23th December 2020
Kia Scherr on traumatic loss and grief as a spiritual practice
Marina Cantacuzino talks to Kia Scherr whose husband and 13-year-old daughter were both victims of the 2008 Mumbai terror attacks. Kia is the co-founder of One Life Alliance, a charity she set up as a response to the attacks.
Kia has spent 20 years studying, practicing and teaching at the Sanctuary Holistic Retreat Center in Virginia. After her husband and 13 year old daughter were killed in the Mumbai terrorist attack of 2008, Kia has dedicated her life to preventing acts of violence by creating peace education programs, the foundation of which is forgiveness. Kia is the co-founder of One Life Alliance, a charity she set up as a response to the attacks.
“I like to focus on the word “forgive”. Then it is about love and love listens. Love is willing to understand. Love is willing to accept and forgiveness is a bridge that connects us to love.”
“When we are unforgiving a door in our heart closes. Something shuts down inside of us, justifiably understandably. It’s not wrong at all but how do we want to live? Do we want to keep those doors shut? Who doesn’t get to experience love when we close it off? We are the ones that have to bear that.”
“If we allow love to continue to extend and flow maybe some good can be done with that. That to me is what forgiveness is all about.”
“I believe that forgiveness is an act of self- love.”
“I think forgiveness is an act of love, an act of self-love but the outcome of forgiveness is peace and it’s so that we can live in peace. The person who forgives is enabling themselves to live in peace.”
Marina: Welcome to the F Word – a podcast series which examines, excavates, unpicks and reframes Forgiveness through the lives of others. I am Marina Cantacuzino, a journalist from London, Founder of The Forgiveness Project Charity and I’ve built my career investigating how those who face the most complex and devastating things in life find a way through. I will be talking fortnightly to a guest who has experienced something very difficult or traumatic in their life but who rather than respond with hate or bitterness has embraced or at the very least considered forgiveness as a response to pain.
My guest today is Kia Scherr, co-founder of One Life Alliance, a charity she set up in response to the 2008 Mumbai terrorist attacks that claimed 164 lives including those of her husband, Alan and their 13 year old daughter, Naomi. Naomi and Alan were in Mumbai staying at the famous Oberoi hotel on that fateful night taking part in an international meditation retreat with the Synchronicity Foundation, which is a spiritual community based in Virginia, USA, which the family had been a part of for several years.
Marina: So welcome, Kia. Welcome to London.
Kia: Thank you.
Marina: It is lovely to see you again.
I wanted to start off actually by talking about the organisation you set up which was I suspect a dynamic and creative response to pain, part of the healing process?
Marina: We talk a lot at The Forgiveness Project about meaning-making, that is the ability to use adversity for the greater good, so I was wondering at what point did you pick yourself up off the floor and think about doing something which was focused on the dignity of life?
Kia: It was within the first few months and in response to emails our group, the Synchronicity Foundation, had received from all over the world from people of all religions. The love and compassion that came forth which is the opposite of terrorism and we wanted to keep that focus and conversation going about the wonders and sacredness of life and to create a structure for that. And then, I was asked to be President of the organisation and to be the spokesperson for it.
Marina: Were you able to do that right away or did you sit back and let others help and support you to start with?
Kia: Well it was to some extent, yes, because we didn’t launch until the first anniversary so I had a year to build up to that so I wasn’t speaking in public about it until that time.
Marina: The Synchronicity Foundation, perhaps explain what it is and how you got involved and for how long.
Kia: It is a meditation retreat centre teaching modern spirituality using high-tech meditative experience and holistic life style. It is a non-religious organisation so it is using technology to create the experience of the Mantraism chanting from the east so that people could have a modern way of meditating and making it easy for them. And, we were there as resident staff members giving retreats and people from all over the word would come to our retreats several times a year.
Marina: Naomi grew up there?
Kia: Naomi grew up there. She was home-schooled for most of that time except for a couple of years. We had left the rat race of Washington D.C. to simplify our lives. That was our choice to live in an environment like that. It was in the blue ridge mountains of Virginia. So, we got to meet people from Australia and Canada and Europe and other places who came to the retreats.
Marina: In 2008 Alan was organising this retreat in India staying partly in Mumbai.
