Celebrating Diwali: Finding light in the darkness

November 2023

WAY member Shalini explains how her Indian heritage and her Hindu faith have affected her bereavement journey since her husband died – and she shares how she will be celebrating Diwali this year by looking for light and happiness…

Indian woman leaning against wall smiling

I met my husband Jeremy when I was 21 and he was 40. He had gone through an acrimonious divorce the year before and was only just beginning to enjoy bachelor life. I was a young Kenyan Indian girl, fresh off the Boeing, studying at the University of Surrey.

I was lucky. Meeting Jeremy when I was so young meant that I did not have to go through all the angst of dating that often happens in one’s early 20s. We fell in love almost immediately after meeting and settled into a loving, caring relationship and comfortable domestic life for the next 19 years. The best 19 years of my life. I was happy … until the day in 2016 when my life was blown apart by Jeremy’s death from cancer.

What cultural challenges did you face if any, coming from two different cultures?

Because I lived in Surrey with Jeremy, I fell into a very English way of living. I don’t feel that there were many cultural issues because he was very keen to learn about Indian culture and I was keen to learn about British culture. Also, because of my work teaching Bollywood dance through my company Just Jhoom!, Jeremy became quite immersed in Indian culture – whether that be the food, watching Bollywood films or celebrating Indian festivals with me. It seemed so natural. 

The challenge came from my family who just wouldn’t accept Jeremy because of the age difference and because he was English. My mother always said that two different cultures would never understand each other. So the issues came from outside our relationship – we never had any problems with our cultural differences at all. 

How did your faith help you through Jeremy’s illness and death?

When I met Jeremy I was a practising Hindu but a few years into our relationship I read The God Delusion by Richard Dawkins and actually became an atheist. However, by the time Jeremy died I was extremely spiritual. I was a bit of a pick and mix spiritualist – taking teachings from Hinduism and Buddhism and all sorts. 

I turned to my Hindu teachings after Jeremy died so I very much became that Hindu widow – wearing white, not wearing jewellery, cutting my hair. I think that kind of gave me comfort because I felt like I was going back to my cultural and religious roots. That served me well at the time. 

Jeremy had a Christian funeral. I found great comfort in giving him what he wanted. The thing that really resonated with me is that I had full faith in the afterlife and reincarnation, which is a very Hindu and Buddhist philosophy. I completely believed in the afterlife and that we would be reincarnated again together one day. That really helped me – that this wasn’t the end, that I would see him again. 

What were some of your coping mechanisms when Jeremy died?

My coping mechanisms when Jeremy died were not good. For a year I became a recluse. I drank alcohol, emotionally ate and watched TV for 20 hours a day because I couldn’t sleep. I also abused painkillers. It was a very destructive first year. I needed to retreat from the world to heal and it’s the way I coped. 

But a year after Jeremy died, I finally started to heal through dance, meditation and mindfulness, and writing. I wrote my book Always With You

"I began to emerge and was ready to face the world again."

Did you face any specific cultural challenges when you were widowed?

I was already ostracised from Indian society and my family so I didn’t face any particular cultural challenges after I was widowed. I was living in a very white village in Surrey. There were very few people from an ethnic community. I had actually fitted into that life really well – I had really made my place there. I didn’t really see myself as a widow from an Asian background. I just saw myself as a young widow.

Then when I started resurfacing and started dating, there was this feeling that I shouldn’t be dating because I was Asian. When I went to visit my family in Kenya, people looked at me with pity.

I was the first widow in my family on both sides, except my dad’s older sister who was in her 70s. I was the first widow, at 40, and that was tough being so young and losing my life partner. 

Indian woman leading a Bollywood dancing session

When did you find the support network WAY Widowed and Young?

I came across WAY Widowed and Young by Googling support for widows. The way it really helped me was to find my tribe. I went to a WAY AGM in Southampton. I ran some Just Jhoom! Bollywood dance workshops and we did a flashmob in the evening. I remember my feet aching from dancing.

"I hadn’t danced like that since Jeremy died!"

It was just not being judged for having fun and moving forward with my life. That’s the way WAY helped me. I felt like I wasn’t being judged for being happy again. Sharing my story on WAY’s platforms also really helped – it was cathartic but it was good to know that other people resonated with my story because I realised that I wasn’t alone. There were other people who felt the way I felt and that we weren’t these aliens who had landed on earth. Because that’s the way I felt when I was first widowed. 

How do you celebrate Diwali?

Jeremy and I would mark Diwali every year. I would cook Indian food and put candles around the house. He would always get me a Diwali card and we would dress up and just be us because in our village, nobody else was celebrating Diwali.

It’s very different now I am back in Kenya because now I am with a Punjabi man who is from a Hindu background and his family celebrate Diwali. We tend to still celebrate in a much more reflective, introspective way. 

Diwali is very much about new beginnings – really looking at the good in your life over the evil that’s happening in the world. Looking at trying to have light everywhere rather than darkness, whether that’s internal or external. We look at the much more spiritual meaning.

Diwali is also about coming together as a family. For many widows from an Asian background it must be so difficult because I would imagine their Diwali must have been around their husband and children and extended family. Now they don’t have that. They may not feel part of their late husband’s family any more, which is very difficult. 

What advice do you have for people marking difficult dates like Diwali for the first time?

You do you. Do what works for you. The first year after Jeremy died, all the milestones felt like I couldn’t celebrate them – Christmas, Diwali, Valentine’s Day. Slowly I began to make significant dates more meaningful for me. 

As an Asian widow, when you are marking an occasion like Diwali, take it at your own pace. If you don’t feel like celebrating this year, don’t do it. Pace yourself. Every year it changes. But mark it in some way, even if that’s just lighting a candle in front of a photo of your loved one, which is what I did, and still do, for Jeremy.

How is life for you now?

I’m in a really good place. I’ve been in a new relationship now for nearly four years. There is life after death for sure. I can’t say it has all been plain sailing! It’s been quite a journey. It was really hard for me moving forward because I felt like I was betraying Jeremy and I had a lot of guilt around that. It also takes a lot for a guy to understand that I will always love Jeremy.

"You never move on but you move forward. It’s not easy but I feel like I’ve found happiness again. I’m so grateful for having found love twice in my life."

I’m now a holistic health and happiness healer in Kenya. But with everything I do, I always have Jeremy in my mind. I feel like he’s here always with me, with his hands on my head guiding me and blessing me. I’m so very grateful to have had my life with him in England for those 19 years, but I’m now looking forward with excitement and happiness.

Read Shalini’s advice about dating again as a young widow

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As an organisation, WAY strives to be fully inclusive. WAY’s members come from a very wide range of diverse backgrounds and know that bereavement and grieving is a very personal and unique experience, however different cultures and ethnicities may have common themes, rituals and expectations.  
Find support from others who have been widowed within the Cultural and Ethnic Diverse communities.