The Smell of Grief

Why didn’t you tell me that grief has a smell?

When you died, you bequeathed me your last breath. It was perched, cross-legged on a dark cloud of silence in your hospital room awaiting my return. You were asleep. 

The machines that monitored the rhythms of your heart, that pumped air into and out of your lungs, lay quiet. You were dead.

Your wife of more than forty years, my mother, sat ashen-faced by your side, a statue, her voice stolen by sorrow. Your sister-in-law, the cousin who knew you her entire life, announced your departure. But you were not gone. You were there. The shell of you, like the husk of winnowed rice. Unmoving. At rest. The rasping wheeze of your last struggling hours finally quieted.

Your room was filled now with too much light, too many warm bodies, too many deliberately hushed voices, and not enough living You.

I gasped. Your exhaled breath, the last of you, rushed audibly in to fill my lungs.

I was absent when you left, discarding your corporeal form like shucked corn. I was pregnant, you see, with what would have been your first grandchild. You didn’t know. I didn’t either. It doesn’t matter now, neither of you are here. But I was pregnant, awash with emotions, exhausted after the hurried, harried dash to the hospital where the ambulance had rushed you, struggling for breath. 

Barely able to stay upright after the tense night of emergency treatments, of a parade of medical staff speaking a language of exclusion, of concerned whisperings and decision-makings, I’d gone home to sleep. You slept too; an opioid-induced somnolence. 

Grief smells like overcooked cabbage and cloudy ammonia. 

Before, in a hospital in Kochi, your mother exhaled. But it was you who caught that breath, not me. Days of hospital care had followed weeks of home care, but the cancer had too tight a grip on her, had insinuated itself into too many secret places. No amount of ministering to her body or spirit could free her from Death’s steely grip. 

Grief smells like citronella and cold sweat and tired, unwashed bodies.

Before that, in a hospital in Mumbai, your mother-in-law exhaled and I inhaled. I hadn’t done the difficult work of sitting with her as she reached for air, her asthmatic lungs searching for relief. Her small bird’s bones, her paper-thin skin, dried and desiccated. 

Febrile and fading out of consciousness, I had stayed home. My fever broke when hers did. I joined the changing of the guard by her bedside, watched that parade of medical staff too, their communications bricked deeper, more impenetrable by another language I didn’t understand. 

But hers was no quiet death, no easing of the transition. Hers was a battle with invisible rakshasas, a war against unseen demons determined to drag her away. I was helpless, unable to fend off the eldritch terrors who’d come for their dues. Ushered out of her room, assaulted by a barrage of questions I could not answer from curious passers-by, I was unmoored, adrift, bobbing on a raging sea. Hers was the first death I had witnessed.

Grief smells like sandalwood, vibhutti and acrid smoke.

Twenty-five years have passed since you have. The line of Dead curls and snakes far into the distance. The Departed form an orderly queue, shuffling forward faster each year as new names are etched into the ledger. There have been other losses too, other griefs to mourn, each with their own unique scent.

Grief smells like stale beer and salty tears.

Grief is visceral, contained in my marrow, coursing through my veins, embedded in my amygdala. Even when I forget, my body remembers. Like Proust I grasp at scents of memories in search of lost moments in time.

Grief smells like fading cologne, like the pages of a favourite book, like dying stars.


This essay was first read at Coffee and Grief: Coffee Talk #39 on October 6, 2022

Photo by karina zhukovskaya

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