Kia: Yes, that’s right. He had to visit Mumbai June of that year to look at all possible locations so that we could have a group of twenty or so people who would be comfortable there and then they could do their day trips and have their meditation programmes for the public in the evenings.
So, Alan went in June to locate the best possible place for these people to gather in Mumbai and somebody said just check out the Oberoi you might like that, so that happened.
And then, one month later David Headley, who is a Pakistani American and he was working for the terrorist group, The LeT (Lashkar-e-Taiba) Group and he was assigned to find locations for this terrorist attack. He spent a few months there and they picked out about five locations. He was waiting to go to a movie at the Inox theatre in Mumbai, which I have since been to many times, and while he was waiting for the movie wandered into the Oberoi lobby and said add it to the list and it was added to the list at the last minute.
Marina: And Naomi and Alan went. You didn’t.
Kia: Correct, yes. I was in Florida and I was going to visit my sons and parents, my whole family was there meeting for Thanksgiving and they were going to have their father/daughter trip and it was an educational experience for her with a group of twenty-five people that were all people who had attended our retreats from Australia, Canada and the United States.
They had been in Mumbai 10 days at that point. So they were in the last week of their trip when the attacks took place.
Marina: I remember very clearly watching it sort of play out live on television. It was truly terrifying. I can’t begin to imagine how you must have felt because you probably at some point also turned on the television and saw what was happening.
Kia: That’s right. We got a call from the Managing Director of Synchronicity just saying turn on the news. I was getting ready to have tea with my mother and watch Oprah on TV. She said turn on CNN. This is happening and we couldn’t believe it and there it was.
In shock, total shock and disbelief.
“No this can’t really be happening. No, maybe it’s not the Oberoi. They must be mistaken”. Those were the thoughts that go through our mind. “They must have run out of the hotel as soon as they heard something. They are not there. We are going to find out that they are outside somewhere waiting or they are hiding in their rooms. They are fine. Their doors are locked. They will be fine”. You go through all those kinds of scenarios.
Thanksgiving came and went and then we had gotten a call saying that everybody in the group had been accounted for except for Alan and Naomi. We were told that they were last seen in the restaurant hiding under a table and so we thought maybe they had survived and that was what we were hoping and praying for.
And then, because they were missing my son posted their photos on I-Report on CNN and that then got picked up and it was on the news and it was because that picture of them wearing their Indian garb, father and daughter holding hands, that went around and that is what generated all of these emails, responses and prayers from all these different people.
Marina: I see. So the attack went on for two days?
Kia: It went on for about two and a half days. It was Wednesday evening on the 26th. In the time around 9.30 and 10.00 at night is when it all started and then it was Friday morning that I got the call from the US consulate in Mumbai confirming that they had both been killed in the restaurant.
Marina: The only two of the group.
Kia: The only two of the group that were killed. They were dining with four other people who were wounded and managed to crawl out with the help of the kitchen staff and getting into taxes and get to the hospital.
Marina: At this point we started talking about grief, the kind of acute grief caused by an inconceivable tragedy. The kind of grief that Stephen Levine in his book “Unattended Sorrow” says slams shut the heart.
Previously when I talked to Kia about grief and about her story she told me that after the attack she remained numb for a long, long time and she said this was necessary. She said if I had been able to feel right away it would have shattered me and she also said that it wasn’t until some years after the attack that she was able to feel the deepest part of her tears.
Just talking about grief for a minute. Did you have any of the freezing self-protection? Because there is a real sense that if you feel the pain and go into the grief, lean into it, then you can start to heal but also not to really go there is a sort of form of self-protection for a while. Was there that?
Kia: Absolutely and I wasn’t consciously trying to shield myself or self-protect but I think it happened on its own gradually so I didn’t get in because I think it might have destroyed me in some ways.
Marina: Shattered you.
Kia: Shattered me. So it was gradual, so that each time I went back to Mumbai and of course I am spending a lot of time alone, a lot of time in solitude. Sure you get invited to speak and it’s wonderful and inspiring, heart-warming. You speak but you go back and you are alone. You wake up alone. It’s the weekend you are alone and that was an amazing opportunity to embrace that and get to know myself because especially a woman, wife, mother, my life was focused on that. It was relationships.
