Grief and the Comfort of Strangers


Grief and the Comfort of Strangers

Illustration: Akshita Monga

Four months ago, I sent Artidote my first photograph.

It was a black-and-white close up of my laptop on my legs, and my bed cluttered with the files I had brought home from office. My screensaver on my laptop was a photo of my brother and I. It was taken on one of our yearly trips to my grandparents’ house in Hyderabad, and we were sprawled on the floor in front of the television, blanket up to our shoulders, watching that terrible movie Shandaar.

I sent Artidote that photo-of-a-photo 76 days after my brother died. It was 4:05 am on the day that my boss had just told me that I needed to get my act together.

I discovered Artidote is a forum that marries beautiful art to terrible life stories; a forum for the yet-to-be-healed. That morning I saw a series of new snaps on Artidote. One was of a girl in Kochi who said she was struggling to get through college; a boy in Ottawa who had seen his father cheating on his mother; a girl in New York who was 21 and pregnant. The fourth snap, at 4:45 am, out of the blue, was addressed to me from a girl in Delhi: To the girl in Mumbai struggling with her brother’s death, I am too. Hers was a B&W photo of Zadie Smith’s White Teeth opened to the front page, with a birthday note scribbled from her brother. And then she sent me a snapchat id to contact her on.

My brother was 20 years old when he died, four years younger than me. We were rushing out of our house at 9 am. My brother, like I always used to, had already missed his first hour in college. I was headed to my office near Joshi Road, and my brother to his Chemistry class. He had always been the most careful road-crosser I have known. I ran straight out of our house onto the main road and across the street to wait for him on the other side. When I turned, I saw him step onto the road, and walk forward a few steps. That’s when a car hit him.

It’s been three months since I sent that photograph and 186 days since my brother died. I’ve struggled to get out of bed every morning, and it doesn’t help that my parents are quieter now and grieving silently. My friends are always there for me, always planning dinners that I often bail on, and attempting to distract me with chatter about their own work. But my healing has been slow and protracted. The only measure of comfort I’ve found is in the company of utter strangers.

I’ve never met the girl in Delhi – let me call her M – but it’s strange how much we’ve told each other in a few months. I’ve told her, repeatedly, that I want to quit my job. M knows that it isn’t because I hate it here; I’m just tired of returning home at 10 pm every night, exhausted but knowing I have this one thing to finish, and then telling myself confidently that I’ll finish it in the morning, just before I fall asleep. I never do.

I know that M is trying to break up with a guy she has been with for the last five years. He tells her they will be married someday. She is 23, and terrified. I tell her it’s okay to be terrified.

We laughed at how we snuck out for a smoke so many times that we didn’t understand how our parents hadn’t guessed what we were doing.

M is not the only online “connection” I’ve sought out since my brother died. I tell her about the horrible OkCupid dates I started going on a month after my brother’s death. My mother hated these men and wouldn’t let me bring them home. There were three men, all of whom told me I drank too much – I don’t know what got into me, but I told one of them it was alright because my brother had recently died. I think I liked the idea of shocking him. “Can you believe he was more offended than sympathetic,” I tell M. When she’s in a bad mood, she tells me that at least I know what it’s like to be with more than one person.

That first morning, when I got her Artidote photo, I sent her a message. We talked about hospitals. I told her that after watching my brother in the ICU for two days, I couldn’t stand that smell of sterilised cleanliness. She told me she became friends with the man working at Apollo Indraprastha’s canteen, so he kept her coffee ready even before she arrived at 4 pm, just after she left her brother at chemotherapy. We laughed at how we snuck out for a smoke so many times that we didn’t understand how our parents hadn’t guessed what we were doing.

M knows that since my brother died, it was all downhill. Just like I know that M had taken to always being high in college after her brother died, she knows that in the office, I took copious notes at every meeting, but didn’t know what to do with them. I made side notes about all the small things I needed to finish – I set reminders, I wrote them down on the last pages of my notebook – but I never finished them.

Sometimes M advised me to talk to my friends, but I couldn’t bring myself to talk to familiar people. I hated that they said, “It’s what your brother would have wanted” (something that M has never said), when they tried to get me to go out and have fun with them. I knew it was true, but sometimes I wanted to shout and tell them that they didn’t know him.

Perhaps that’s why Artidote was easier: We were all strangers, and the people reading my message didn’t know me. More importantly, they didn’t know my brother.

Since that first photograph on Artidote, I haven’t posted anything else about myself. But I check it religiously twice every day – when I wake up, and just before I go to sleep. I recently read about a boy from San Francisco who felt no sadness when his brother had ODed and a young woman from Goa who didn’t know what was happening, but wanted to cry all the time.

Sometimes I wonder if it is selfish of me to only read these snaps and feel comforted. Is it because there are more people with problems, or because my problem isn’t as big? Some days I send back snap messages. One was to a girl, also in Mumbai, who had just told her friend about her depression. I kept thinking of her, in a car on the Sea Link, watching the water and driving away from her friend. I sent her a snap telling her that friends won’t leave so easily.

I don’t know how much this has really helped any of them, or if they even saw my message. I just know that these snaps and M came to me at a time when I didn’t have anything else. I also don’t know when I will go back to feeling like myself. But for now, this provisional peace is alright.