There were whispers that Raju Mondal had lost his mind the night his wife died. For, no one could find a rational explanation for his peculiar routine. Every morning, Mondal, a farmer in West Bengal’s Masagram village, spends an hour conversing with a wizened banyan tree in his backyard. “If she’s still around, this is where she will be,” says Mondal, 62, who believes his wife’s soul lives on in the tree. He last saw his wife gasping for breath in a dimly lit hospital corridor few weeks ago. “I just want her to know how sorry I am I couldn’t do more.”
With a resurgent covid-19 upending our understanding of how to mourn and handle death, people are finding individualised ways to grieve. From memorial services on Zoom to setting up eulogy websites and planting memorial stones, the bereaved are channelling their grief into unusual spaces. For Mondal, comfort came in the form of the only tangible anchor in his isolation—the banyan tree planted by his ancestors.
Although the Union health ministry now allows a gathering of up to 20 people to attend funerals and perform last rites (excluding those that involve touching the body), families find themselves alone in their grief due to restrictions on mobility, fear of stigma, or because they are battling for their own lives in hospitals. Over a week ago, India’s coronavirus-related deaths officially crossed 250,000; desperate pleas for hospital beds and life-saving supplies continue to flood social media.
Longing for closure
While virtual spaces have served as a band-aid, connecting those in need with groups mobilising resources, they have also provided a platform for many to remind themselves and others that their deceased kin and friends are more than a tally. “Giving them a face and remembering them alive is the only way to make sense of their death,” says Shashank Rai, 29, an IT engineer from Gurugram, Haryana.
Rai was recovering from covid-19 in hospital when he heard of his father Shishir’s death from a cardiac arrest. Unable to attend his cremation, Rai organised a memorial service on Zoom a week later. Around 90 people attended. There were tears, smiles, headshakes and stories—lots of stories. A former classmate recalled his father’s obsession with fitness: “We were happy for him….until he started making all of us run with him.” The session ended with people singing along to a recording of his father’s favourite songs. “My dad may have been alone when he died but he would have loved seeing his life being celebrated by so many,” says Rai.
Religious institutions, charities and businesses are also stepping in to provide outlets for the bereaved to remember their loved ones. In January, the non-profit Covid Care Network launched a national covid-19 memorial website where people can post an online eulogy free of cost. “A lot of them are reluctant to make their grief public,” says mountaineer and software engineer Satyarup Siddhanta, a member of the Kolkata-based charity. He tells all those who reach out that the website isn’t an obituary. “Obits announce death. We want people to remember them alive,” he says.
The website has 125 tributes so far. “A last touch, a final word—there’s a lot of regret along with the pain and shock of losing someone so abruptly. There are also a lot of unanswered questions about a loved one’s last hours,” says Siddhanta.
In 2020, the US Centers for Disease Control (CDC) issued a detailed manual for funerals, and to help those in grief. It requested families to consider changing traditional rituals and practices by including more virtual meetings, creating web pages to remember loved ones, planting a tree in honour of the deceased, or preparing their favourite meal. But for many in India, getting past the horror remains a struggle, especially as a new loss unfolds every day.
One-off memorial services have turned into prolonged virtual remembrance sessions that include families and strangers united in their grief. George Mathew, a pastor in a Chennai church, is among those who organise such virtual meets on a daily basis. It’s not just the death itself that leaves people in grief. “A lot of them are distraught because they feel the deceased aren’t at peace because of the absence of traditional rituals,” he says. Almost all his parishioners who died of covid-19 complications were cremated, which is unusual in Christian custom. In Syro-Malabar Christian tradition, women are also dressed in Manthrakodi (bridal wear), when they pass away. “All we can do right now is see the face of the person in a body bag before the ashes are brought to the church,” says the pastor, who assures families their deceased relatives are at peace, with or without the traditional rituals. “We just have to learn to adapt.”
There has also been an uptick in the number of calls to grief helplines and psychologists who offer online counselling, many free of cost. In Kerala, the Sukh-Dukh Helpline, started by the charitable trust Pallium India early last year, offers psychological first-aid and bereavement counselling to help people cope with losses. While they were getting one call a day in the beginning, the number has gone up to 17-18 calls a day now. Many of the calls are from people wanting to help someone in grief. Then there are calls from those asking if their grieving process was normal.
