Returning to Bhopal: Doing what feels right in your grief journey

(A bit of personal history on a significant date.)

Pax my little son died age 3 in Bhopal, India following an episode of acute hemolytic anemia. Despite the doctor’s best efforts, tragically he could not be saved. That was on 27th May 1982.

I don’t want to spend a lot of this 40th anniversary thinking about the circumstances. I’d rather think about his blue dungarees. I can still feel the texture on my fingers. I’d rather think about feeding him a bottle; later on, feeding him spaghetti. I’d rather think about playing with and reading to him, although that memory is hazy. I’d rather think about him pushing the brown Mothercare stroller in which his baby sister Catherine sat.

Pax pushing Catherine in the brown stroller.

My memories of Pax are limited. It is 40 years ago, and he was only 3. But it is incredibly important for me that his existence is acknowledged.

For many years this was almost too painful to bear, much less talk about. Pax means “peace”. Peace was not something I had.

After Catherine died in 2011, my grief, so long suppressed, exploded. The volcano erupted with full force. A torrent of tears, an avalanche of emotions. The landscape of my life was changed inalterably.

As the initial waves subsided, after a year or so, my yearning for Pax motivated me to do something I had always hoped would be possible, but I hadn’t been able to arrange because of financial and practical limitations. I wanted to return to India to where he was laid to rest.

The trip to Bhopal

Thanks to social media, I was able to find a priest in Bhopal to help upon arrival, and even contacted an old friend who had helped when Pax died. This was almost 30 years afterwards. My memories of people and places were vague and confused. My husband of the time had insisted we leave Bhopal immediately after Pax’s death. I didn’t even know where he was buried.

And so in January 2013, John (my second husband) and I boarded a flight that took us eventually to Mumbai.

Clamour and noise. Autorickshaws like before, but lots more scooters rather than pedal bikes. And everyone, absolutely everyone, seemed to have their own mobile phone.

How strange it was to be back in India. So much seemed the same – the dusty heat, the noise of traffic, the range of smells that assault the senses of every newcomer. Some aspects were different. New cars and ubiquitous mobile phones stood out.

We took another flight to Bhopal.

Bhopal. A large city in Madhya Pradesh, almost smack in the middle of India. It is not really a tourist destination except for a Fort and a National Park. It became infamous in 1984 following the tragic gas leak at the Union Carbide pesticide plant. Thousands of people were killed and many more thousands suffered injuries. The impact of this tragedy continues to this day, as we discovered in conversations during our stay. (Find our more)

This disaster was unconnected to Pax, but it did mean that we were not able to return to Bhopal before we left India.

We had some accommodation booked near a large lake. A car and driver were arranged, and with the help of the pastor and our friend, we visited all of the Christian burial places. The population of Bhopal is predominately Hindu, with about a third Muslims, and a minority of Christians and other religions. The thousands of deaths following the chemical disaster brought chaos to the cemeteries.

Lake outside of Bhopal, where we stayed.

Connections

A humble Cathedral, beautiful in its simplicity – St Francis of Assisi, Bhopal

It was at the small Catholic Cathedral of St Francis that our search came to an end. There is a small unofficial burial area in a garden at the back of the property. Back in the 1970s, coffins were made within the compound. That’s why a small coffin had been instantly available for little Pax.

Now the priest in charge helped us arrange a memorial service at the grave. We set up a cross, adorned with flowers. We prayed. I wept. My tears gushed and gushed. My heart broke again and again.

At St Francis Cathedral

We were invited to a church service. I was even given the privilege of doing one of the readings. There was a mass. There were candles. I am not Catholic but it was incredibly moving.

There were other opportunities for remembrance while we were in Bhopal for the week. A particular poignant visit was to the train station where we had disembarked in order to rush Pax to the hospital. It was the last time that my two children were together. Catherine was almost 2 years old .

“Where’s Pat?” she had asked when we returned to the station to continue our journey to Mumbai. She couldn’t say the “X” in his name.

Continue the journey. How impossible that sounds looking back.

But here I was now, in 2013, continuing the journey.

After Bhopal we had a holiday of sorts in Goa. I cried a lot as I walked the hot sandy beaches.

Our relationship with Bhopal continued after our return to the UK. We arranged for a proper memorial to be built in the cemetery. Father Arul from the Cathedral visited us during his sabbatical. We took him to the grave where Catherine is buried in Alton, Staffordshire. I had brought back a little soil from Pax’s burial place in Bhopal and buried it in Catherine’s grave. It was the best I could do to bring them together.

Memorial in the Christian cemetery in Bhopal

Father Arul prayed at the grave. Bhopal in Alton. How peculiar but how right.

We kept in touch and helped pay for the schooling of some of the poorest children that the church was caring for. Sadly Father Arul died of Covid early in the pandemic. The disease had been rife in those poor areas. He was risking his life through his ministry. May he rest in peace.

Father Arul during his sabbatical visit to England. We took him to Wales for the day. This picture is on the Pontcyscyllte Aqueduct. Rest in peace, Father Arul. Thank you for all you did for so many people.

Worthwhile? Definitely yes!

And that brings me back to Pax.

Peace.

Shalom.

Mir.

Pokoj.

La paix.

The trip to Bhopal was excruciating. It was expensive, financially, practically, emotionally. It didn’t bring Pax back (although sometimes I fantasized I could see him amongst the young men of Bhopal). My family, with the exception of John, disapproved of the journey.

Yet the painful journey to Bhopal was something I needed to do. I needed to revisit. I needed to make peace with Pax and to a large extent with myself. I needed to weep, and I did.

There was more peace afterwards. I found I could talk freely about Pax, really for the first time.

The trip to Bhopal was worthwhile. It was the right thing to do, of that I am certain. In addition to my own benefit, if I hadn’t gone, I don’t believe this “Living with Loss” project would have ever happened.

Doing what’s right in your own grief journey

If you are grieving a loved one, and there is something you feel driven to do in their memory, don’t hold back. It is your grief. There are no rules for grieving. Time is immaterial. Take the steps you need that bring any peace.

Then again, be kind to yourself. I could not bring myself to re-enter the city hospital where Pax died, a terrible place by all accounts. It wasn’t necessary.

What is going to help you find peace, that you want to do? I hope you will find your way to doing it.

In loving memory of Pax – Born 3 January 1979 in Islamabad, Pakistan. Died 27 May 1982 in Bhopal, India. Forever living in our hearts and thoughts.

PS. Many thanks to those who gave donations in support of The Compassionate Friends as I walked 40 miles for Pax. That specific walk is now complete, yet the walk continues.

4 thoughts on “Returning to Bhopal: Doing what feels right in your grief journey

  1. Thank you so much for sharing this. I find myself drawn to revisit places that Jennifer and I visited during our many motorhome tours together. The ‘conversations’ I have with Jennifer’s memory are very cathartic and healing.
    The Windows 11 current opening screen shot is of Dunvegan Castle on Skye, and I suddenly realised we visited it during our Scottish tour in 2015 and it brought back many happy memories.
    Be Blessed in all you do everyday.

    Liked by 1 person

    • I am sorry to hear about Jake. I hope you will find a way to your own peace. This is no easy road we travel on, is it. Sending best wishes x

      Like

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