Longing, Loss and Looking Forward During the Pandemic

May 26, 2021
Jaspreet Chowdhary

Jaspreet Chowdhary, Compassion & Choices Senior Legislative Counsel

The reality that my Phupharaji (uncle) was dead was not fully registered. I was going to join a family zoom where we were going to pray together. My mind kept flashing back to images of him singing and telling jokes, the center of most rooms in which he entered, making sure everyone was having fun and participating. I fought back tears at the thought of him dying alone in the hospital with COVID. How could his death be so different from the way he lived his life? 

I think it is pretty universal for loved ones to gather when someone dies; there is usually food, tears, and memories. The astonishment and pain is easier to bear when we are in fellowship. In most Indian homes I entered after someone died, there was always food, conversation, and prayer. Kids wander around if they cannot sit and people talk and reminisce while folks pray. The soundtrack is a mix of familiar prayers, hushed conversations, and occasional laughter and tears. Aromas of tea and the unique mix of blends that lets you know you are in a South Asian home fill the air. 

All of this was lost over zoom. I could not focus; my kids were not sitting still. My spouse was teaching that night, so I had to make dinner while listening and trying not to cry. I let the kids watch a movie; I turned off the video to listen to the prayers while I assembled quesadillas. I wanted to take a nap. I wanted to be alone to process. 

The phone rang and I answered. It was an offer for a job at Compassion & Choices. I promised to be back in touch soon with a decision; I hung up and called my daughter to dance with me as we celebrated together. We ran upstairs to tell my spouse right before his class started; we all cheered and shouted! The chance to start a dream job; the excitement of a new beginning! 

The kids settled back into watching. I faced the kitchen with dinner making in progress and saw the laptop. I unmuted the prayers. My Phupharaji was still dead. The COVID-19 pandemic was ravaging the world at large and my family was one of many who were personally impacted. My parents looked so sad. I haven’t hugged them in so long. The kids were still hungry. 

It has been five months since I started at Compassion & Choices. Every day, I think about how to make sure people’s wishes for the end of their lives are honored. We talk a lot about the need for more equity at end-of-life care and the need for more visibility of all communities of color and faith groups in all aspects of our work. At least once a week, I chuckle at my happiness of being part of a team of lawyers. I am constantly amazed not just by the brilliance of my colleagues, but how they consistently show up with kindness and insight that makes me feel like a better world is not just possible, but on the way. 

I also hold the stories and experience of folks who do not have that choice or option because of their race, geography, or circumstances that place them in situations where their whole selves are not honored. Since the pandemic began, attacks against the Asian American community have increased. In April, when I found out that Sikhs were among those who were murdered in Indianapolis, I started shaking and crying. Two details have stuck with me: the first is that employees are required to drop their phones off when they come into work, so many could not call for help or to say goodbye to their loved ones. Second, the shooter was targeting non-white employees. He was telling white employees to move as he sought out Brown folks to kill. 

Over that weekend, I tried to talk to my kids about what happened and fumbled. I needed more time to process. I want my family to be safe. How can I be the adult to explain all this hard stuff when I do not fully understand it myself? The challenge for parents of Black and Brown kids is how to raise joyful beings who are also aware of the world. 

I go between different realities. I want more time to process. 

I check our family whatsapp multiple times a day and the contents have expanded to include health updates, news of deaths, and details for joining services over zoom. Each time I have visited Delhi, the family gatherings had to be in large spaces to accommodate all of us. I wonder if we are all going to fit into one room after the pandemic is over. My parenting experience is filled with managing logistics — getting the kids fed, doing homework, reading, playing, and (attempting to) cook together. I try to be present. I want their childhoods to be filled with joy. I often think of a line from a poem at an event I attended a while ago, “Black and Brown children can change the world if they are allowed to grow up.” All my caretaking has the lingerings of a silent prayer, “please be okay; please thrive; please make the world better; please know you are loved.” 

I am getting more familiar with my new role. It is strange getting to know my colleagues completely virtually. Through lots of meetings, emails, and chats, I am building relationships. I know the sounds of my teammates’ laughter. It feels nice to become known as people pick up on how I am feeling from my facial expressions and we develop our own shorthand. As the boundaries between my roles get fuzzy, I am thankful that my kids are welcomed on camera, for grace to cry or have my voice tremble when I speak about hard things. 

My pandemic experience, and the experience of thousands of others, show how something can be both global and personal. Similarly, the path to removing obstacles to end-of-life care is both a call for the movement and us as individuals. I am proud of the work I’m doing with my colleagues to create a more equitable end-of-life experience. Additionally, I am looking forward to more people speaking up about how AANHPI folks are thought about in discussions about building relationships, that Sikhs and other non-Christian faith groups are considered in faith outreach, and that our definition of family is broad enough to include chosen family. I often think of the quote from Rupi Kaur, “people go but how they left always stays” and I hope that we all get to live and leave with intention. 

Compassion & Choices
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Patricia A. González-Portillo
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