Living and dying across cultures

There’s one thing about cancer that is undeniable. And that is that it abruptly confronts you with your mortality. Which is interesting, because many cultures, have so many taboos around death. We don’t talk about it. We remain in denial, about our own deaths, and of those close to us. We use euphemisms when a person dies. We too often avoid the topic. We even hide it from our own minds.

However, when you step over the line in the sand when we learn we have cancer, or if someone close to us is diagnosed, that taboo seems to melt away. Being part of a close cancerhood which includes too many with metastatic cancer, means that the subject of death is always there.

I learned a great deal about death and grieving when my father in law died nine years ago in north eastern India where my husband’s family is from. The family belongs to the “Tamang” ethnic Himalayan hill people and are very devout Buddhists. As a foreigner (and new daughter in law) in such an intense situation there was the potential for a very difficult time. I had no understanding of the rituals, or what would happen and my own cultural block prevented me from asking. This was eased enormously for me, when one of my husband’s aunts took me to one side and passed me “The Tibetan Book of Living and Dying” and pointed me to the chapters on ritual and belief around death.

As well as being enormously helpful and enabling me to understand and engage as appropriate in the rituals, I learned a great deal from that book as well as from being with the family throughout these rituals. I recount this from my memory of that time and what I have retained from the explanations from family and the book which accompanied me throughout. This is my own understanding and I trust that it is accurate, and am happy to be corrected if I err at all.

I am a complete novice in the teachings of Buddhism, so please be gentle with me if I either over-simplify or misconstrue. It is well known that Buddhism is based on the principle of reincarnation. This is where the way we have acted in this life influences and shapes where we head in the next one. As such the process of death is one of the soul passing to the next life and very important. It is critical that the process is carried out properly.

I felt humbled and privileged to be part of this when my father in law died. I found this process enormously respectful and helpful in that it guides the bereaved through a process where they focus on the transition of their loved on in stages and helped me to understand how differently we deal with death in different contexts.

The time of death is believed to be very traumatic for the soul of the one who has died and there is a transition stage known as “bardo” which the soul passes through. It is very important that Buddhist monks guide the departing soul through this process, with rituals known as the “phowa”. This is intended to help the soul understand that they have died and to support them to gradually come to terms with this. Over these early hours and first days following death there is chanting to comfort the soul, and the family say kind things about their lost one, leaving out their favourite foods and drinks to make sure they feel loved and not distressed. The funeral takes place very soon after death, at a place and time identified by the monks.

The 49 days following death are very important in the Buddhist rituals and beliefs, representing seven periods of seven days each. At each seven day point, rituals will be held in the home, Buddhist monks chanting and carrying out the appropriate “puja” to support the soul on their journey towards their next incarnation or next life. At the third seven day period, that is on the 21st day, an important “puja” is held. At this point the soul moves from the stage where they are newly passed, to that where they are preparing for their next incarnation. While in the first 21 days, the soul is believed to be nearby and moving through this “adjustment” phase, after that it is believed that on one of the next seven day points, the soul will pass to the next life, therefore either at the 28th, 35th or the 42nd day.

When the 49th day comes, it is known that the soul has moved on and there is a major day of rituals and puja, with family and friends coming from far and wide to pay respects and to grieve. It is a painful and highly emotional day, for it is on the 49th day, the family and close ones know that their loved one has moved on and they grieve their loss.


Today marks the 49th day since my father’s death.

Post Script

Strangely I dreamed of my father last night, after I had written this.  Strangely, because this is unusual.  I do not dream often of my father, I never have.  I think of him frequently but rarely dream.  Last night, in my dream, he came to visit us in our home.  He was looking so well, was dressed in his usual everyday “countryside smart but casual” clothes and standing in the garden near our door.  I was pleased to see him standing and walking unaided, and out and about as he had been so frail when I last saw him. Memory was clearly blurring with reality.

He didn’t come into the house, but we stood outside and chatted.  Small talk.  Chit chat.  Nothing of substance, but pleasant and lighthearted.

Writing this post and thoughts of the 49 days perhaps prompted my subconscious to form this dream. Or perhaps not?

My first proper haircut since the Dr Evil days

The last time I had my hair cut, was in preparation to losing my locks after chemo 1, and a quick buzz with a razor in Scotland to even up the fluff which was sticking out above my ears.  I have been resisting getting my haircut, partly because it has taken so long to re-grow (it is six months since the last chemo) and partly because I want to see how these crazy curls turn out.  But over the past couple of weeks, I have been sprouting wings above my ears.  My hair is getting longer and the curls make my hair stick out untidily, bringing an unwelcome toilet brush look.  Added to that, the main colour which seems to be coming back now is darker brown.  So I decided to get a bit of a trim to get rid of the wings and the frosted silver topping.

I realise that the last time I had a proper haircut was over a year ago, and was actually quite an experience.  So much so, that in my previous life, I wrote about it on my earlier blog. This is my account of the experience then, last August.

31 August 2009

I didn’t think it would be such a big deal. After a couple of months here and a lot of putting off, I finally decided that I had to do something about my hair. Not difficult, you would think.


The first challenge came on Wednesday morning, sitting having breakfast, when I learned (the hard way) that it is not auspicious to wash your hair on a Wednesday here. Apparently I was setting myself up to get the burdens of the world on my shoulders. Definitely something to be avoided – but a bit too late, as I sat with my hair dripping!


