The River

Sunrise Ganga India

Sunrise on Ganga, India

How Ganga, the holy mother river of India, helped me recover from irreconcilable loss

On January 12, 1998, I discovered my mother had died in the night of heart failure. This story is for her, on the anniversary of her death. It was originally published in Homemaker’s Magazine.

AT DUSK, THE lilting waters of the jewel-green Ganges River take on a more hushed tone as they flow through the holy city of Rishikesh in northern India. Hindus lovingly refer to this sacred river as Ganga Mata-ji, the mother river. Ganga meets Rishikesh shortly after tumbling out of the high Himalayas, and then flows through a peaceful valley that has been luring sages since before recorded time. I went in the spring of 2006, to be and to heal.

As darkness descended one evening, I joined pilgrims, yoga students, tourists and town residents making their way to the aarti (a ceremony to honour the sacred river), held each evening on the banks of the Ganga under an enormous white statue of the Hindu god Shiva seated blissfully in lotus pose.

Shiva Rishikesh India Ganga GangesAfter taking off my shoes (a necessity for any sacred Hindu ritual) I decided to dive into the crowd gathering on the platform at the river’s edge – though I noticed the other foreigners were standing way up on the ghats (steps), away from the action. Immediately, a family of Indian women surrounded me. Three generations of smiling women encouraged me to chant, clap and sway along to the uplifting rhythms of the devotional music. They paid as much attention to me as they did to the aarti, making sure that I felt included and knew what to do to follow along with the unfolding ritual.

Towards the end of the ceremony, the women encouraged me to buy a diya – a little boat made of leaves and filled with flowers, incense and a candle that signifies divine energy, the light of spiritual truth and the imperishable nature of the soul.

While the festival atmosphere swirled around me, I imbued my diya with hope for personal transformation. I had come to India because a river of loss had run through my life, and I had struggled with grief, despair and depression for eight years. I felt I was clinging to the bank, but the effort was wearing me out. Deciding to leave my life and go to India was like letting go of the bank and going with the flow of the river. I had no idea where it would lead me, what I would learn or how I would change. I only knew that it was going to be big.

Diya aarti Rishikesh India Ganga Ganges

Creative commons photo courtesy Sergi Hill, Flickr

Eight years before, on a crisp cold January morning in Toronto, I drove with my sister, Victoria, and her husband, Gary, to my mother’s small apartment. Mother had been bedridden for a week with a terrible chest cold, but did not want to see a doctor. When we reached her building, Gary went to get a wheelchair while Victoria and I went upstairs. I knew the minute I opened the unlocked door that something was terribly wrong. I couldn’t feel my mother’s presence. I held out my arms in a spontaneous gesture of protection – my little sister was behind me – as I realized my mother was lying in bed, dead.

In that moment a powerful force hit my stomach, chest and throat, and my back muscles locked up. I felt hit so hard, it was almost like being cleaved in two. And I knew that my mother was not in that room. I didn’t know where she went, but I knew she wasn’t there.

We learned later that she died in the night of heart failure. She was 67 years old.

My heart failed too, in a way. It felt as though Mother’s love had been suddenly turned off – dammed up, parching the river. I felt joyless, afraid of being “alone” on the planet without her. And her death ushered in a devastating period of loss. My fiancé left me (with an expensive wedding dress hanging in the closet). In December of 2003, my Father was diagnosed with cancer; he died three months later. As this river of loss swept through my life, I rarely went out, saw few friends, cried myself to sleep most nights. In despair, I wondered why these misfortunes had happened to me – what had I done to deserve this series of blows?  And I wondered if I would be able to live through them.

To help get me out of the depression, I threw my faith into yoga. I had been going to yoga classes, on and off, and intuitively realized the healing and transformative power of this ancient art and science. I made a decision: no matter how I felt or what happened, I would go to class three times per week.

After a while, I started to feel better. I still couldn’t do downward dog – there was too much tension around my broken heart – but I was starting to move and breathe again. It was like early spring. The melting ice in my veins turned to water and began to flow, giving me the energy and courage to enroll in a yoga teacher’s training program. One of the teachers had recently returned from two years of yoga study in India. His teachings carried the elixir of India, which ignited in me a compulsion to live one of my dreams and go to India.

I put my things in storage, gave away my apartment, left my cat with a friend and went to India for six months.

