The grief of losing someone often leaves a lasting impact on one’s life. Life changes in ways we could never anticipate. When it feels like the rest of the world has just kept going, we may find ourselves to be broken and struggle in our attempts to “move on” from the loss. So how do we pick up our broken pieces and find the strength to move forward?
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Valerie- Welcome to LonePack Conversations! I’m Valerie.
Today, we have with us Dr. Sangeeta Mahajan. A suicide loss survivor herself, Dr. Sangeeta is a mental health activist and educator. Through her work, she endeavours to engage with as many people as she can, to work together to prevent young suicide through raising awareness and reducing stigma.
Welcome, Dr. Sangeeta.
Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you, Valerie.
Valerie- Before we start, I would like to issue a trigger warning as this podcast delves into suicide and the process of dealing with loss due to suicide. In case anything that we talk about triggers anybody, please feel free to stop listening, and do seek professional help in case you find yourself struggling to deal with mental health issues.
So Dr. Sangeeta, you’re a qualified trainer in youth mental health first aid and are passionate about shattering the stigma around mental health and suicide. Could you tell us what drove you to become an activist for mental health awareness and youth suicide prevention?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes. Thank you very much, Valerie for doing this interview and thank you to LonePack for all the good work that it does. It’s really required in India and all over the world, actually that we raise the understanding of mental health illnesses. I came to it through a very personal tragedy. My beautiful son, Sagar, was only twenty and this was six years ago when he was diagnosed with bipolar disorder. Within ten days, he was gone. I had no idea, we lived in the same house. He had seen the doctor two days before that and I thought everything that could be done was being done for him but neither he nor the doctor, nobody said anything about suicide.
I realised that it is such a taboo subject that even doctors don’t know how to talk about it, leave alone our society. You know, doctors are only people after all, right? And we are products of our society. If nobody is talking about it, then doctors are also not because they do not know how to, it’s not in the syllabus. Then I realised that it was down to people like me, who were directly affected by it, to talk about it because otherwise, it’s just going to be in silence forever and being bereaved by suicide is such a painful place to be and it is so hard to keep going back there and talking about it, but I don’t have anything else to do now. So, this is what I do and I hope that it will save lives and bring closeness between people and make this world a better place.
Valerie- We are very sorry to hear about your loss and about Sagar but we’re also very thankful to you that you’ve taken that experience and you’ve decided that you want to change things and you want to bring about change. You help bereaved families but you also spread awareness so that something like this could be prevented in the future. That is a great initiative, you know? To come from darkness and to be able to want to spread light to the people around, to prevent a situation like this from happening else.
So, when we talk about suicide, guilt is a major part of the grieving process, when it comes to friends and family. We have a lot of questions, a lot of ‘What Ifs’. What if we had paid more attention? What if we had noticed the signs? What if we could have saved them? because it’s difficult to fathom the circumstances that led up to it. In fact, as a suicide loss survivor myself, there were many instances where I often felt guilty about experiencing happiness after the loss – it felt wrong to me to feel happy anymore. Many others often struggle with suicidal thoughts themselves when the guilt gets overwhelming. Is this expected? How can we manage this overwhelming amount of guilt that we feel?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s a very important question because losing someone to suicide does leave you with a mountain of guilt and you almost believe that it’s your fault that they died. I still believe, I have to tell myself that he was really ill, he was under the care of a doctor, you were not his doctor, you were just his mother. He was twenty years old and so it was up to him what he wanted to share and what he didn’t want to share, and these are very personal feelings, they’re very difficult to talk about because actually, we don’t know how to create space for these conversations. We don’t know how to be with someone’s angst and uncertainty and we’re not comfortable with this subject. And I think there is so much self blame associated with it, even with the individual who’s feeling suicidal. They may be ill, they may be on medication, they might be having very valid reasons for feeling suicidal but still, they blame themselves for feeling like that, which also stops them from talking about it.
