Singh)

Nourish your body: Remember the point above on the link between mental and physical health? A healthy body leads to a healthy mind. Eat healthy meals (DO NOT skip any)  and drink a lot of water. Get some sunshine – apart from making you feel happy, sunshine gives you the all important Vitamin D. It is sad but true that most of us urban dwellers are deficient in Vitamin D. Exercise – do whatever works for you – I am thinking yoga – maybe a home instructor.

Nourish your mind – Think Positive: keep away ALL kinds of negative thoughts. Figure out the cause of your sadness/ depression and try to think good things around it. I started to read up all the hopeful stories about special needs children for example. I try to focus on my baby’s little achievements, rather than focusing on his delays. When work related stress gears its ugly head, I try to ward off the insecurities or uncertainties and try to focus on the work at hand. Challenge every negative thought, question it and resolve it. Focus on the happy things around you. when having self doubt, think of your achievements. NOTHING can be so bad it cannot be resolved. A friend of mine discovered she had cancer, soon after delivering her second baby. I can’t imagine many  situations that can be worse than that. What did she do? Succumb to her reality? No. She took it by the horns and fought it. Instead of despairing on why me, she found a gift – The Gift of cancer. Read her blog to see how she dealt so bravely with her situation.

Do not shy away from getting professional help: If you continue to feel depressed and for very long times, do not worry. There is lots of good, professional help available. Please reach out. If you feel you have been having suicidal thoughts, there are many helplines you can call into. Just remember – YOU ARE LOVED and HELP IS NOT FAR. You owe it to yourself to be happy.

Finally I mentioned above that at least 1 out of every three people would have experienced depression – so what about those other 2? I hope to follow up this post with another one on how to help someone who you feel may be in depression. Till then stay happy and keep others happy. And share your thoughts on how you countered depression.