Ganga RIshikesh India

Ganga flows emerald-green through Rishikesh

Near the end of my trip, a friend in Delhi suggested I go to the Aurovalley Yoga Ashram near Rishikesh. At the peaceful garden ashram near the Ganga, I meditated daily, walked by the river and listened to the teachings of the founder, Swami Brahmdev, under a mango tree on the ashram grounds.

This reflective time was heaven sent. I realized that traveling in India had taught me how to surrender, relax, and go with the flow. It had reinvigorated my enthusiasm for life. “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” said philosopher Martin Buber, and mine brought me one day into Rishikesh, and the evening aarti.

As I lit the diya I thought of my mother. I poured into the little boat my love for her and my feelings of intractable loss. With tears in my eyes, I sent the diya out into the current, watching as it cleared the shoal and skimmed lightly along the glossy black surface of the Ganga, a tiny retreating light in the darkness, swept along by the currents of the mighty river.

India Ganga

Painting of goddess Ganga by Yogendra Rastogi

And as I watched, I allowed the magic of the ritual to transform me. I thought of the millions of people, over thousands of years, who had stood by this long, life-giving river, invoking the mother’s love it symbolizes.

I felt connected – to my mother, to mother earth, to the unending cycle of life, death and rebirth that runs through the lives of every creature on this planet. Like a river. A sense of calm washed over me as I realized that my mother and I are part of this natural cycle. Her sudden death was not a tragedy, not a cause for suffering or grief, not something terrible that “happened to me.” It was part of the natural pattern of life.

I felt reminded of something I always knew, but forgot. I realized we are not apart after all, my mother and I. In that moment I felt the truth of eternity open up within me. I knew that beyond the apparent reality of everyday life, something much bigger than me runs through and unites all of life. Death is an illusion.

I breathed in the primordial scene. I could feel the breath fill my lungs, and life course through me. I felt a complete sense of contentment and the warmth of quiet joy descend upon me, like the mist that drapes the distant foothills of the Himalayas. I felt love.

During the rest of my time in India I gradually and gladly embraced this shift in perception and awareness. India’s gift to the world is an ancient and abiding wisdom built on the realization that reality is shaped in the mind and that the only lasting path to happiness is internal. From being the “worse thing that ever happened to me,” I saw my mother’s death as the catalyst for my spiritual growth and understanding. “Suffering is a gift,” Swami Bramhdev said. I understood.

Sunset on the Ganga in Rishikesh India

Sunset on the Ganga in Rishikesh

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41 Responses to The River

  1. Andy Hayes January 12, 2014 at 3:45 am #

    Powerful story. Grateful and humbled that you found the strength to share it with us.

  2. Aline Dobbie January 12, 2014 at 10:12 am #


    It is a powerful and poignant story of loss, shock, bereavement and acceptance and involves my beloved Ganga. I was born and grew up in India and also write about the Land of my birth and return annually….just about to fly there for six weeks. India if you allow her…has to be a she being Bharat Mata will touch you and give you succour and solace. I am so glad for the author and when I lost my own Mother on 25th January 2011 I flew out to India the next day as had been prearranged and mourned her there and it helped hugely. Mummy was nearly 100 and ready to go to an eternal rest, but loss is always loss and pain if there has been great love and companionship. My Parents had also been born in India and loved the country and served her well in their young days. India has that curious capacity to show you the eternal aspect of life, lives, spiritual comfort and timeless beauty amid her harsh challenges and ugly sides. The Ganga encapsulates this and now I am equally fond of the Narmada another Holy River. I wish India well in this year of challenge.

    • Mariellen Ward January 12, 2014 at 1:43 pm #

      Thanks for your comment Aline, there’s so much of your own story and wisdom in it, I will probably read it over and over. Love this: “India has that curious capacity to show you the eternal aspect of life.” I hope you are writing about all of your experiences.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Pura Vida in Costa Rica My Profile

  3. Shalu Sharma January 12, 2014 at 10:35 am #

    Thank you for sharing your story with us. So sorry to hear that your loss. Makes you think about life and what’s on the other side. Also makes you think how weak we are as human beings. Also reminds me how lucky I am to have born literally feet’s away from the the holy river in Patna. The Ganga in Patna has nearly dried up. More and more buildings are being erected, makes you think where we’re going.
    Shalu Sharma recently posted..10 strange behaviours you might encounter on an airplaneMy Profile

    • Mariellen Ward January 12, 2014 at 1:44 pm #

      Thanks for commenting Shalu. I also wonder where India is headed. I hope the society doesn’t throw out the timeless wisdom and traditions in the race to modernize.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..First time visitor to Canada, eh?My Profile