If somebody has diabetes or cancer, they don’t blame themselves, right? They just have it. Whereas with mental illnesses, there is a whole other dimension of “flawness”, that there’s something wrong with this person, almost something wrong with their character. Which is not true. But because that is how the society looks at it, that’s how they look at themselves, and that stops them from asking for help. So we have to break that shame and blame cycle and know that if they don’t tell you, you can’t know, right? We’re not mind readers. Our mind is constantly trying to find a reason, but there is no “one reason”. It’s a very complex issue, there are usually multiple reasons and they all come to a confluence at one point where the emotional pain that they suffer gets too much and if they can’t have a constructive, meaningful conversation or even be heard and understood at that point, especially in young people, it can be quite an impulsive decision, which is taken very quickly and in a very short time. So it’s a very time critical intervention that we need to make. Firstly, we need to increase our awareness and our ability to create spaces for these conversations, which is what you are doing today so good job, thank you.
Valerie- Thank you. But you know, we talked about guilt and obviously there are questions that we have and they have very complex answers, which is why it’s only natural for us to blame ourselves. But it takes you down such a downward spiral that you cannot get out of. One thing is telling yourself that you’re not at fault but it doesn’t really do much for you. So what would you say we can do to get out of this guilt that we make ourselves feel?
Dr. Sangeeta- So the first is to recognize it as guilt. To recognize that what I’m feeling is guilt. Very deep guilt. And then to know that yes, these are my thoughts but I don’t have to believe in them a hundred percent. Also to acknowledge that what you’re going through is possibly the most painful loss . Part of me still believes that it’s my fault that he’s no more. But I still have to be kind to myself, you know? I have to acknowledge that okay, it has happened. I didn’t do it, right? I am sure I could have done more, it’s true I could have done more but I cannot go back. What I can do is recognize it as a thought, let it not become a belief, and hold myself with kindness and know that if I could, he would live for a million years. If I could. If my love would be enough, he’d live for a million years. But I can’t reverse that. All I can do is honour his memory, keep loving him, keep doing some good work in his name and keep being kind to myself because I am also suffering and I have been through a lot. Acknowledge that.
Valerie- I liked that you said that we have to validate our own feelings there. You say we should admit that it’s guilt but also find a space for yourself where you are kind to yourself and you don’t bog yourself down by that immense amount of guilt that you’re feeling.
Dr. Sangeeta- And sometimes, you just need to sit with it, you know? I think for me, meditation has really helped because I can just breathe through it. Just sit and breathe through it. Whatever it is, it shifts. It moves sideways a little bit, it gets less intense. And you know, we need to hold our poor little broken hearts like a little baby, you know? With gentleness, and just literally pat it lovingly and say “You’ve been through a lot”. Be our own best friends.
Valerie- So, when we talk about the processes of grieving, everyone has a different grieving process. A different method that helps them cope with the loss in the best way that they can. There are very different kinds of people. I was somebody who often found comfort in the pain, at a point. And I decided not to move on from the incident, you take it as a way of honoring the memory of the person. There are also people who decide to focus on what lies ahead and outwardly, they may seem to move on from the loss much faster.
In addition to all of this, you have the aftermath of a loss due to suicide. You have survivors who are unable to openly share their grief because as you said, there is a lot of stigma, a lot of shame and judgement surrounding the topic, to a point where even doctors do not have conversations about it. Does the grieving process differ for suicide loss survivors? How can they be supported through their grieving process?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, so I think everybody grieves completely differently, like you said. Even in the same family, if the father and the mother have lost the same child, they have lost a different relationship. He might have lost his cricket buddy and he might have lost her future grandchildren, you know? So, it’s very different for each one and it’s all okay. Just do whatever you need to do, is what I would say. There’s no right or wrong when it comes to this. Just do whatever feeds your soul, whatever sustains you. There is no formula, there is no recipe. I would say spend time with people who cherished that person, who are not afraid to talk about him. Share their memories lovingly. When something like this happens, you really find out who your friends are and it’s really useful because then you don’t waste your time. You stick with people who understand your loss and who are not about gossiping and judging and making life more difficult for you.
