Turning My Pain into Purpose

losing ammaTurning my pain into purpose is the only way I’ve known to transcend the grief of my mother’s loss.

I’ve been in Chennai, India, for two weeks now. This is my first trip back home after both my parents went home to their Maker. My mother in January 2009, my father in August 2010.

In my sister’s apartment where I’m staying is a precious remnant of my mother’s life. It is a sheet of unlined paper, now yellowing, each frayed end held up by a magnet on the refrigerator door. On it is a list of handwritten instructions meant for the woman who used to cook my parents’ meals, seven of them numerically bulleted. Written in Tamil, our native tongue, this list includes the day’s menu plus the chores the cook needed to attend to while my mother was at the hospital getting a round of chemo.

I remember those days vividly. I used to accompany my mother to the hospital, trying hard to mask my dismay and confusion as the IV fed toxic chemicals into her bloodstream.

I stare at the yellowing sheet of paper, my mother’s writing still as familiar as the saris she wore. Even today it causes my stomach muscles to clench.

There are other reminders. Mother’s pots and pans which are in my sister’s kitchen today. I look at a steel davara and recall how she used to cool milk in it to the perfect temperature for my father, just the way he liked it. I spy the colander in which she rinsed fresh bunches of cilantro. Her fiery red rasam would be adorned with a generous green sprinkle. Her coffee decoction filter stands on the counter and continues to faithfully make the morning brew for my sister and brother-in-law.

I reflect back to that time in January 2009, days after she died. The first time I entered her kitchen, I’d fallen apart. Her favorite space and tools and utensils, utterly orphaned.

I arrive back in the here and now, and think of how far I’ve come. The raw pain of grief that skewered my heart for weeks and months then has clearly softened. It will never go away; it has simply changed in form and texture. But I see one thing very clearly. I see how that pain has been transformed into something infinitely richer, rewarding, restorative.

For without traveling through that awful terrain of pain, I couldn’t be writing this blog. I could never serve as a hospice volunteer. I couldn’t have written Understanding Death: 10 Ways to Inner Peace for the Grieving.

All pain is transformative, if we choose to let it be. Turning my pain into purpose is how I survived the pain. The pain of your loss, no matter what form it takes–death, divorce, a pink slip, a foreclosure–can serve another, if you will let it. All pain has meaning and purpose. The heart, when healed, has the power to love deeper and stronger.

So, as I look around me, as my eyes touch every object my mother’s hands touched and felt, I find myself whispering a soft but heartfelt “Thank you, Amma.”

The pain of grief is the last gift she left me.

Get the first chapter of my memoir Losing Amma, Finding Home


  1. Maya Ramachandran on March 11, 2013 at 6:53 am

    Love your piece. I am still reflecting on your words, “The pain of your loss, no matter what form it takes–death, divorce, a pink slip, a foreclosure–can serve another, if you will let it”. How many of us let it is the big questions. Thanks very much!

  2. umagirish on March 11, 2013 at 9:36 am

    Thanks for the feedback…I appreciate it.

  3. Gk on March 13, 2013 at 2:36 pm

    A very personal, poignant, and precious nugget of time for you. Treasure it ….

    • umagirish on March 13, 2013 at 2:45 pm

      I’m enjoying all the conversations because Amma lives on in our memories of her.

  4. vidu on March 15, 2013 at 7:27 pm

    Completely relate to all that you have said and even the smallest of remnants at home bring back all her fond memories!!

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