Marina: Did you have a sense people were looking at you and saying that’s the woman who lost her daughter and her husband?
Kia: Yes and there is always that and so people don’t know what to say to you and so they avoid you. That’s normal, totally normal and I have compassion for that and I understand it. But, yes that happens. So, you find yourself in a different kind of a category altogether and you probably know from talking to all the people from The Forgiveness Project and their stories, it is just different after that, the way you relate to other people in the world and the way they relate to you and it is getting to know and accept and work with that somehow.
Marina: One might presume that someone with a very strong spiritual call who has done a lot of work in and out of the body and mind might have more resilience or might have more tools or heart capacity to deal with capsizing grief. Is that true?
Kia: I think, yes. I think it is true but then that became my spiritual practice because there is so much more depth. See, a lot of times if you spend a lot of time meditating you begin to feel connected to life in a more universal way. But it is a very individual experience, a human experience and it took more time, especially a lot of time alone, especially after I went to Mumbai, for me to allow those feelings that maybe before I would have thought that was not spiritual.
Kia: Yes, that came way later. To embrace whatever is coming up. Whether it is rage, moral outrage or the deepest grief, hurt, despair, wanting to die, not even wanting to live, to consciously embrace that. That is love because that’s where we meet life right there, that’s relationship and that’s love. To me that’s the deepest spiritual experience you can have. Most people run away from it.
Marina: You talked about rage and anger. Where were they directed? At the perpetrators?
Kia: The actual terrorist who pulled the trigger I felt no because they were controlled by others but see that is a very complicated process, involved a lot of different players and so it wasn’t any particular person in general. It’s just the way that it was.
A relationship between India and Pakistan and the fact that the United States was somehow involved with providing the weapons, maybe not directly, but yet that is where they came from. The money was spent so in dealing with that was shocking. I was in Mumbai when that news came out and I got calls from the media saying “What do you think about this, what are your feelings about this?” and I thought, oh my god I don’t know. What do you do with that? So you have to accept it and say how we can do better then.
OK that’s not my job to deal on that level but what can I do? Can we prevent this somehow? Create other ways of governing and leading and policing and educating in doing business? What are other ways if we include respect for life which is love and compassion?
So respect for life comes in as the highest priority. Value for life. So that we say well we have complete disagreement about who owns this land or whatever it is or about all these religious beliefs but we are not going to allow one single human being to be killed because of it. To me that is the bottom line and we are not there yet to have that value but that is what I would like to continue to work towards.
Marina: So it sounds to me as if the spiritual practice that you had developed over the years really supported you in being able to go through that whole and I suppose you could call it, a process which came very naturally…
Marina: but not to fight it and accept it.
Kia: That’s right and to bring both of them together for the first time because there was my inner world which was a world of peace and sometimes silence. After a while really reaching that place of silence and just emptiness, just that pure being.
Marina: Did you think ever about why you were alive in the sense that you could have been with them, you could have gone I imagine with them on that trip?
Kia: Well, yes, Naomi was sponsored. We could have said can Kia come along too so we can all be together and for some reason I just thought, no, let this be their trip. I’ll go another time. The next time I’ll go. So yes, of course, because I wasn’t there I can’t just live a regular life.
I didn’t go back to my office at Synchronicity. I didn’t go back to my other role I was playing there. I said to them right away I can’t, that’s it, I can’t go back. They said you don’t have to. That’s it.
I didn’t know what I was going to do and that’s how One Life Alliance was born out of that and that became the focus but, I don’t think I was very good at organising anything but I was there. And I, I don’t know, somehow, met a lot of people, connected with people, went to Mumbai, invited them to join with us, got the support of Mr Oberoi who provided accommodation for me for off and on for six years I was probably there over a thousand nights and days.
Marina: And you would have probably found some kind of meaning in the fact that you had survived?
Kia: That’s it.
Marina: You had to do something with your life.
Kia: That’s exactly right. There had to be a purpose because nothing else mattered. Nothing else had any meaning and so I had no energy for it.
Marina: So going back, there was one surviving gunman. Was that right?
Kia: That’s right, Ajmal Kasab was the lone surviving terrorist who they captured with the heroism of a constable who jumped on him and was killed in the process.
