Last week, while waiting to get a relative admitted to a hospital for Covid patients, I saw a nurse come and say something to the woman in the waiting area. On hearing it, she began to weep and collapsed on the floor. The nurse told her to go and cry outside if she wanted to as it would disturb other patients. Saying this she walked away. The others saw her but no one came near her or reacted. A few even turned their face away. The people around seemed to have turned into stones. A little later the doctor came with the nurse and asked the woman to sign some papers. An attendant waiting near the woman remarked ‘you medical personnel are heartless’.
What I had witnessed was a familiar scene in present times for many. In these times of Covid, death has become so banal that how we disclose and face the news of death and with grief does not raise an eyebrow or call for support. Everyone has a story to tell. Who will listen to whom?
“Please don’t think he is insensitive,” the nurse said on behalf of the doctor. “It is the twelfth death for him to disclose. He is burnt out and said he couldn’t disclose it anymore to anyone seeing the age of the woman and asked me if I could do it. His emotions have become numb,” she said looking apologetic.
I talked to the doctor after sometime. “The present period is the most difficult one of my life,” he said. “Earlier I faced no difficulty in disclosing the news of death. It was one or two in a day at the most. Now every day I have to tell a dozen times to people that their loved one is no more. I sometimes feel I have become like a robot. Even as a doctor, how many times can I say such a thing again and again and that too one after another? Nothing in my medical training prepared me for this.”
The second incident is personal. My mother passed away a few months ago. While cremating her, I gave some money to the man arranging the pyre at the crematorium. To my surprise, he refused and asked me to donate it to some orphanage. Puzzled I asked him why. He replied, “I feel like leaving this job. I have prepared more pyres for people in a month than I do for a whole year. It was my profession and I looked forward to earning from it. Not anymore. In pre-corona times I would do two or three pyres per day. Now from morning till midnight I am preparing pyres including children, teenagers, whose bodies come in hordes of all ages. Sometimes I feel I am losing my mind. It is only by telling myself it is God’s work that is helping me to go on.”
Two different professions. Two different people. Both work with death and the dying. They faced death routinely everyday as part of their work and never complained. Yet, the pandemic has affected them and made them question some of their basic assumptions. In pre-Covid times they were comfortable with witnessing death, talking about its vicissitudes. Covid has altered that forever. The horrors of death now face them and us, confronting in a way they were never prepared for. Mankind may be said to be frozen in time trying to understand how to rise above the present issue. There is a sense of de-realisation, of deja-vu, as if all this is a dream, unreal and would somehow vanish like a miracle when we wake up the next morning.
Welcome to the new universe created by the Covid pandemic, a world both unreal and creating a sense of deja-vu. We as a society may be said to be going through a collective grieving process, frozen and tense. Almost everyone knows someone who has died or passed away in their innermost circle of friends or relatives. Covid has opened the grieving process in us, like a Pandora’s Box and at a scale creating a vulnerability destroying some of our most cherished assumptions and beliefs of who we are, our inner sense of safety.
Today, it would not be an exaggeration to say we are a society in grief. It is everywhere, touching every home, every conversation. It overwhelms us through pictures, through the talk of death of someone who passed away without warning and without enough care. The discussion emerges as a labyrinth posing questions for which there are no immediate answers.
For example, the mother who called up this writer to ask if she should take her children to see the cremation of their father or leave them at home. The children wanted to go with her while the elders in the family objected.
Another case that comes to mind is a friend who lost his wife leaving him with three growing children. He called up from hospital wanting to know what exactly to tell the children. “They are silent because the doctor told them her chances are little to survive and we must prepare. But prepare how? Should I tell them altogether or separately? Saying this he said, “My brain is going fuzzy with the whole environment. Can you write it for me and send it to me?” he asked.
As a grief therapist it is the first time I am hearing so many issues at the same time. While we know grief disorganizes us, it is the first time in human history that the chaos, the uncertainty due to the pandemic has forced us to find new answers. Mankind doesn’t know when it will end. Wars, famines, calamities all ended but will the pandemic?
In a pandemic of this scale no one remains unaffected. Directly or indirectly the effect of grief is on everyone. Even though we may believe that we are safe from it and will happen to others, the reach of grief is to everyone as researches done during a mass calamity like Covid show.
Our children are not often taught about grieving process and do not witness it anymore, grief being considered morbid and fragile for the psyche. But as Elizabeth Kubler Ross said, “Grief in modern times has been made sanitized, hidden from the senses. The modern man is alienated from his inner self, who is taught that to talk of it is morbid, pathological, feminine and a sign of weakness. ‘Keep it locked within’ has become the new mantra, never sharing the loss.
In ancient times, almost in every society grief and how to deal with it was considered a part of growing up. Till the last century, it was a ritual that every family went through collectively, an integral part of everyday living, something that was seen as basic as air or water. It was a collective process that the whole family and neighbors went through and supported each other. Our generation grew up on the story of Nachiketa and Yama, of Satyavan and Savitri. Today, all that has become passe, a lost world for our children where focus is on ‘forever’ and denial. Parents, teachers, writers do not teach the young anymore about grief considering it morbid and so when it assaults our consciousness, we get frozen in disbelief and cannot move on.
Grief, as we know today from psychological research is not a single emotion but a process, a series of stages that follow one another. Let’s take the example of Lavanya, a seventeen year old girl who hears that her mother has passed away due to Covid. Her first reaction is of denial saying no it cannot be true. She then gets angry with her father, family protesting saying that the doctor was careless or that they did not bring her in time for treatment, that they could not get it done properly. It is while saying this, she breaks into crying. Her father holds her saying, “I am sorry.” Then Lavanya begins to feel a sense of longing for her mother saying can we have a last look at her? It is not allowed she is told and she has to come to terms with that. Slowly she gathers herself, a process that might take months and years for her to come to terms with it. She will look for a meaning in what it means to live without her and accept the new reality. With time she will re-bond again with new people, with the changed reality, letting go of the suffering.
All of us go through the above stages when faced with a loss of a loved one. While some of us are able to find support and move on, many in the present times are unable to do so being caught up in the vortex of modernity, the digital world that interferes with the grieving process.
As a grief therapist, I am often asked what is the deepest grief in life? Is the premature death of a loved one, suddenly without warning the deepest grief? While the above is indeed the deepest loss and grief we may imagine, often from those talking about their grief what comes across is what their relationship left incomplete or unfinished. A man who lost his wife told me in therapy that he is still grieving over what their relationship could have been, how he wished they could make up for all the conflicts they have had and if he would get one last chance to say something he never could. This is a narrative I hear again and again in therapy for those who wish they could somehow retrieve the lost time and resolve the unfinished business.
Long ago Buddha said that grief is the deepest truth of life and we truly begin to live when we understand its universality. He suggested a path to understand it marked by equanimity. In therapy many people ask me should then they become more detached? How to increase the power of detachment is a common question asked by those who have much grief locked up within them? The answer as modern psychology has discovered is that it is neither by increasing the power of attachment or detachment but true living begins only when we develop both to the same degree.
Throughout history, wars, natural calamities, famines, epidemics have reminded us of many lessons that we have begun to lose sight of. This is also a time in history that man is again facing a warning not to alienate himself from his roots. Long after the pandemic will be over, Covid will be remembered as a period in our history that taught us once again not to run away from this deepest predicament but come to terms with it.
(Dr. Rajat Mitra is a psychologist (specializes in grief work); Professor, Amity University. Views expressed are personal.)