In the spring of 2017, Nandini Murali, a South Indian journalist and author, returned from an out-of-town assignment to an eerily quiet home. Typically, her husband would greet her at the front door, but that morning he hadn’t answered her phone calls. It was Nandini who discovered his body, and confronted an unfathomable reality. T.R. Murali, one of the most prominent urologists in India, and her beloved husband of 33 years, had ended his own life. “Space dissolved,” writes Nandini, of that moment. “Time stood still. The axis of my life heaved, cracked and split.”
It was the beginning of a spiraling journey, one that plunged her world into darkness and the territory of profound pain and loss—one that would forge a steely strength in her spirit, and guide her towards a greater calling. Nandini aptly quotes Kahlil Gibran’s words, “Your pain is the breaking of the shell that encloses your understanding.” Her pain broke her open to new realizations; on love, loss, life, death, and the forms of suffering we unwittingly impose on one another.
Suicide bereavement is a complex and ill-understood form of loss. Survivors bear the brunt of society’s ignorance, and the callousness of its systems. Even before her husband’s body was sent for an autopsy, Nandini was subject to seemingly endless rounds of interrogation by the police. Death by suicide doesn’t elicit the same level of compassion as other forms of death, Nandini explains. This fundamentally alters the bereavement process for survivors of suicide. Subtle and overt forms of blaming and shaming take over, stemming not just from strangers, but often from well-meaning near and dear ones as well.
Many cultures and religions the world over view suicide as a sin. Many societies reference it using the vocabulary of crime. The writer in Nandini is acutely aware of the weight and significance of words. She takes care to note that her husband died by suicide; he did not commit it. Suicide is neither sin nor crime, she reminds us. It’s a public health crisis. According to the WHO, suicide claims 800,000 lives each year—twice the number from homicide. India accounts for 17% of that total. The silence that society often adopts around this issue exacerbates the problem.
In cultures where widowhood can dramatically strip a woman of certain tacit rights and privileges, being rendered a widow by suicide compounds the harsh ramifications. But in the wake of her overwhelming loss, Nandini, a gender and diversity activist and author, refused to succumb to society’s expectations and the paralysis of shame.
When she first stepped out of her house in India after her husband died, a friend remarked, “You’re wearing such bright colorful clothes.” In Indian culture, one of the unspoken traditions of a widow’s bereavement period is to minimize her attire and presence—essentially, to make herself inconspicuous. Nandini rejected the disempowering and dehumanizing expectations underlying these insidious customs. Her response to her friend was both dignified and assertive, “I am a butterfly. I cannot change into a moth!” Drawing upon humor as an antidote to her pain, she laughingly declared her intention to be “a glamorous widow"—a woman who would stand unapologetically in the fullness of her humanity, undimmed—and undiminished—by the complex circumstances of her husband’s death.
Drawing upon her spiritual training and her feminist consciousness, Nandini charted a path to change the conversation around suicide, and move towards personal and collective healing. On the first anniversary of her husband’s death, she launched SPEAK (Suicide Prevention Postvention Education Awareness Knowledge). SPEAK is an initiative of MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation, one of the largest mental health service providers in South India. It seeks to cultivate awareness instead of stigma, and to break the taboos, shame, and secrecy around suicide through public campaigns and sensitization. Through SPEAK, Nandini has mobilized social support for prevention, intervention, and postvention efforts in India and beyond, and engaged in research, policy, and advocacy initiatives. In the course of these efforts, her searing personal grief has shape-shifted into deeply activated compassion and powerful clarity of purpose.
Nandini’s work to bring light and voice to stigmatized communities pre-dates her efforts in the field of suicide prevention. She has worked extensively with people living with HIV/AIDS, at-risk children, female sex workers, people living with disabilities, and LGBTQIA+ communities. She has a doctorate in Gender Studies, is a gender and diversity researcher and practitioner, a certified life coach, and communications consultant for the MS Chellamuthu Trust and Research Foundation.
Nandini is the author of a work of fiction, titled Light and Shadow, as well as a translation from Tamil to English of Amma by Perumal Murugan, and the co-author of A Life in Trans Activism. She writes on Hindu dharma issues in a contemporary context and is a student of Vedanta. Her collection of poetry on love, loss and longing can be found at www.wildflowerspoetry.com.
Left Behind: Surviving Suicide Loss, her fourth and latest book, was released in March 2021. In it, "She not only relates her own story of incalculable loss but also tells the stories of others like myself, who continue to wrestle with the unique grieving and mourning that follow the suicide of a loved one," writes Nandini's friend and fellow author Carla Fine, "All survivors of suicide loss will welcome Nandini’s practical and pioneering advice about how to develop resilience while never forgetting the person we have loved and lost.”
Please join Pavi Mehta and Chris Johnnidis in conversation with this extraordinary activist and exemplar of resilient grieving.