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How the loss of a loved one tests a family's fabric

According to experts, following the loss of a loved one, families must watch out for signs of clinical grief and bereavement in its members

Counseling must be sought in case of social withdrawal, extreme anger, and a marked sense of disbelief.(Unsplash)

By Sonal Chaturvedi

LAST PUBLISHED 05.09.2023  |  01:00 PM IST

I lost my father-in-law to terminal cancer two years ago. The little time that we had with him was filled with remorse for not being able to do enough, anxiety about what lay ahead, and a sense of loss. The days we had together went in planning things amidst his denials of being in pain. 

When he was diagnosed with cancer, one of my friends, who had lost her father a few years before, said, "Amidst all this, look out for each other too. This phase leads to a lot of misapprehensions, you all will have to be a lot more patient with each other." 

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After his death, and the circumstances that followed, I saw that losing someone, especially to a terminal illness, tests the whole fabric of the family. Chaos engulfed our family the moment the doctor told us that the time to say goodbye was near. We panicked, everyone wanted to help in their capacity. And in the process, misunderstandings cropped up. In a bid to do the best for him, we ended up hurting each other. Relationships that were filled with love and seemed perfect till then, began to show cracks. Layers of affections, plastered and painted, start to peel one by one. The bravest among us, my father-in-law, maintained a calm face.  

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Life and death have the same characteristics—both are tough, painful, and unpredictable. The whole ordeal of losing someone is emotionally draining. For the first few days or weeks after, people come to check on you, they sympathise and hear you out. But eventually, life goes on. The deeper suffering begins after a while—when we realise that this is what we have to deal with for the rest of our lives, and nobody can tell us how to process the pain. Losing someone—a spouse, parent, or friend—alters our universe to an extent that finding solace seems distant at the time. Grief takes up space in our heart and does not leave.  

We wonder what we did to deserve this pain, and the bereavement leads to anger. First, we fight it internally and then we fight others. Even the most supportive people will not know how to deal with a grieving person. And so, after we have lost one person, we might lose another, as we shatter  close relationships. This anger stemming from grief pushes us to analyse what could have been done differently to avert the loss. And that is the point where we start blaming each other unknowingly. The loss of a person can eventually become the death of what was once family. 

Seema Sharma, 55, a homemaker in Kolkata who lost her father to leukaemia in 2012 said," My relationship with the younger brother changed entirely after my father's demise. A few incidents led to the loss of trust and I wasn't able to forgive him. and at the same time my elder brother became a pillar of support for the whole family." She continues, “It has been ten years, and still I haven’t been able to forget what happened."  

It is very difficult to classify what is wrong and what is right when it comes to mourning. The best intentions might not translate into desired actions. Sai Mohapatra, 47, a sports journalist and author from Bhubaneswar whose father died in 2020 said, "It isn't an ideal situation for self-realisation, but you become further aware of certain relationships. They either crumble or become stronger depending on how we respond to the circumstances."  

Ignoring the signs of inability to process grief further worsens the situation. The stigma attached to counselling, and denial, lead to irreparable damage to family dynamics. To preserve delicate threads through storms of grief is important. Dr. Megha Jain,  a clinical psychologist in New Delhi, says, "The family must be observant of signs of clinical grief and bereavement in its members—these could range from social withdrawal, emotional numbness, extreme anger, a marked sense of disbelief, and difficulty in engaging with daily activities." 

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It might only be natural not to put effort into other relationships or take people for granted when there is an ailing person at home or when you lose someone you love. Sometimes despite being physically present, I was not able to share my feelings with my father-in-law because of the other things going on in my mind. Now, I wish I could have. Grief opens the door to regrets; it is part of the process. But what I have learned is that while taking care of a loved one, not letting other relations slip away is the best thing we can do. It tests our capacity for resilience, patience, and perspective toward life. But at the end of the day, we all are humans—accepting life will only ease our pain, and being thankful for the ones we have will strengthen the bonds of love and support. 

Sonal Chaturvedi is a dentist and author based in Mumbai.