I had a recollection from living in Mongolia that haircutting was inauspicious on either a Monday or Tuesday, so I began research on haircutting and washing issues here.


It is even more complicated. Certain days are good, bad or neutral for hair washing and a different set of days is auspicious or not for hair cutting.  So in order to identify when I could have a shampoo and cut, I had to develop a complicated matrix to guide my choice of day.


On Saturday I was finalising my research with the intent of getting my hair cut at long last. In summary, Wednesday is not good for hair washing, and Tuesday, Saturday and Sunday are good. Fine so far. For cutting – Monday and Friday are the bad days. So I confirmed with my source that Saturday is good so that I could go ahead with the cut? It was confirmed. Saturday is good. The days to be avoided are Monday and Friday – oh – and the day you are born. You’ve guessed it – I was born on a Saturday, so the day’s plan suddenly disintegrated. Even phoning for an appointment was sabotaged as a recorded message informed me that the selected hairdressing salon had not paid their phone bill and the phone was disconnected.


On Sunday I therefore embarked on phase 2 of Project Haircut. This involved a pleasant walk to the Hairdresser’s, making an appointment for a shampoo and cut for myself and a friend, and returning later.


Arriving later for the appointment, there were more surprises to come. For the shampooing, I was a bit alarmed to be led into a room with a couch (like a doctor’s examination room) where my friend was already tucked up – and lying having her hair washed! It felt, surreal, bizarre and slightly discomforting.

I was not prepared for the most amazing shampoo of my life. For the next hour I experienced an incredible hair wash and shampoo, which included head, neck and upper back massage – totally unexpected and completely relaxing.


I am never, ever going to put off getting my hair cut again. In fact, I am consulting my diary right now to see when it will be the next auspicious date for a hair wash!


The irony of the last sentence hit me full force when I re-read it today.  How on earth was I to know that it would be my last haircut for a very long time?  How could I possibly have known that my next actual cut would be to crop my hair ready for the shave?  How much I had taken for my hair for granted.

Last weekend, I fortunately remembered that a Saturday haircut was out of the question, since I am “Saturday-born”.  However, I am sure it is not inauspicious to book a haircut on a Saturday, so that is what I did.  I made an appointment with the same Salon where I had had the delicious shampooing experience over a year ago and basked in the anticipation of my first salon shampoo in such a long while.

On Sunday I was actually slightly nervous when I arrived at the Salon.  I was concerned that Twang Arm could get too much attention, and it is difficult to explain that gentle massage in certain areas of my shoulder and back is fine but other areas near the surgery and lymphatic area should be avoided.  But the overriding sense was one of eager anticipation.

I was not disappointed, and was led into the same dimly lit room with the same three couches with a sink at the head.  I settled down and let the hairdresser start the massage, after showing her the areas not to touch.

Again the shampoo massage lasted for around 45 minutes, which is quite impressive when you consider how little hair there is to shampoo!.  It included gentle upper back and shoulder massage and even a quick massage of my feet and legs (since I had asked for my arms not to be touched). I realised at one point that the water temperature seemed to be perfect, neither too hot nor cold.  I have so many recollections of shampooing experiences where I have leapt off the seat when scalded with water that is too hot, or trying to suppress an animal like roar when freezing cold water has hit my scalp, while being asked “is the temperature ok, madam?”.  Perhaps it is one of the benefits of living in a climate which is temperate and tropical and when we rarely need to use a heater for the water but it certainly adds to the comfort of the shampoo massage.

The other thing which I particularly like about the Myanmar style massage is that, for me, it is the right mix between firm and gentle.  Thai massages are definitely invigorating but often make me squeal and leave me bruised.  Gentle massage is definitely relaxing and pleasant, but the firmer massage does give the impression that it has been more beneficial.

So after the massage, I had to somehow stir myself from the blissed state I was in, and make my way back to the styling room.  The hairdresser may have been surprised that I was having a cut, since my hair was so short, but she did nothing to express that surprise, for which I was thankful.


There was a bit of confusion about the cut I wanted, but that is not surprising given my odd instructions.  “Clip my wings, take away the silvery topping but leave it as long as you can”!!

The result was fine, even though I realised I had been secretly hoping that it would bring a transformation to my pre- Dr Evil days.  My hair looked darker without the silvery bits, although still a bit too grey for my liking.  It was much tidier and looks almost like a hairstyle, rather than re-growth after baldness.  Or perhaps that is wishful thinking.

I have decided that I will delay on attempting to colour it at all.  There are two reasons for this.  Firstly, it is still extremely short and if coloured would quickly develop two tones as the new hair (hopefully) continues to grow and lengthen.  The second reason is a bit more sobering.  My Big Check is next month and the fear of discovering that some nasty cells or worse have survived or developed despite all the treatment is at the forefront of my mind.  Being blunt, there is no point in colouring my hair if I had to have chemo again and lose it all over again.  And it would be a waste of money (the shrewd Scottish perspective). If, however, the Big Check goes well and I am released back into real life until the following check, then I reckon that will be a very good time to hide the grey bits.

Now that was a very long story for a very short hair cut, and a reminder of how the most mundane things that we have taken for granted take on a very different meaning!