Losing those who matter most
Updated: Feb 11
It's difficult in the moment, and that moment can last decades.
Sree with his mom, Lekha in Tokyo 1971; Zach (right), with his mom, Brenda and sis Jessica in Schroeder, Minnesota, in 1991. Both write about their late moms below.
(This is the opening essay from this week's edition of my Sunday Note, which is brought to you by Armory Square Ventures. See their message in this week's newsletter.)
A FEW SHORT WEEKS AGO MY MOTHER DIED AT THE AGE OF 73. Lekha Sreenivasan was loving, talented, beautiful, and more. But, to me, she was “Amma.” The first person you call for when anything goes wrong. From a scraped knee to anything life-changing, nothing is out of the reach of a loving mother.
She was proud to share a birthday with Mahatma Gandhi (who was born 80 years to the day before she was). Gandhi once said, “The best way to find yourself is to lose yourself in the service of others,” and my mother started Karuna Charities in that spirit. At her funeral in Thiruvananthapuram, the Kerala Governor, Chief Minister and other VIPs were in attendance. But what truly mattered were the scores of poor and disabled folks — all beneficiaries of Amma's assistance — who came to pay their respects, in tears.
Everyone leaves a legacy, but few have one that touches multitudes. This is who my mother was. Among the ways you know my mom had a wonderful life is the fact that her daughters-in-law wrote far better tributes than I ever could. Here's Roopa Unnikrishnan and Sharavati Choksi. There's so much more to say about Amma (including in her memoirs, "Better Half of Diplomacy," that she was putting the finishing touches on when she was admitted to the ICU), but I will leave you with this lovely essay that my dad, T.P. Sreenivasan, wrote in the midst of his grief.
Meanwhile, I’m 52 and losing Amma has been devastating. I can’t imagine what it’s like to lose a mother at a far younger age. My pal Zach Peterson writes eloquently below about what it’s like to lose a mom at 18.
MY MOTHER BRENDA DIED WHEN I WAS 18 YEARS OLD, in the spring before I was set to leave home to attend university just a few miles from her house in the suburban Twin Cities. It was impossible for me.
My parents divorced when I was very young, and I grew up with my dad, a single father until he re-married when I was about 10. It was, as divorces go, a seemingly good one. I spent a lot of time at my mom’s — they communicated with each other, usually exchanged major holidays, I went there for long weekends, and I spent the end of most summers with her after summer baseball ended in July. They both grew up in a very small town in northern Minnesota, and her family and my dad remain close to this day.
But, she was sick. Lupus was eating her body, morphing her joints into mangled webs of broken tissue. There were surgeries — so many surgeries — blood transfusions, and hospital visits were a regular part of our lives. She loved baseball, and my memories of going to Twins games (we attended a World Series game in 1991 when the Twins won it all), watching Cubs day games on WGN, have never really left. She also had to take a box of pills every day just to be able to move and function, and the fact is that I was a part of all of it, a very active part. I was 14 or 15 when it really became real that she simply would not make it.
Rather than shield me from that with a raft of “It will be alright,” she talked to me about it. I knew what was happening. I was there when her team of specialists were discussing the very real possibility that the latest experimental medicine may just not work, and the implications were that she would die. We talked about it as peers, and it may be the greatest gift she ever gave me.
I still remember the day she died as if it happened last week. My step father was unable to get in touch with my dad at work, but he was able to reach my girlfriend’s mom. She was waiting for me outside of school immediately after she got the call. My dad rushed to get me and we drove, fast, to the hospital in Minneapolis. That night, very late, I held her hand as it all ended.
More than two decades later, while staying with a good friend and his family, I was faced with the reality that I had never fully reckoned with my mother’s death. I have two children, 8 and 12, and we were on a camping trip across the American west (here’s the Instagram profile for the trip) when we stopped in California to spend time with my good friend.
The first day we were there, his oldest daughter (6 at the time) was diagnosed with the exact disease that had claimed my mom’s life so many years before. Typically, lupus manifests itself later in life, but all the signs were there and now they had the official diagnosis.
I spiraled, and the following months were a rollercoaster of past trauma, depression, and what I can only describe as shut-downs. This was in the spring of 2022, and I have yet to fully come back to something resembling “normal,” whatever that is. I lost work, was distant, my emotions were unpredictable, and there were days when the very notion of waking up the next day seemed like a burden over which I could not prevail.
In the time since my mom died all those years ago, I had gone to therapy, tried various antidepressants, and really anything else one can think of. But, I had not let myself simply…feel it all. Feel that sadness, that gaping hole that would never again be filled. My dad is great, and my stepmom is too. They’re nothing but supportive and positive, and I’m so lucky for that. But, the urge to call my mom and just tell her that my son is good at math, or that my daughter caught her first fish, or any other completely mundane thing, is not gone. It never will be.
We all process loss differently, and I’m not naive to the fact that many, many people simply don’t have the support network that I have. The one and only piece of advice I can give is to do everything you can to find a space where you can let yourself be sad. Let yourself cry. Let yourself have a bad day. It’s better to feel it all than to just “everything’s fine” yourself into oblivion. It’s fine to not be fine, and I wish I had fully understood that over the last 23 years. I didn’t, and it almost killed me.
— Zach & Sree
Many of you have asked about making a donation to Karuna Charities and, if you are inclined to do so, here's the website for the NYC chapter and the one for the DC chapter. And Zach recommends we all know about 988lifeline.org.