There are many many ways in which people can support somebody who has lost someone to suicide. By reaching out, not being afraid to name the person, celebrate them, talk about them in a way like they were a cherished part of our lives. Not get into why and how and why not. Nobody knows why. They probably did not know why. We don’t know. There’s no point going in “Why”s or “How”. It doesn’t matter. What matters is that this beautiful person has gone. So, we need to create space to listen to them. They might want to repeat the same story over and over and over again, which is okay. Create space for that, listen patiently. Let them lead the conversation. Don’t ask too many questions. Don’t make platitudes like “Be strong”, “He’s in a better place” and all that is rubbish, really. It doesn’t help.
I think there is no right or wrong, I would say. Just do whatever makes sense to you and don’t criticize the other person’s way of dealing with it because they are doing what works for them. But I think it does put a huge strain on relationships, on families. It completely shifts family dynamics, and that’s normal as well. There is no such thing as a perfect human being or a perfect relationship so I think if we have basic compassion for ourselves, then we can have compassion for other people. It’s very easy to get into the blame game with this- “you said” “she said”, you know? But actually, I think this is really a time to be kind to all those who are left behind because they are all suffering.
Valerie- So, in addition to what we spoke about, about there being stigma and shame surrounding it and that being a reason to not talk about the person you lost, there is also this whole thing of, of course, it is a very personal loss for you but you also feel like you are the only one going through this and so nobody is going to understand what you’re talking about and nobody is going to get it at the same level of sensitivity that you have for that person. I rethink that also makes it very difficult conversation and I think it’s good that you are here with us, sitting and talking about your experience and we can discuss because there are a lot of people here who think they are alone in their suffering, who do not find it comfortable to talk to somebody who hasn’t lost a person because you feel like they’re not going to get what you’re saying. So I think that is another reason why people do often not talk about it and suffer in silence but I think it’s great that you’re coming out and the fact that you share your story with so many people is going to be very encouraging.
Dr. Sangeeta- I find that it’s true that we don’t feel understood. It’s true. Imean, how can anybody else understand what it’s like unless you’ve been through it? I don’t blame other people for not understanding. I don’t expect them to understand and I hope they never have to understand what it feels like. But I would say that it’s very important for people who have had similar experiences to get together because there is an organization called SOBS here (in the UK), which is Survivors of Bereavement by Suicide, where people meet.
All the people who are there have lost some family member or friend to suicide and in that room, there is so much understanding because everybody has come with a similar experience, it’s peer support. There are no experts in that room, no therapists, nothing. But people find so much comfort there and I think that can only happen if people come forward and put their hand out to other people who have had similar experiences, get together. Now it’s possible to do it across towns and countries even. And I think, have a peer support group where people can come and be with other people who have had similar experiences. It’s really been helpful for me and many others. And of course, I also have a therapist and I’m very grateful that I can afford one. I’ve been seeing her every week for two years now and that’s a very healthy thing to have because it gives you an insight into yourself.
Valerie- I also liked that when we talked about how people can be supportive, you said do not ask too many questions, do not jump to conclusions, just bethere, be compassionate and listen. And I think that is extremely important when somebody is opening up to you and when they’re trying to share their grief with you.
Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah.
Valerie- When we lose someone to suicide, like we talked about, there are a lot of unresolved questions and we are just left trying to make sense of it. It’s a common emotion for people to feel anger and unforgiveness towards the person we lost, for leaving us. But these emotions can come in the way of our path to healing. How would you say we should deal with these emotions? How do we pick up our broken pieces and find meaning after loss? How do we give ourselves the strength to move forward?
Dr. Sangeeta- Yes, I think it’s very complex- grief- because of the undertones of severe judgement. Often, it’s not a voluntary act. It is a measure of someone’s emotional pain, that they are in so much pain that they cannot bear to stay on the planet. How much pain do you have to be in to do that? Because we, as human beings, are not designed to do that. We are designed to protect ourselves- we can’t touch hot things and immediately withdraw, we cannot tolerate the smallest cut on our hand. We are designed to defend ourselves if we go and do something like that. Imagine how difficult it must be for them to entertain the idea of staying alive? It’s beyond our comprehension if we haven’t felt that way. So, I feel great compassion for Sagar that he had so much pain, poor chap, you know? And he walked around hiding it because he thought nobody would understand. How terrible, isn’t it? for any to have that much pain.
