“The young perish and the old linger …………….. no parent should have to bury their child”
Theoden in “Lord of the Rings: The Two Towers”

When my mother was terminally ill with cancer in 1964, her mother who was then in her late sixties would tell me that she (my grandmother) would like to die. I could not relate to her comment and when I asked her the reason she would merely say that she had lived long enough and was ready to meet her Maker – my grandmother was a deeply spiritual person who believed that what awaited her after death was immeasurably better than her life on earth. It was my aunt Maya Thomas – my mother’s younger sister – who during one of these conversations said in her mother’s presence, half laughing but insightfully that the reason my grandmother expressed this sentiment was that she did not ever want to have to deal with the prospect of having another of her children predeceasing her. My grandmother did not disagree and her pained reaction made it crystal clear that was indeed her motivation in wishing she could die soon. She went on to live another seven years after my mother passed away and did not have to bury any of her other children.

I was then 18 years old and could not fully relate to my grandmother’s sentiments. I think one has to be a parent to comprehend the emotions a parent must go through when dealing with the prospect of a child predeceasing them.

Parents having to bury their children just does not seem like the natural order of things ………… and unless one goes through the experience it is difficult to comprehend the pain that a parent experiences. Fortunately, I have never had to go through this trauma and it is my earnest hope and prayer that I never have to do so.

The movie (and book), “I Dreamed of Africa” is based on the true story of Kuki Gallman, who moved to Kenya with her family in 1972 to start a cattle ranch. Gallman (played by Kim Basinger) lost her husband, Paolo, in a car accident and then three years later her 17-year old son Emanuele died of a snake bite from a puff adder while trying to extract viper venom for antiserum. At her son’s funeral she said:

“To bury a husband was hard. To bury my son is against nature………..and a pain which words cannot tell”

All of this came to mind recently because a relative of mine – Priyabal Joseph (Mona) and his wife, Susheela – had to go through this experience. Their son, Vijay, died after he choked on his food and by the time he received medical attention he had suffered irreversible brain damage. He was kept alive on a ventilator for a few weeks but after they were told that that there was no hope they had to make the heart-breaking decision to take him off of life support.
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Vijay Joseph at the piano

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After Vijay’s funeral, Mona shared with several family members a eulogy that his daughter, Anita Newsom, gave at his funeral. In days gone by, Mona had told me that Vijay who was autistic – and who I had never met – was especially close to his sister. He shared this information with me at the time when Anita was relocating from California to Ohio for employment reasons. Mona was saddened that his daughter would be moving so far away but he said that the one who was going to be the most affected would be Vijay because he was so attached to her.

Eulogies, like prayers given on special occasions, are usually rather scripted – but when they are not, it can be quite profound and moving. I recall a prayer given at the wedding of my cousin’s daughter, Anita, in London which I attended. Anita’s sister-in-law, Enis Easaw_Mamutil (Mini), said a prayer seeking God’s blessings for the well-being of Anita and her husband Ben Easaw that I found deeply moving – it was extemporaneous and after the wedding I made a point of complimenting her on the prayer. She thanked me and told me that she was very nervous doing so but, as she put it, the prayer “was from the heart”.

I had the same reaction when I read Anita Newsom’s eulogy for her brother – it came from the heart and there was nothing contrived about it. Her closeness to Vijay came through as did his deep attachment to her. I sought and obtained Mona and Anita’s permission to include her eulogy as part of this blog post:

“When it comes to Vijay, I have so many memories. In the past week, I have been looking through all our pictures, and most of the ones that include Vijay, especially the ones before I moved to Cincinnati, also have me next to him. We are usually laughing with each other, looking at a book together, or jointly looking irritated that my dad is taking yet another picture.

All my life, I have been told that having an autistic brother meant that I have to take care of him. From a little girl who had to share her toys with Vijay – to a sister who spent every Saturday either physically with Vijay or on the phone with him – to a woman who was ready to assume conservatorship of him when the need arose, I have been brought up to make sure Vijay is happy and taken care of. But the one thing I notice from looking through all these pictures is that Vijay actually took care of me. By his gentle demeanor, protective tendencies, his love for family and his autism, he truly played the traditional role of a big brother to me and helped me develop into the person I am today.

Vijay was one of the most gentle people I’ve ever met. He never bothered anyone or tried to assert his opinions. When I went to visit him at his group home, he was always relaxing in the family room. His laid back nature was a good influence on me. I believe throughout my life, he tempered my nature to get too excited about things. I am better now than I used to be and I believe I owe some of that development to Vijay.

Every weekend, when he came to visit my parents, Vijay would sit next to me on the couch and enjoy me holding him. He enjoyed going back and forth between eating chips in the dining room and sitting next to me in the family room. In the past year, I figured out that he liked looking at dessert cookbooks with pictures, so I would always have one in my hand ready to share with him. These memories I will treasure, because they were so simple – yet so rewarding.

Vijay was also very protective of me. If I was upset, it was guaranteed to be a problem for him as well. In fact, when I was about six years old, I figured out that my crying would cause him to act up. So, when I got mad at my parents, I would purposely scream louder than I wanted to, because I knew that meant that my parents would have a tough time with Vijay. It was mean of me…but I was never disappointed. Vijay hated to see me upset and he always reacted.