Marina: Did you ever have a sense that you wanted to confront the gunman, talk to him, ask him questions or do harm to him or what were your feelings?
Kia: The question was asked of me in interviews, if you could sit in front of that terrorist what would you say to him? And at the time I thought I am not sure I would have the words, I would probably cry and look at him. I wouldn’t know what words to use or what questions to ask. I would be overwhelmed.
But then a year later I woke up and I thought I think I would have a lot to say to the terrorist. I wonder if he realises that the sacred life that exists in each of us is within him as well and he lost his connection to it. Does he know that? Does he know we got these emails from all over the world from fellow Muslims who said this to us? I wanted him to know that. Does he know that because of those actions we are joining together to do something else? And, that my response was forgiveness as a way, as a bridge. Anyway I wrote the letter to the terrorist because of that.
Marina: Did you send it?
Kia: I did write a letter and at the time I just held on to it. And, and at some point when I was in Mumbai I was going to find a way to meet him with a translator and I realised that was not going to happen for various reasons. So the letter I did post in various places so it was out there and then a short film was made where I am reading it out. It’s out there and so really it is a letter to all terrorists.
Marina: Can you remember the gist of it at all or any line in it that you could share?
Kia: I remember that I said “Dear Mr Kasab you may wonder why I am using the word “dear” in front of your name and by the end of this letter you will understand that”.
And I said that my husband and daughter were brutally killed by your comrades in this attack. And so I stated this is what happened and then what I talked about that I did hear the words of Christ, “ forgive them they know not what they do” and I chose that path because we are all connected underneath all of that. He didn’t learn that from his training camp. And then, it was like, do you realise about the sacredness of life that exists within each of us. Do you realise that?
And, so that is why I am here to now devote the rest of my life to that, conversation and education.
Marina: What happened to him?
Kia: He was executed four years later in Pune. He was in Mumbai jail, jailed in Mumbai but then in the middle of the night put in a car and brought to Pune. He was executed by hanging. It was all done in secret and I woke up to the headlines “A puppet’s life ends on a string” was The Times of India headlines.
I cried because I really believed that, I know this may be very naïve of me, but I believed that somebody like that could play a very powerful role if he got connected to himself. He should certainly never regain his freedom but within incarceration maybe he could help to educate other prisoners so that the ones who would get out, he could play a role about the consequences of those actions. He saw all of his comrades mutilated, shot and killed. They took him to the morgue so he saw the consequences of that.
Marina: Yes, I mean, we work with ex-offenders in prisons. There is a lovely phrase which says, “the poison and the antidote are brewed in the same vat” and I think that is so true. There is nothing more affective and poignant and moving really then seeing someone who’s moved from there to here, as it were, and it is wanting to help others.
Kia: I think they would be the most powerful teachers of all…
Kia: and that’s how you get to them first. For instance, the attack on London Bridge and the terrorist was somebody who was just released, apparently. Well, what if there had been a former terrorist in that prison and they had a programme, that’s how you prevent it.
Marina: I totally believe that. You mentioned forgiveness in the sense of quoting Christ’s words. How do you articulate it? How does it feel for you? What does it mean for you?
Kia: I like to focus on the word “forgive”. Then it is about love and love listens. Love is willing to understand. Love is willing to accept and forgiveness is a bridge that connects us to love.
Because, when we are unforgiving a door in our heart closes. Something shuts down inside of us, justifiably understandably. It’s not wrong at all but how do we want to live? Do we want to keep those doors shut? Who doesn’t get to experience love when we close it off? We are the ones that have to bear that.
So, if we allow love to continue to extend and flow maybe some good can be done with that. That to me is what forgiveness is all about.
Marina: Have you received sort of negative comments about it? People who think how can she? How dare she, even? Even though it is your life and your choice?
Kia: Yes, actually and I think the first anniversary I was just really sharing an experience that was true and I was not coming from a religious point of view. And, what I learned was that love your neighbour as yourself and forgiveness is all a part of that and so I am not surprised that those words came to me.
But, yes, there was some in the media, people would say that, how could you? It was considered a radical response and news, like why is that news? Why is that news? But yes, it was news then, and so OK, but let’s then use it as a chance to talk about it.