I grieve not just for his death, I grieve for his suffering. So, there is no place for anger. I think if we can have compassion for their suffering. There is no place for anger where there is compassion. I can only talk from my experience and so, there is no scope for judgement. If we drop all judgements, there is no right or wrong, it’s a death. That’s all it is. It is a death. All these undertones of judgement is what makes it unbearable. “How could he do this to me?” He didn’t do it to you. It was his life. He couldn’t bear it. So, it’s not about me now. It’s not about me. It’s about him, it’s about what he could not say that he should have been able to say. That as a society, we should have created space for. That his doctors should have known how to talk about. It’s about that. There is no right or wrong in this, you just have to face it for what it is and asee how we can help people who are in that position. So, yeah. What was your question? Sorry, I got a bit carried away there.
Valerie- Yeah, so I was asking how we should deal with these emotions because it’s only natural when you’re left with no answers, you do not know what is going on. You can feel unforgiveness and as you said, you have to look at it with compassion, you know? Replace that emotion with compassion because obviously, the person went through a lot of pain before they took the step that they did. My question is, how do we pick ourselves up after an experience like this? How do we find meaning after the loss and how do we give ourselves the strength to push forward and move on in life?
Dr. Sangeeta- Well, like I said earlier, there are no general answers. It has a lot to do with who you are and what you do. So, when Sagar passed, I started writing a blog on the day he passed, because I had to do something. I couldn’t just sit there and let this day come and go unmarked. It was the most shocking and painful day of my life, and his life, probably. I was struck by how many people don’t know this can happen to them or their loved ones. I started writing a blog and also, it was my way of really immortalizing him. I could not allow him to just go without anything, you know? The world has to change. It was my ego as well, that it was my son. My beautiful, darling son and how can this happen? It was a mixture of anger and everything, and I just put it into my writing. I wrote every day for a thousand days. That was my way. The blog is called ‘Kids are Gifts’. I still write it. Once every ten or twelve days, I write something on it. It was my way of spending time with Sagar, it was my way of venting my anger. It was where I wrote down all the things that I learnt along the way, where I wrote down how I felt. It was a friend, it was a bride that I hung my days on, you could write at the end of the day. It was my reward, it was my punishment, it was everything. I put my energy into my blog initially, just because it gave me something to do.
It’ll be different things for different people. Slowly, I found that cycling really helped. It’s really meditative. The wheels go round and round and you could just empty your mind and just the repetitiveness of it and you can feel your breathing and your heart and you could just be in your body for a little while. Cycling helped, writing helped, then I found nature helped. I joined flower arranging lessons and I learnt to do Ikebana, which is a Japanese art of flower arranging- it’s very technical, it’s very minimalistic, beautiful floral art. Then I started doing some mental health work, and when I was a little bit better, then my phone number was given to other people whose children were either ill or they’d lost somebody and I would spend lots of time on the phone with them. So, I think if you start using that love, guilt is only love basically, turned upside down. If you tell yourself “What I’m feeling is love” and I need to channel it into something and find whatever that something is for you. I think by using your hands and your body into something, doing something.
Also, take it as learning. Let death be your lesson, let cause be your teacher. The guilt also was about things that I had done. I used to work really long hours and I always thought that when I came home, he’ll be there. I took him for granted. And one day he wasn’t. I really stopped and thought “What else am I taking for granted?”. I’m taking my health for granted, I’m taking my parents for granted, I’m taking my husband for granted, I’m taking my cat for granted! So, it made me think about what I can do differently. How can I live differently now? This is almost like a second life for me. I’ve been given a second chance to live better. I can turn that guilt around and learn from it. This is what I didn’t do right. I didn’t know how to have those conversations. Now I know how to have those conversations. So, do whatever you can with it but take this as an opportunity to learn and to grow and to expand.
