Death Unacknowledged

A few years ago I made a life-changing trip to India.

Though I wasn’t born there, I wasn’t born here either, and my formative years were lived elsewhere, in a gentler time and place.

English is not my birth language. Yet, here I am, a story well travelled, and told in a language not my own. Parts of this story are told in the series The Dark Months; meditations on mood or on images, and which buy time to gradually unpick complex and deep-rooted thoughts and emotions.

I was prompted to write what follows by an urgent need to remember my Mother, or rather, to not lose a memory of her brief but beautiful flowering.

As far as we are aware, my Mother died aged about 50, in India.

‘As far as we are aware’; how careless that seems when written on a page or read out loud. But it is written very carefully, because doubt has been a big part, and remains a big part, of my Mother’s passing. The unknown is as present as she once was.

My Mother’s death was not ignored. Her incredible sisters – a generation of formidable women who changed the world around them with each step – pursued every avenue of enquiry, lobbying and searching constantly, and finally, they sent the news of her assumed death. They all lived outside India, as we did. Unlike us, they do not live here. So, distance and disappearance conspired in a perfect, if unintentional, dance despite every effort to overcome them.

I wrote to my MP who worked with us to investigate my Mother’s death through all the official channels.

Several other relatives did what they could. The answer remained the same. Disappeared. Not found. Death unknown. Death unacknowledged.

Today, with online video chats all the rage, it seems impossible that even as recently as 25 years ago, things were very different. Information flows were slower. People could disappear.

Today, when lockdowns are a familiar feature, there is time to slow down a little, to think, and to remember; to disappear a little, but knowing you can and will return. That’s when it hits you. Death unacknowledged messes you up.


Too bright, too far, too fast. Living life at an unparalleled pace was de-rigueur.

It hadn’t always been that way. What changed?

Hearing about my Mother’s disappearance removed an assumed constant, a central axis around which much of our lives as a family revolved. Even with separated parents, as mine were, home was always where one or other parent was.

There’s something about the familiar timbre of a voice or a turn of phrase, a giggle or a parent’s affirmative grunt, which comforts. When that disappears your world becomes uncentred. Other halves, siblings; these people and connections help. But the sense of a profound rootlessness intensifies. The absence of a ‘death’ upon which one can pin unruly emotions erodes the centre grounding even further. And with that comes the corollary; a centrifugal sense that things are spinning faster, feelings of worthlessness, managed by whatever means come to hand. You’re not always kind to yourself. You take on too much, you push yourself, at everything, all the time; vulnerable and raw, you are powered by rage and anxiety.

But it wasn’t always all bad. A lot was achieved by that restless energy in the last 20 or so years. Many people were enriched; some in ways that mattered, while others fed their greed at my expense. I resent none of it, but I want nothing to do with any of it either. More accurately, I’ll choose the manner of my interaction with people and situations.

There is, of course, much more to unpack besides. But that’s for me. I believe that if we keep our past near, we can see the future too. Owning that past, for all its complexities, is important.

The last few months have been a welcome respite from the usual treadmill. Work remains a happy and creative constant, joyous and affirming. Yet, these curious times have also provided a means to sort and separate complex feelings and thoughts. The irony.

Nothing is perfect or magically ‘healed’. But it’s a lot better, even as making it better is a daily task.

“When you arise in the morning, think of what a precious privilege it is to be alive – to breathe, to think, to enjoy, to love.”

Marcus Aurelius

There are no photographs of my Mother in this post, nor a mention of her name. This omission might seem to run contrary to the desire to preserve her memory. But it doesn’t.

I respect my Mother’s privacy; though she is not here to ask permission of, neither is she truly dead.