  4. Indra January 12, 2014 at 10:50 am #

    I was born and brought up in Allahabad and can empathize with you. River Ganga was part of growing up, not in religious sense, but as an articulation of everything beautiful.
    Indra recently posted..Windows…Weekly Photo ChallengeMy Profile

  5. Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar January 12, 2014 at 11:21 am #

    Dear Mariellen, Your story is very touching, moving and inspiring. When my mother passed away in 2008, I acted strong but was in turmoil inside. As it is said, transformation begins from within, peace wasn’t possible unless it came from within. I had my own journey to realize that my mother will always be with me in the form of her soul. That energy will be with me always. Her body was a vehicle she attained to travel through this planet in this lifetime. So is for your mother. She is with you right now. The infinite energy of her soul will always be with you.
    One of my friend from Germany who has been to India many times, once told me that ‘I never feel alone in India’. When you shared your experience of being with those women on the ghats of Ganga who clapped and prayed with you, I could relate your experience with the experience of my friend.
    Gaurav Bhan Bhatnagar recently posted..Photo Essay – Travelling to Gopalpur, OdishaMy Profile

  6. yogesh January 12, 2014 at 11:56 am #

    Thanks for sharing.
    truly said “suffering is a gift”.

  7. Michele B January 12, 2014 at 12:31 pm #

    Your post filled my heart with warmth. I will b travelling in India for a month in a few weeks and hope the river Ganja and the river yumana (alongside an ashram where i will b staying for 2 weeks) will help me heal from a lifetime of conflicting feelings about my dear mother and the discontentment with myself i have felt for way too long. Thank you so much.

  8. Kaushal Mathpal January 12, 2014 at 1:02 pm #

    A touching story….
    Kaushal Mathpal recently posted..SHAN-E-NIZAM-THE FINAL HALT (HAZRAT NIZAMUDDIN AULIYA)My Profile

  9. Joe January 13, 2014 at 12:17 pm #

    Thanks for this post Mariellen – it’s a very human story that tears down the barriers of difference between us all.

    The feeling of connectedness you speak of (to your mother and Mother Earth) is something many of us have turned away from. It’s great to see someone engaging with it on so profound a level.

    I’ve been trying to get these messages out myself and people seem to be receptive to them if you express them in an accessible way.

    Thanks again for sharing and I look forward to the next post.
    Joe recently posted..What Is Mindfulness and Why Do Nomads Need It?My Profile

  10. Hogga January 13, 2014 at 12:52 pm #

    such peaceful imagery

  11. Leland C January 13, 2014 at 9:20 pm #

    Mariellen really amazing story.. I shared with my wife. About your explanation of how the local women treated you when you really got in there and shared in the ceremony.. it’s really the same thing over here in Korea as well. I guess all across the world people just get so excited when foreigners actually want to share in their traditional life. 🙂

    • Mariellen Ward January 15, 2014 at 8:29 am #

      True, Leland, people are generally friendly and good. This is why international travel is so worthwhile – you get over your fear of “otherness” and learn the truth of human nature.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How I (finally) learned to travel light …My Profile

  12. National Tour Operators January 15, 2014 at 3:26 am #

    I am an Indian. I am always proud of this story is very true. Ganges is mother of all river in India.

    • Mariellen Ward January 15, 2014 at 8:32 am #

      Thanks for your comment. The Indian travel and tour industry could be doing a better job of showing the world the beauty of India, the possibilities of travel and sharing the stories that make India so special, in my opinion.
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..How to find vegetarian food in CanadaMy Profile

  13. Bella January 16, 2014 at 10:27 am #

    Thanks, Mariellen. Really appreciating the interweaving of personal and universal in your story. B.

  14. Seema Chauhan January 17, 2014 at 12:48 am #

    I would like to say thank to you because your are sharing nice information about top destination place to visit in India that it will to help to get easily for visit there. Anyway, my favorites will always be Rishikesh and I have visited three time so far…
    Seema Chauhan recently posted..Explored – Meghalaya the land of Destination Khasi HillsMy Profile

  15. vakta mondal January 17, 2014 at 8:49 am #

    One of the best blog I have ever seen. Solid idea about travel and journey.