One story that illustrates his awareness of my feelings happened with I was about 18 years old – he was 23. My mom was in India, and my dad and I were bringing Vijay home on Saturday. We realized that we didn’t have a vegetable to go with the meat my mom had prepared and frozen, so I ambitiously decided to cook one. At that time, I had never cooked, and Vijay was going to be my guinea pig. I decided on an Indian cauliflower and potato dish. Well…the result was not good. I didn’t put the potatoes in early enough, and I didn’t figure out that you can remove the cauliflower and let the potatoes keep cooking, so the potatoes ended up very hard – almost raw. Still, my brother, who was normally very picky about food, ate two helpings. We always joke that he was giving me a one time “Get out of Jail card” to mess up his lunch and have it still be ok.

It wasn’t just me. Vijay was a very family oriented guy. He was always very conscious of having all three of us around. I remember quite often we would be walking somewhere, and he would be walking at his normal fast pace. Suddenly it would occur to him that my mom was behind, and he would stop and wait for her to catch up. He would never go into the house from the car unless the whole family was behind him. And he cherished Saturdays when he could spend time with his family. He knew it was his time. He didn’t tolerate visitors, TV, phone calls or sleeping. He really wanted all of us to spend time together and laugh. And when we did, he would sit comfortably next to me, listening and enjoying.

And Vijay knew who was family. I was impressed that when Chris joined our family – and later Dylan, Vijay was very accepting of them into our Saturday rituals. As I was growing up, I would watch him get irritated when guests joined us on Saturdays, because it was supposed to be his time and his routine felt messed up. However, he seemed to enjoy Chris’s company – even giving him a kiss on the cheek one Saturday before leaving. And from the first day Vijay met Dylan, he seemed so comfortable around him. My dad tells me that his face seemed to light up when we called from Cincinnati, and Vijay could hear Dylan chattering in the background. This strong connection to family bound us all together and I believe, ultimately brought me closer to my parents as well.

Vijay also taught me the meaning of understanding the plight of handicapped people. All my life, I have had a tendency to help the less fortunate, and that stems from my relationship with Vijay. I learned early on that handicapped people like to be treated normally, and I remember even developing a friendship with someone from Vijay’s Anaheim group home – we used to trade letters during the weekends. I figured out early on that Vijay really understood everything – it was just his communication that was not complete. I think that is why Vijay loved me so much. In my whole life, I never treated him like he was dumb or didn’t understand anything. He knew that I respected him and enjoyed when I talked with him.

Moving forward will be challenging, because a great source of laughter in our house will no longer be there. I know my parents, especially, will feel intense pain for a long time. However, we take comfort in the knowledge that Vijay is truly in a better place – where he is no longer autistic or different. There is no question that he lived a hard life, and although I am crushed by his departure from our lives, I am happy that he is with God now.”

Both Vijay and Anita had their lives enriched through having known and loved each other the way they did.

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7 Responses to ““No parent should have to bury their child””

  1. benny thomas says:

    Interesting read and I being a good friend of Priyabal came to know of Vijay’s untimely demise the day after the accident. Much as it is natural to shrink from death it has also to be faced.For those who love God there is a conviction as loving father he would not mean sorrow as the ideal as the nature of things. There is chastening, which as we learn slowly, depends on how we respond to it. Priyabal was upset about Vijay’s condition and he rearranged his whole life around him. Lately we have been talking about it. It brought out a side he never knew he had in him and it was a gift from Vijay.
    Chastening is in the sense life is not all sunshine or a feast but also eating bread of tears and tasting ashes in the mouth. God does not tempt individuals but if you trust in a loving father you fight for keeping a level head, a sober view things from your unquestioning trust in his Wisdom and Power.

  2. Saira says:

    Great posting, Papa. I really enjoyed reading this.

  3. Lisa says:

    My son was killed in an accident after his car was hit by a drunk driver. He was 19 years old and next month will be his fifth death anniversary. The pain will never go away and the only thing that sustained me was my faith in God and a supportive family.

  4. Emmy says:

    Rana P, I also really enjoyed reading this. From what has happened with Julia I think I have been thinking a lot about the death of a loved one, especially a child. Appa told me about this blog entry of yours and I am glad I finally have read it. I can’t imagine the pain his parents are going through. And I also can’t stop thinking about his sister. My sisters are part of my identity and I suppose the death of someone that close is like losing a part of yourself.

  5. Ken says:

    We are facing the imminent death of our oldest son at 42 years old of melanoma cancer. The grief is beginning to weigh down and crush in on us. He is in Oklahoma City, and we live in Dallas. On top of that, we have many health issues, and both spouse and I have potentially terminal conditions, so travel is very difficult for us. Please share how you coped with your grief.

  6. Ken says:

    Please consider this: “The righteous man perishes, and no man takes it to heart; And devout men are taken away, while no one understands. For the righteous man is taken away from evil,”
    Isaiah 57:1-3

  7. TJ says:

    Ken, I am so sorry about your son’s condition and the challenges that you and your wife are facing with the regard to your own health.

    I, personally, am not able to offer you any meaningful advice in terms of coping with your grief since the posting I made was with regard to a relative of mine who lost his son suddenly. I have contacted him privately to ask him to respond if he feels able to do so.

    May God grant you and your wife strength at this difficult time in your life.

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