When octogenarian Nikesh Pal* in Ahmedabad, India, lost his 49-year-old son to COVID, it promptly got added as a statistical figure in the rising cases of death by COVID-19. But for a family, the death of a family member is never just a statistic.
At 49, his son was full of life and energy. Always a step ahead to help others, it was difficult to imagine him lying lifeless. What came as the loss of a cheerful partner overnight, the wife struggled to come to terms with his sudden absence. It was the loss of a loving member of the family; breadwinner of the family. A loss seeped in disbelief and shock!
The father angrily protested the number tag, constantly affirming that his son was not a number. “The death of my son would have been difficult to accept even in normal circumstances, but this?”, he was numb with sorrow to say anything more and it was heartbreaking to hear him weep over his young son’s untimely death.
Death came too abruptly for Anjali’s* 54-year-old father. Just a week ago, her father was humming the popular old Bollywood number “jeena yahan, marna yahan, iske siva jaana kahan” (“one has to live here, one has to die here, where else can one go”). “Was it some kind of a premonition?!”, she sobbed! Her brother who resides in the US couldn’t join her for the last rites.
Guilt of survival
There continue to be a lot of unexplained aspects of COVID-19 which are distressing for a lot of people. Probably one of the most shocking things for a lot of families is how just one out of the entire family succumbs to the virus’s tightening grip while the other members of the same family miraculously recover.
Parivarthan, a mental health organisation in Bangalore, is providing on-call support for people to tide over this difficult time. People calling for help express their difficulty in coming to terms with such sudden tragedies in their lives. When the conditions are the same for all family members, how is it that only one succumbed?
Filled with guilt, those who survived are left grappling with immeasurable grief. They are left wondering what was lacking. Was it the food? Was it their underlying health condition? Could we have done something differently?
Fear of loss
This wave of death is ripping apart the warm blanket of bonds shared by family members. Reading COVID related statistics is one thing but a loved one being a part of the statistics is shattering beyond words.
A new fear has gripped the hearts of several parents. How does a parent prepare their child to face their parents’ death in case COVID strikes? How does one teach them to deal with grief? The unpreparedness could cause havoc in young minds that have not got the foothold of life yet.
In usual circumstances, relatives pour in. Often, they are the ones who counsel; remain in touch and help resettle life. WhatsApp messages and Zoom calls play that role now. To pick up threads of life and move on from something like this is far from easy. Virtual hugs and long-distance condolence calls provide cold comfort.
Expectations and disappointments
In several cases, family members left behind had to grieve alone. Lockdown and quarantine rules meant that they were isolated. The stigma attached to these deaths is another hurdle the bereaved ones face and the lack of social support intensifies the grief. Even for the cases where the cause wasn’t COVID, people couldn’t gather for last rites.
“My father helped everyone in times of their need, yet when he passed no one gave a comforting company. We were practically shunned”, lamented a grieving 24-year-old in a distress call to Parivarthan. The counsellor who spoke to him reflected that in these tragic moments, there is a natural expectation of kind words from near and dear ones. When that expectation turns to disappointment, grief swells up and sometimes turns into anger, she stressed.
Snigdha* wailed that she couldn’t hold her grandpa’s hand one last time, the hand that she held onto during their long walks in her childhood. The grief of not being able to say a proper goodbye has been an added cause for sorrow for the families. It is heartbreaking to not be able to properly see them, sit beside them and perform their last rites before the final parting.
Family members lament and reconcile with the restrictions imposed. The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) specifies several general and religion-specific rules and regulations to be followed for the management of the dead.
Hindu rituals such as reading from religious scriptures, sprinkling holy water and any other last rites that do not require touching the body are allowed. Viewing of the dead body by unzipping the face-end of the body bag (by staff using standard precautions) is also allowed so that the family can see the departed for one last time. The ashes of the deceased do not pose any risk and therefore can be collected to perform the last rites.
Permission is not granted for Hindu rituals like bathing the dead, adorning them with new clothes, viewing and visitation by large numbers, lighting the lamp, offering flowers and most importantly, offering reverence by touching feet of the departed. However, these are significant for some people and help in the healing process.
Thankfully for Snigdha*, who was quietly withdrawing to herself, a thoughtful relative held a conference call with her and other relatives. There were more such calls with different relatives chipping in with consoling words and that helped her immensely.
As if this wasn’t bad enough, the families have had to queue up in morgues to wait for their loved ones to be cremated. Add to that, loads of paperwork and formalities at hospitals and morgues that families have to take care of.
The trauma faced by families is unimaginable. All this is to be done with a brave face holding back tears or shedding them secretly. “There is no time to grieve,” said Veeru* to his friend who reached out to see how he was coping. In the dead of night, he sobbed himself to sleep.
*Names of respondents have been changed for anonymity.
Indrani Ghose is a freelance writer from Bangalore, India, and is passionate about travel, culture, cuisines, life stories and bird watching. She blogs at isharethese.com Her work has appeared in national newspapers and magazines.