When Things Fall Apart
Yesterday was one year since my cousin Shankar passed away.
It was right at the start of the lockdown, and I still remember that Saturday morning. I was preparing to teach a class when my parents texted asking if they could meet me. Right away I sensed something amiss. I came down to the carpark and as they got out of the car, even with their masks on, I could tell that it was bad news. "Oh man... they're gonna tell me that they have covid, which means I have covid, which means I have to go to hospital...?" - was what was running through my mind.
"What happened?" I asked.
There was a pause and I could see my mother's tears and my father's grim-set mouth.
I can't recall if it was my mum or dad that said it but it took a few seconds for the words to register. It sounded like they were speaking a different language and my mind could not understand what it was hearing.
"What? What do you mean? Is he in hospital? Did he get covid?"
My beautiful cousin had taken his own life.
I dropped to my knees, refusing to believe my ears.
He was only 24 years old.
It is difficult for me to think or talk about Shankar without tearing up.
He was the youngest of 3 children and had the softest heart. He was kind, generous, sincere and loving to everyone around him. Even as a young man in his 20s, he had an innocence about him that children seem to lose earlier and earlier.
Since he was 16, he battled depression - and it was a fierce battle. His parents were wholly devoted to supporting him the best they could and brought him to every kind of doctor and therapist available. In the next 9 years, he switched between different kinds and combinations of medication and therapies, including electroconvulsive therapy which made his sister cry to watch.
He n e v e r said no to anything. He tried and his family tried so hard but nothing seemed to work and he began avoiding our family gatherings and even birthdays. When we did see him, his smiles grew smaller and fewer between. I didn't know how to talk to him but hoped that he felt my love every time we hugged.
The funeral last year felt like a nightmare. Social distancing meant that we had to come at specific time-slots. How does one grieve with a literal mask on? When we got to the funeral parlour, the first person I saw was my Uncle Suresh. He was greeting each person that came in, shaking their hand and speaking in a low voice. When he saw me, something inside me broke and the tears I'd been holding in ran hot down my cheeks. As he hugged me, I felt the weight of his body cave into mine. I'd never seen my Uncle cry like that - and I believe that he let himself cry with me in that tiny space because his heart felt safe with mine.
My teenaged years were a turbulent time. My mother and I never got along and there was a point too when I felt myself sinking like a pebble to the bottom of a pond. Like Shankar, I began to avoid family gatherings, choosing to stay in my room while everyone's voices floated up to me from downstairs. I felt completely detached from everyone and everything.
I always felt that Shankar and I had a special bond because we are 12 years apart, born under the same Chinese zodiac sign. Both of us are highly sensitive - not in the sense that we react to every small thing - but that we feel things deeply. Like the artist, poet, or dreamer - we feel connected to the things, people and events around us. Maybe because he remembered that I'd gone through similar, or that Shankar and I shared the same sensitivity, my Uncle felt that in that moment, he didn't need to "hold it all together". For those few moments, we let grief wash over us.
Mental health should not be a taboo subject.
Not all of us may sink to the dark depths that Shankar did, but many of us come close. It is not shameful to talk about anxiety, depression or ask for help.
Toxic positivity is the assumption that despite a person’s emotional pain or difficult situation, they should only have a positive mindset or "positive vibes". Toxic positivity can take many forms: It can be a family member who chastises you for expressing frustration instead of listening to why you’re upset. It can be a comment to “look on the bright side” or “be grateful for what you have.”
It can be a meme that tells you to “just change your outlook to be happy.” It can be your own feelings that you shouldn’t dwell on your feelings of sadness, anxiety, loneliness, or fear.
With toxic positivity, negative emotions are seen as inherently bad. Instead, positivity and happiness are compulsively pushed, and authentic human emotional experiences are denied, minimized, or invalidated.
The pressure to appear ‘OK’ invalidates the range of emotions we all experience. It can give the impression that you are defective when you feel distress, which can be internalized in a core belief that you are inadequate or weak.
Judging yourself for feeling pain, sadness, jealousy — which are part of the human experience and are transient emotions — leads to what are referred to as secondary emotions, such as shame, that are much more intense and maladaptive. They distract us from the problem at hand, and they don’t give space for self-compassion, which is so vital to our mental health. At its core, toxic positivity is an avoidance strategy used to push away and invalidate any internal discomfort. But when you avoid your emotions, you actually cause more harm.
Examples of toxic positivity phrases are:
“It’ll all be fine.”
“You should smile more.”
“Don’t worry about it.”
“It could be worse.”
“Don’t be so negative.”
“Always look on the bright side!”
“Everything happens for a reason.”
“Think happy thoughts!”
Instead of saying these, replace them with:
“How can I help you?”
“Is everything ok?”
“What can I do to make it less stressful for you?”
“This is tough; can I do anything?”
“It must be hard. Tell me about it.”
“It’s so hard to see the good in this situation, but we’ll make sense of it when we can.”
“Do you want to talk about it?”
“I know things can get really tough. I’m here for you.”
Instead of "good vibes only", how about feeling our feelings? This is not about self-indulging or wallowing in self-pity. It is understanding that grief, pain and loss are just as much of what it means to be human as is joy, peace and happiness.
Do you feel safe with your own feelings?
Do people feel safe around you with theirs?
Shankar & I at Deepavali (November, 2015).
Our niece Shayna says, "I remember my Shushu," as we went through a picture album of Shankar's life that my Uncle Suresh put together. He is sitting by her side (April, 2021).
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