That is why I love The Forgiveness Project because you share these stories and it gives us all a chance to discuss it and whatever our feelings are around it. I still every year, I get emails from people from India who I have never met who contact me through Facebook or wherever. They think it is something to be admired. I don’t particularly feel that but they say, I could never forgive and I think because there is a misunderstanding about what forgiveness is, that it is this lofty thing and involves judgement or something in it. That’s not my understanding.
Marina: What do you say when someone has had comparatively, it is hard to measure these things, but let’s say minor hurt, what do you say to those people because they do say to you, I imagine, as you said, “I could never forgive that”?
Kia: Well I think first of all to have compassion for their experience and to understand why they would feel so hurt that they want to push away. I understand that. It’s not about forgiving an act or saying somehow it’s OK and there should be no consequences for that or no accountability, then certainly all that should happen like in Restorative Justice programmes. And I believe that forgiveness is an act of self- love.
Marina: Also, from my experience of taking to people, it really opens the heart and I think the thing that happens when you are so focused on anger, hate and resentment is that it keeps you locked and trapped and reduced somehow and certainly closes the heart.
Forgiveness is expressed in so many ways that I feel that is the one thing that anyone would agree with and when they are able to have a forgiving attitude, whatever that is, that the heart opens and they are able to reach out to others in a way that they couldn’t do before.
Kia: That’s right.
Marina: And the freeing up of everything isn’t it? How you get there sometimes is mysterious.
Kia: And it’s unique and there’s no one way and it’s not a mental thing at all. You might have to start somewhere. I think listening to these stories is inspiring and inspires people. That’s a way, but yet I think people have to find their own way, but it starts with willingness. Am I willing to even consider it? Well, that’s a start right there and then see where that leads you. There is no one way. See what you way is and then share your story.
Marina: Yes, absolutely. Marian Partington, who is another of our storytellers, talks about lining herself up for forgiveness. She didn’t know what it was but she knew she wanted to explore it and find it but all she could do initially was line herself up for it and then things unfold then, don’t they? You open up the possibility.
Kia: That’s right. One final thing is that I think forgiveness is an act of love, an act of self-love but the outcome of forgiveness is peace and it’s so that we can live in peace. The person who forgives is enabling themselves to live in peace.
Marina: But it’s not just about yourself because then that is also about creating peaceful communities.
Kia: I agree. It enables you then to give forth and communicate and share and bring some good into the world to counter balance whatever was unforgiveable.
Marina: And to build better relationships and mend broken hearts. I mean it can all sound, I am sure to some people quite airy-fairy and wishful thinking, but nevertheless what’s the alternative? Even if it is not going to achieve what you believe or want it to achieve I would rather live like that striving to open my heart than to become reduced by hatred.
Kia: That’s right. We can increase the love in this world and then over time we can keep other people from getting hurt or killed.
Marina: I do think you are amazing, Kia, I know you don’t particularly like people saying that, but you have created such a life of value after such an appalling, sad, sad tragedy that happened to you.
Kia: I feel there is so much more that can be done and I am just getting started. Now that I have had a decade of healing and learning, exploring and understanding, now I am ready to give forth even more. Start another chapter.
Marina: Sounds fantastic. Well thank you for coming to talk to me.
Kia: Thank you.
Marina: It has been wonderful to have you on the F Word Podcast.
Marina: Thank you for listening to The F Word Podcast. To dig a bit deeper around some of the themes we have talked about do check out the show notes by going to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast. From there you can also explore The Forgiveness Project website which over the years has collected and shared many more stories of how people have transformed the darkest of situations.
I also want to invite you to join The F Word Podcast Facebook Group especially if you have more to discuss or share. Again, to find the link go to theforgivenessproject.com/fwordpodcast and finally, all these podcasts have grown out of years of trying to shift the narrative of our time away from one of hate and division towards empathy and understanding.
So, if you have enjoyed this podcast please do consider donating even just the smallest amount to help us to continue our wok. All details of how to do this again are on the show notes page of our website.
But, most of all, I hope you will join me again.
Next time on the F Word Podcast I will be talking to Letlapa Mphahlele who was once a Liberation army commander during the time of apartheid in South Africa responsible for ordering massacres on white people.
He will be talking about the transforming process of being forgiven.