A volunteer counsellor, who did not wish to be named, describes one such case: a 24-year-old who communicates with his deceased mother through letters. He carefully puts them in envelopes and seals them. “He lost his father last year. His mother, a writer, was all he had as family,” says the counsellor. He called the helpline because his friend was concerned when he confessed about the letters. “We told him there’s no right way to grieve,” says the counsellor.
Prama Bhattacharya, a consultant clinical psychologist based in Kolkata, agrees: “The pandemic has taught us to do a lot of things alone, including grieving, and in the absence of the traditional rituals and gatherings, people are creating their own strategies to mourn.”
Bhattacharya lost her grandmother in the first wave. “I binge-painted for a month following her death, while my mother talked about her consistently with our relatives over the phone,” she says. One of her clients took to writing ghazals to mourn the death of her uncle, who enjoyed poetry, while a friend took to gardening following the death of two family members. “Grieving is a subjective experience, and we all grieve in our own idiosyncratic ways,” she says, adding that she’s seeing more solidarity now than ever before. “Although people are physically alone in their grief, they are conscious that they aren’t really alone. We, as a country, are grieving.”
Online meetings and memorials are, however, for a select population with access to the internet. Around 70% of the country’s 1.3 billion population lives in rural areas, with limited access to technology. “A lot of them are in denial,” says psychiatrist Debanjan Banerjee from the National Institute of Mental Health and Neuro Sciences (Nimhans), Bengaluru. Dr Banerjee, who offers tele-counselling to people in remote areas, says that for a lot of them, covid-19 had been distant, something that happened in crowded cities. It has come home now. “It’s a lot harder for them to make sense of the death,” says Dr Banerjee.
Kashambi, 72, from Basapur in Karnataka’s Raichur district is among them. In April, she lost her 28-year-old son, who works in a warehouse, to covid-19. “He was healthy. I should have been taken, not him,” says Kashambi, breaking down. Before her son’s death, Kashambi had spent most of her evenings with him, tending to their cattle after he returned from work. She now pays even more attention to her cattle, taking care of them like she would her son. “I couldn’t do enough for him. These animals are my children now. When I talk to them, I feel my son’s presence,” she says.
Grief counsellors say mourning and grieving have changed so abruptly that it may take months and years for people to get used to this type of mourning. “Will these new rituals and practices be the same as feeling the warmth of people around you? No,” says Dr Banerjee. The grieving process, he says, now starts early, from the time you or someone you know tests positive for covid-19. “People aren’t just grieving over a person’s lost life but also one’s lost existence as they know it,” says Dr Banerjee, citing his own feeling of guilt coming home from the front-lines as an example of grief.
The reasons for grief can range from the loss of a loved one to the perceived loss of autonomy and dignity, especially in marginalised populations. “A lot of times, we think of bereavement as something that happens after a loss, but now loss is a continuum concept. It’s no more a one-time event.” The result: a greater risk of severe depression, anxiety, post-traumatic stress and sleep disturbance.
Psychologists say, apart from traumatic bereavement (bereavement where the death itself and its circumstances have been traumatic), complicated grief (prolonged/chronic/unresolved grieving) and anticipatory grief (struggle to make sense of a potential or imminent loss), they are also noticing people struggle with ‘bereavement overload’. “There are families who have experienced multiple deaths. Generations have been wiped off. Children left orphaned. Every morning you wake up to news of a neighbour on ventilator, a relative who tested positive, a friend, a colleague or a former teacher passing away, and you’re thinking who is next,” says Bhattacharya. She acknowledges it’s fallen on the bereaved themselves and their kin who feel their pain to create outlets, however unusual they are, to heal.
Recalling happier memories, sharing them and acknowledging a person’s life could be a way to start the healing process. “To share the stories behind the statistics and demand action is its own therapy,” says Dr Banerjee. “Ultimately, it is about finding meaning in what you do to mitigate suffering. Grief may never entirely disappear but life will continue.”
Ekatha Ann John is a freelance journalist.