  16. Arun Mehta January 19, 2014 at 6:14 am #

    Heartfelt writing by a beautiful writer…I felt i was standing in Ganga Mata with her…Thanks you!! Mariellan
    i liked “All journeys have secret destinations of which the traveler is unaware,” said philosopher Martin Buber

  17. Shubhajit January 20, 2014 at 4:10 am #

    Simple and emotionally charged words. Indeed, you have poured your heart out in this article.

    I never felt such urge to go to home during my travel, in fact i always running away from my home, but when I reached Gaumukh, the source of Ganges, a strong surge of responsibility and queer attachment pulled me. I don’t know what happened but that was not natural, something I couldn’t explain by my rationality. I came back from Gaumukh within 2 days, and realized my life was more to my parents than for my own joy.

    I believe, river Ganges has some sort of mystic power that can’t be comprehended by our own logic or reasons. Something that makes people move, something so sublime that pull people thousands of years to this eternal river.

    • Mariellen Ward January 25, 2014 at 4:53 pm #

      I would love to visit the source of the Ganga, and I have no doubt it is a river of great mystic power. Thanks so much for sharing your story. I would love to hear more about it!
      Mariellen Ward recently posted..Year in review: Return of the heroMy Profile

  18. January 20, 2014 at 6:09 am #

    Wow this is amazing story you have shared with us. I think its a kind of post the every Travel lover should read. Great to read… recently posted..Top 10 Places to Celebrate New Year 2014 in MumbaiMy Profile

  19. Jagabandhu Roy January 20, 2014 at 6:17 am #

    It’s a nice story. we also know the Ganges was origin from the end of the hair of God Shiba. Actually this is called believe in Hindu religion. I am very pleased after knowing this.

  20. Vikas February 25, 2014 at 2:34 am #

    Hi Mariellen, very nice blog. After a long a time, I read such touching & inspirational blog. Its very difficult to write about charizmatic moments that transformes your life completely. Things start turning beautyful again, you experience magical flow of a godgift called life within us through meditation & yoga. Such moments are like Fly of great Phoenix bird from ashes of fire. This reminded me some of almost same moments of my life Thx for a nice blog. 🙂 Vikas

  21. John July 4, 2014 at 5:26 pm #

    Thanks for the blog. It inspires me to better understand myself and my relationship to others after reading blogs like yours and other. These blogs have totally changed my life. If not for the seemingly accidental communications with a very spiritual Indian lady, I would not be able to understand what you are saying to me and the rest of your readers. This Indian lady has changed my life and she has no idea she did it, lost contact with her
    John recently posted..This is India! (five)My Profile

  22. Arathi November 9, 2014 at 5:13 am #

    Hi Mariellen, Thank you for sharing this experience with us , it is beautiful,uplifting and inspiring in so many ways that cannot be described in just few words or lines. My sister and myself have been through a very similar journey and am very glad I got to read this! Truly beautiful! 🙂 Stay blessed!:)

  23. Arun July 5, 2015 at 4:44 am #

    Dear Mariellen,
    I know its too late that i discovered this blog(better late than never) and started reading each one of your write ups with lot of curiosity.Sorry for your loss as mother is always the light of anyone’s life.But its truly amazing to know how you did overcome all this and found your inner-self and passion.It is really good to read your articles.Stay blessed 🙂

  24. Elenora August 5, 2015 at 7:50 pm #

    This is such a wonderful story, Mariellen,
    I attended a Ganga Aarti in Haridwar just a month ago. It was very beautiful. As you I prefer to mix with locals Not always or all of them they are happy about my intrusion, but majority of people are really friendly and nice.
    Every time I am in India I try to squeeze a trip to Ganges, even if just for a pooja.

    Here is my take on the Ganges Aarti:
    Elenora recently posted..Алчи монастырь – самый старый в ЛадахеMy Profile

  25. megha goel February 21, 2017 at 7:08 am #

    Dear Mariellen,
    I was touched by your innocence and pain and how you overcame it. I can personally relate to what you have been through these years, even i fought cancer last year and was quite depressed as i am just 32. But as you have written even i found peace in the presence of God. i surrendered myself to the God and left all my sorrows to him. I am so happy that mother nature, Lord Shiva, Yoga, Maa Ganga and my India helped you to think positively. Just be positive, live your life, be happy for those who love you and never forget to love yourself. I am following the same mantra in life and even started my website post illness for helping those in need and fulfilling the spiritual needs of the people.

  26. uttkarsh July 12, 2017 at 11:00 am #

    we have your story in our syllabus

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