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How do we deal with our collective grief?

There is another pandemic fanning across the country right now—grief

We must now grieve alone, and without the communion of mourning and ritual, moving on has become harder
We must now grieve alone, and without the communion of mourning and ritual, moving on has become harder

There are days when Nitya Wallia does not want to get out of bed. She sleeps till evening, then takes another sleeping pill and goes back to sleep “so that I don’t have to deal with the day,” says Wallia, who works at a leading international airline and is currently on unpaid leave. “It sounds horrendous, I know,” she says, “But this is the only way I feel that I can function.”

Like many of us, she has been grappling with chronic anxiety and sadness since the pandemic began. “I never thought my life would stop…literally,” says Wallia, who has been grounded, without pay, since March 2020. She confesses to being angry and disillusioned, not just because of the personal loss she has encountered but because of the collapse of the entire system and failure of leadership. She struggles to stay productive and focused. Every time she plans out her day, it gets derailed by bad news. “It is relentless. You hear an ambulance in Delhi every second minute. At the end of everything, we are fighting for air here, which is so sad,” she says.

This feeling of constant disquiet, the uncomfortable knowledge that death squats at nearly all our doors or that the world has irretrievably changed, is a universal one. Dr Alok V Kulkarni, Senior Consultant Psychiatrist, Manas Institute of Mental Health, Hubli, agrees. “I am seeing a lot of people who have difficulties in coping,” says Dr Kulkarni. Grief, he says, is the way we respond to a loss. Common reactions include feelings of shock, disbelief, emotional confusion, anger, sadness, yearning and withdrawal from usual activities, he adds. “Grief can affect the way we think, behave and feel. It is bound to pervade every aspect of our being, especially in the initial phase.”

Grief and the collective

In her seminal book, On Death and Dying, published in 1969, the Swiss-American psychiatrist Elisabeth Kubler-Ross postulates that people going through a significant loss go through five stages. These—denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance—do not necessarily progress in a linear, progressive manner since everyone grieves differently. However, the Kubler-Ross model does provide a framework to help understand the mourning process, continuing to be one of the best-known models of grief.

More recently, in 2019, grief expert David Kessler came up with a sixth stage after taking permission from the Kubler-Ross family. “It was finding meaning: the possibility of being able to discover something meaningful in my grief,” he says in an interview with The Guardian.

One of the biggest challenges right now is this, believes Dr Kulkarni. “It may be a long while before people find meaning given the scale of the loss they have been subjected to on a collective level,” he says. Also, so many people, who are abruptly dying, are young, making it even harder to process this loss. “The fact that it is so sudden consumes you,” agrees Chennai-based consultant counsellor Nandini Raman. One finds it particularly difficult to accept death if the person is young, she adds. “And yet, that is the only thing we need. Without accepting it, there is no moving forward.”

Almost everyone we know has faced personal losses, of course. “As individuals, we are equipped to deal with this,” says Dr Kulkarni. The pandemic’s sweeping inroads into all our lives, however, is a different story. The scale of loss associated with the virus is very similar to that experienced during a war or major natural disaster. The numbers speak for themselves: at the time of writing this article, India confirmed 266207 deaths due to covid. “We haven’t seen anything like this in the last 100 years,” points out Raman. “I have not met or spoken to anyone in the last year and two months who has not been impacted.”

While grief linked to bereavement is the most common, other types of loss can trigger deep anguish, too: a job, social connections, a relationship, stability, even routine. Then there is anticipatory grief, the conviction that loss lingers close by and will make an appearance soon. In a March 2020 interview published in the Harvard Business Review, Kessler draws a parallel between the pandemic and 9/11, pointing out that things changed forever because of the latter. “We’re feeling a number of different griefs,” he says. “This is hitting us, and we’re grieving. Collectively. We are not used to this kind of collective grief in the air.”

Making space for grief

Srini Swaminathan, a Chennai-based social development consultant, has dealt with anguish many times before the pandemic, he says. “I lost my dad when I was seven.” However, the grief he now often feels “that comes and goes in waves” is very different. “It isn’t because of one particular loss,” he says. Every time he logs into his social media accounts, he sees images of people suffering, stories of people struggling to find oxygen or beds, posts of friends losing their loved ones or accounts of the overall failure of leadership. It often acts as a trigger, he says, causing a downward spiral into “constant mind-numbing grief that just doesn’t easily go away.”

What makes it worse is this: because of covid and social distancing, we must now grieve alone. And without that communion of mourning and ritual, moving on has become so much harder. A December 2020 paper, titled Memorialisation During COVID-19: Implications for the Bereaved, Service Providers and Policymakers, by Jennifer Lowe, Bruce Rumbold, and Samar M Aoun of the School of Psychology and Public Health, La Trobe University, Melbourne, points out that “not attending a funeral or a lack of participation in memorialisation practices may lead to poorer grief adjustment and bereavement outcomes.”

Nitya Wallia, who recently lost a family friend to covid-related complications, says as much. “That is the worst part about this disease,” she says. “You can’t see anyone; share that grief with them.” In the absence of actual physical engagement, suffering people are now finding solace in virtual communities. Ankita Anand, a Delhi-based writer who lost her grandfather earlier this week to covid, is one of them. When she turned to Facebook to express her grief, people began reaching out to her, sharing their own stories and feelings, says Anand. “So many people had lost their loved ones and were writing heartfelt messages to me,” she says. “My personal grief is part of a collective grief.”

However, she worries that people haven’t had enough time to process their grief: there is simply too much to do. Many people, who have lost loved ones recently, are conjuring up the strength to jump back into the ongoing battle, trying to find oxygen, beds, medicines for someone else. “There are so many calls to action. I am not able to understand if that is a helpful thing or will come back and hit us later,” says Anand, adding, “I hope whenever all this is over, and we are not hard-pressed for time, we can all come together and give this grief its space, make sense of it, see what we are feeling.”

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