NEERAJA KAIRAM is a physician based in New Jersey, USA. She shares with us her gratitude for the community she has found as she navigates the complex emotions surrounding grief, and builds bridges of understanding.
November 29, 2020 is a date etched in my brain as the day my life changed forever. My husband, who had been by my side for 27 years, died suddenly and unexpectedly at the age of 50. I think of that time as an inflection point in my life, before his death (B.D.) and after (A.D.).
In the three years since, I have become a different person. Looking back on the early days and months, I see a mix of pain and sorrow, gratitude, and resilience. I am still on the journey of navigating this new life that neither my kids nor I asked for. Along the way, I have discovered how the support of community and the connections I have formed allowed me to flourish even in the most difficult of times.
In the aftermath of his death, there were so many mixed and complicated emotions, all shrouded in a cloud of intense grief. The sadness, isolation, fear, and sense of helplessness overwhelmed me in those early days. Outwardly, I appeared fine to many, as I mustered the strength to put one foot in front of the other, driven by the sole purpose of providing stability for my children.
Balancing this newfound solo life with a full-time career was far from easy, especially when I inherited the task of managing my late husband’s business. His employees were also grappling with losing their beloved boss and their own anxieties about their livelihoods, so they looked to me for leadership. And, the constant concern for my three teenagers—now relying on me as their sole parent—weighed incessantly.
Grief is a complex and often misunderstood emotion. We all encounter it at some point in our lives, yet it remains challenging to accept and share openly. The discomfort it brings to those around us can result in a heavy burden, as we often feel compelled to hold our emotions in. Even the well-intentioned question of “How are you doing?" can leave a griever in a difficult position, unsure how to respond.
For would-be consolers, there are also many complex emotions. In addition to sympathy and empathy, a sense of helplessness often stems from not knowing how to alleviate the griever’s grief. There is anxiety about saying the wrong thing, frustration due to the inability to find the right words, awkwardness in not knowing how to act or what to say, and even a tendency to avoid the situation to circumvent these uncomfortable emotions. I have felt all these things myself.
It is about recognizing the
shared human experience and
acknowledging the importance
of supporting one another through
life’s most challenging moments.
In our society, it is uncomfortable to discuss grief, and often not openly accepted. So, is there a way to bridge the gap and foster greater acceptance and understanding? It requires us to break down the walls of separation and push open dialogues about grief to the mainstream. In the end, that journey requires a collective effort to dismantle traditional barriers. It is about re-cognizing the shared human experience and acknowledging the importance of supporting one another through life’s most challenging moments.
I was fortunate to have key people in my life who provided crucial support. They offered solace and guidance, and insisted I take moments of self-care. Despite their unwavering presence, I still grappled with an overwhelming sense of aloneness, a feeling that no one could truly understand the depth of my loss unless they had walked a similar path themselves. It wasn’t just the loss of my husband, my best friend, and the anchor of support for my children. It was also the loss of the future we had envisioned together. I lost my partner in travel, music concerts, and other adventures. I dealt with the loss of my identity in the world without him, and the loss of a clear sense of purpose in my life.
Not long after my husband’s passing, a former colleague and friend, who had recently lost her husband to cancer, introduced me to an online support group for physician widows. Initially, the word “widow” bore the weight of sorrow, but with time, it came to represent strength and resilience. These women gave me a deep sense of belonging and understanding. They empathized with the myriad of emotions that come with widowhood—grief, guilt, fear, “should haves,” and all the expected and unexpected triggers. This supportive community brought me a sense of normalcy regarding my own emotions, and allowed me to extend support to others enduring similar grief. Recently, when one of them shared, “I have lots of people to do things with, but I have no one to do nothing with,” it was a moment of revelation. I connected with the sentiment, even though I struggled for so long to find the right words to express it. In this community of remarkable women I found solace and mutual support.
Support also came from unexpected sources. I am still in awe of an experience that took place a year after my husband’s passing as we were approaching the holiday season. Every day for the 12 days of Christmas, a gift arrived on our front porch, accompanied by a card signed, “Your true friends.” On the 13th day, we received the final gift that explained the meaning behind these mysterious presents, a book called The 13th Gift by Joanne Huist Smith. In her book, she shares her own story of what happened after her husband passed away just before Christmas. Like us, her family received 12 daily gifts from strangers that helped them cope with their grief during the holiday season. To this day, the sender of those gifts remains a mystery, but the impact of this unexpected gesture of kindness and compassion has been permanently cemented in our hearts.
Looking back on the past three years, I am reminded of the people who stood by me when I wasn’t at my best, who listened when I needed to be heard, and who gave me space when I needed it. They encouraged me to take each day one breath at a time. It remains a powerful testament to the support and kindness of loved ones and strangers alike and exemplifies what it means to truly take care of each other.