Ask Sahaj: My grandparents died. How do I keep their culture alive?

Sahaj Kaur Kohli. Photo Twitter @SahajKohli

Sahaj Kaur Kohli, creator of Brown Girl Therapy and an MA.Ed, will be answering questions about identity, relationships, mental health, work-life balance, family dynamics and more.

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Q: As a first-generation Indian American, I was very close with my grandparents, who lived in India. Pre-pandemic, I would visit them every year and they would show me a new part of India – a part of my family’s rich history. It was my dream to go to Pakistan with my grandfather in 2020 to visit his old home, where he hadn’t been since the partition in 1947.

In 2021, my grandfather got covid-19 during the delta wave and my family was scrambling to find him oxygen and a hospital bed. My grandpa ultimately died, and our last interaction was me saying I loved him via FaceTime. My grandma, who was deeply bonded to my grandfather, died suddenly just eight months later.

I’m struggling with how to get “closure” when I couldn’t physically say goodbye. Because I wasn’t there, sometimes it feels like they’re still alive. I catch myself thinking about my next trip to visit my grandparents, and then I have to remind myself that they are dead.

I feel like I’m not only mourning my grandparents, but also my connection to India and my culture. My grandparents were my tie to India, my reason for going back every year. I don’t know if I can bring myself to go back to an India where they no longer exist. How do I keep my connection to India and my culture alive when they are not?

– Grieving from afar

A: I want to start by saying: I am so sorry for your losses. I personally understand the pain of not being able to say goodbye when a grandparent who lives in another country passes.

Transnational grieving can further complicate the experience of loss – and it can go unacknowledged by Western counterparts who don’t share in the experience.

This grieving usually has several elements. First off, it sounds like you haven’t had an opportunity to attend a ceremony or funeral for your grandparents, so I wonder if you’ve had time to mourn appropriately. Maybe this looks like partaking in your own at-home religious or cultural ceremony to signify their passing. Or maybe it’s seeking professional help or attending a support group with others who also lost loved ones from afar due to covid-19.

And because you have yet to go back to India and haven’t physically been confronted with your grandparents’ deaths, it makes sense that denial has crept in. This can also be a sign that you haven’t accepted their deaths.

It seems like a more tangible chance to say goodbye may have helped you feel a sense of closure. But remember, grief is ongoing. You don’t move on from it; you learn to build a life around it. It’s important for you to have self-compassion and try not to ruminate on what could or should have been, and instead consider some of the things you can do to keep your grandparents’ memories alive.

You can grieve their absence from future milestones and celebrations, and you can write down all the memories, wisdom and moments of gratitude you do have with your grandparents.

You can fear you will forget them, and you can plan an annual ritual or have a photo/keepsake of them you carry with you every day.

Your grandparents were clearly important to your Indian identity. They were living reminders of where and who you come from. So your grief, as you mention, also extends into a cultural bereavement.

You’re navigating what it looks like to carry your Indian culture forward as a granddaughter of survivors of colonialism. While this may feel impossible, it’s a meaningful endeavor. It can look like relearning family language(s), continuing to learn about the historical context of your grandparents’ and ancestors’ experiences, reacquainting with food and recipes that have been passed down, and intentionally choosing religious and cultural traditions, and values, to continue to uphold. Also consider how this loss can drive intimacy and closeness in other family relationships through ties with your grandparents.

While India won’t be the same for you if and when you do revisit, you can allow these trips to take on a new meaning, one filled with personal reflection and exploration. You may always feel a sense of loss for not being able to take that dream trip to Pakistan with your grandfather, and you can still honor him and your roots by doing it in your lifetime anyway.

Instead of viewing this grief as something to detach from, I encourage you to consider what it means to continue your bond with your grandparents – to carry them with you as you navigate this life without them.



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