Valerie- Yeah, I think what you said is very important. Obviously, you’re suffering a lot, you’ve gone through a lot, you still are going through a lot. But you take that as an experience and you learn from it. You learn how to be more sensitive to the people around you, you learn how not to take things for granted, and you also try doing something about it. You take that one experience you had and if you can help people around you, then there can be nothing better. You can’t replace what you’ve lost but you can certainly try to help make this place better.
Dr. Sangeeta- And you know why I can do that? Because there’s not a bone in my body that is ashamed of anything. I am so proud of Sagar. I am so proud of him. I loved him before he was born and I will love him forever. He was an absolute star! I’m not ashamed of him at all. I know he tried his best. I know he tried his best.
Valerie- I think it’s important for everyone who has suffered a loss like this to understand that and not look at them any differently than they did before they passed away.
Dr. Sangeeta- Yeah. Like people fight with cancer, they say “battle with cancer”. This is also a battle but it’s invisible. We all have to develop eyes to see it.
Valerie- On this World Suicide Prevention Day, what are some things that have happened over the past year or so that give you hope that things might be changing? Just like you said, we have to develop the eyes to see it, we need to create spaces for conversations like this. And what do you hope to see in the coming years?
Dr. Sangeeta- I see hope in you! I think over the last few years, the conversation has grown. I know that through this COVID time as well, people have been thinking about each other’s mental well being. So I think overall, there is more openness. I know some celebrities in India like Deepika Padukone and all those people have come forward with their struggles. I was very very saddened to hear about the suicide of the young Bollywood actor, very very sad. The way the media and everybody has dealt with it has been so bad. Everything that should not be done had been done. It really saddened me to see that but I think the conversation has grown, definitely.
For the future, my hope is that it will continue to grow and that all the judgements that are attached with mental illness and suicide will be taken away and people will treat mental illness just like a physical illness and not treat it as a character flaw because there is true suffering in that and I have seen it. So I do hope that people will understand that these are very complex issues, that the brain is a very delicate organ, that the adolescent years are very complex years. From the age of ten to twenty-five is adolescence and yet, medicine is split into pediatrics and adult medicine. There is no such thing as adult medicine. Those years need a lot of attention. Schools and colleges, parents, everybody needs to educate themselves about the delicacy of those years and how the brain works.
I’m hoping that your work and mine, last year, I was at a conference in India and we did a mental health workshop for seventy medical students, and they’ve all gone back to their respective medical schools from all over India and some of the foreign countries as well, from Asia and they’ve all gone back to their medical schools with more awareness and they;’re more connected with their communities. They’re watching out for warning signs, they’re growing these conversations, so yeah. There is hope. Just keep doing what we do.
Valerie- Thank you so much for talking to me today. I’m sure this has been a conversation that will help a lot of people because you have shared an experience. You’ve not just talked about the dos and don’ts of how to deal with grief but you shared an experience with us. It’s been very emotional for me to talk to you about this but I wanna thank you for agreeing to do this podcast with me and I hope that we can tell people to be more sensitive, to look out for warning signs, and to spread awareness about something like this. To keep conversations open. To know how to have conversations more importantly. I hope that we’ll be able to make a difference.
Dr. Sangeeta- Actually, we forget that one half of having a conversation is listening. At least one half. So I think we need to develop our listening skills more. That’s when we can find out a lot about the other person and have them feel understood.
Valerie- And I hope for everyone who has suffered a loss, that we learn how to pick ourselves up and we learn how to take that experience and change that into something positive for the people around us and for ourselves.
Dr. Sangeeta- And I would just say to anyone who is in a similar situation to me, know that you’re not alone. There are many other people. I think, if you were to start connecting with other people who are in your position, I think that might be a very rewarding thing to do.
Valerie- Thank you so much, Dr. Sangeeta.
Dr. Sangeeta- Thank you very much, Valerie. I wish you luck in everything you do.
Valerie- Thank you.
To read Dr. Sangeeta’s blog posts, visit: www.kidsaregifts.org