Spring 2024

The Ritual of Grief 

By Vimla Sriram

The boardwalk snaking around the Old Faithful area is eerily empty at dawn. My breath and the irregular creaking of loose boards are the only companions on my walk. Alone in misty silence, I scan the horizon. Scattered around me are plumes of smoke spiraling up the sky. The ground beneath is bleached white. I was warned that parts of Yellowstone would appear like an alien landscape, yet this image of crepuscular solitude amid stacks of smoke is so achingly familiar that I turn back. The legacy of Covid’s devastating second wave is an image soldered onto my soul, of smoke rising from temporary funeral pyres strewn around Delhi as it gasped for breath, while I watched 7000 miles away from my home in Seattle; a cycle of grief repeating after the first round’s devastation in New York. Death doesn’t distinguish between New York or New Delhi. I am jolted by water spurting from the ground next to me, first in undecided staccato bursts then in an unexpected gush rising skyward before crashing down with a thunderous spray, droplets of mist on my face. I am dragged to the spectacle in front of me. 

Death is the only truth, I remembered reading in a national daily that quoted a priest presiding over mass cremations. In a season of mourning without rituals the aphorism hung in the air, in my mind, and on the boardwalk. I may not be religious enough to understand the wisdom of the saying, but I believe truth is best experienced slant, as poet Emily Dickinson wisely pointed out. That explains why we have rituals, as a way of looking at this inevitable truth from an angle askew, so we can let go and begin anew. Maybe this is many of us found it hardest to grapple with Covid grief. We make sense of our grief through rituals. But instead of rituals, we were bombarded with graphs that zigzagged like heartbeats, and numbers that climbed faster than anyone could keep pace with. But graphs and numbers are only morse code for humans. How do you hold the hands of numbers in solace? Like millions, I stewed in silence. I searched online for remembrance rituals worthy of the lives lost. National publications carried stamp-sized pictures with two-line obituaries, artists had set up websites commemorating the dead with their names and images, a quilt of remembrance, which at best was a patchwork. It seemed as if the world couldn’t comprehend how to deal with a Godzilla-sized grief that stomped over graphs and predictions. Added to that was a sense of loneliness; the paradox of the whole world suffering from the same calamity but grieving in isolation. My uneasiness grew. 

Then on a crisp January evening as this country awoke to a new administration, I watched 400 lamps for 400,000 lives lost lit in a row along the Lincoln Memorial reflecting pool. When you count the reflection of each lamp on the shimmering water, there were twice as many lights. The electric-blue sky sparkled with a somber quiet. I watched in silence; my breath stuck somewhere in my chest. Something clicked. The darkness, that brooding uncomfortable feeling that I couldn’t name but one that hovered over me for months, lifted. 

Since the inauguration, the death toll has risen, but grief has loosened its hold over me, or maybe I broke free, or maybe the shackles were clicked open by something mysterious, but that desperate lonely hopelessness doesn’t live in me anymore.   

I have known since my father’s death 10 years ago that grief doesn’t tiptoe in stages. It seeps in slowly and swells and swells and propels you into the arms of solace in unimaginable ways. Mine led to the banks of the Ganges. I believe I was summoned–pulled an inch each day. The urgency caught me by surprise. It’s not as though I hadn’t clutched my husband’s collar and left damp blotches on the white. It’s not as though I hadn’t sat under the grandfather banyan in the hospital’s parking lot and howled like a wolf in labor with my father’s medical report clenched in my hands. But the well never ran dry.  My grief, like Philemon and Baucis’ never-emptying pitcher, was replenishable; its source mysterious and hidden. Along with this grief arose a germ of an inkling that burgeoned into a fierce longing to be by the banks of a river. The river didn’t have a name at first, but soon it became clear that I had to visit the Ganges. It is not exceptional for Hindus to seek the Ganges to wash away sins as I have heard my mother speak. But I wasn’t religious. Besides, I had a family with a toddler that needed me enough that traveling alone to be by the river seemed like a whimsical luxury, but I couldn’t ignore the tug that became a push that became a siren call. 

If death is inexplicable, then how we derive closure after the loss of a loved one is even more perplexing. About ten months after my father’s death, I traveled alone by two planes, one bus and one taxi to the banks of the Ganges where I sat on the steps, my feet planted on cold stone. The river sent out ripples that curved toward me slapping the steps with gentle waves, flowing past the bathers and worshippers – women with petticoats tied around their armpits standing knee-deep in water, their hands folded in prayer or holding onto squirming-splashing children, families frolicking while the elders stood with eyes closed – while tiny earthen lamps twinkled, bobbing up and down the undulating surface. I watched in silence.  

Vimla Sriram is a Seattle-based writer, shaped by Delhi. This means banyans and parrots will try to sneak into her essays even if, especially if, she tries to steer clear of them. She loves the Pacific Northwest for its gigantic Douglas Firs, leaning Madronas, and oat lattes. When not craning her neck for elusive woodpeckers or nuthatches, she can be found reading, writing, and making cauldrons of chai for her family and friends. Her writing appears or is forthcoming in 100 Word Story, Wanderlust, Stonecrop Journal, Little Patuxent Review and River Teeth Journal.   

Spring 2024