I lost my father to covid-19 as the pandemic ravaged homes across the country in 2021. I stood awkwardly in a PPE suit, in a tiny crematorium in Haryana. We jostled through a swell of people all fighting to get their loved ones cremated. I recalled funerals where loved ones would hold and comfort a grieving daughter or a bereaved son. Covid-19 had changed all protocols.
I waited almost four hours at the cremation ground for our turn as arguments broke out over whose turn it was next. My father lay in a corner, wrapped in a body bag, having spent the last few days alone in an ICU. My father was a non-believer in rituals, yet he never failed to attend a funeral, even if the person was a distant friend. He would always show up. And now that it was his turn, there was no one.
As we end 2021 and look forward to holding our loved ones close in the new year, I have been reflecting on grief, the importance of rituals, and the physical acts of bidding a person farewell.
Throughout history, different civilizations have evolved their own ways of ‘fare-welling’ and gathering to say goodbye to the ones they loved. In Mexico, families celebrate the ‘Day of the Dead’ by offering marigold flowers and honouring the deceased by making their favourite foods. In New Orleans, US, a jazz funeral is followed by a cathartic dance. For some indigenous communities in Indonesia, funerals are boisterous affairs, stretching to weeks. Irrespective of the culture, what these rites and rituals give us is a sense of sharing loss, a collective mourning to help perhaps in the process of grieving.
The pandemic has ushered in its own funeral culture. Event management companies now organize ‘Zoom funerals’, a social media page is set up for everyone to leave their condolence messages. In the US, ‘drive through funerals’ became common.
The act of holding, crying, mourning, celebrating the life of the person who has left us is now online, with a click or a swipe, just like you may order your weekly groceries or show off your latest holiday pictures.
We did a Zoom funeral for my dad. His friends logged in from different parts of the world. Elderly uncles and aunts stared into the screen trying their best to understand what was being said. We wept for Speedy, as my father was fondly called by his friends, but we couldn’t hold hands over the Internet.
Struggling to accept that he was actually gone, I developed my own personal rituals. I gathered his photos, parts of the Meccano trains he would build through the day as he pursued a childhood hobby into his old age, and rummaged through his belongings. I held on to his watch, archived every single message from him on my phone and read them over and over again to myself. I wore his watch, kept his muffler close to me hoping for some scraps of his life in those dull lifeless objects he had once used. I was given his hearing aid and spectacles from the hospital, in a small bag. His clothes had been sent to an incinerator for fear of infection. The specs still had fingerprints, I wondered if they we were from his hand; had he worn them one last time before they put the oxygen mask on him?
I wanted to call up the night nurse who had been with him at the hospital and ask what his last days were like, what was he thinking? I grabbed hungrily to any photographs relatives and friends shared, put them on a loop on my phone, set to his favourite songs. In the absence of a ritual to say goodbye, I sought my own.
As the second wave subsided, gradually, friends, and neighbours did start showing up at our family home to commiserate. With each visit, I sought connection, a conversation to somehow, in those moments, keep the memory of my father alive, to per chance hear an anecdote I hadn’t heard before.
I tossed each story back and forth in my head savouring it like a lemon drop till the flavor had long gone. At first, I craved these interactions. But as their frequency increased, I realized they drained me. With each visit, I would have to recount what happened to him in the last few days, each time reliving those painful days. That’s when I realized the value of collective mourning.
I turned to Twitter, thinking that sharing my grief, talking to others who had lost loved ones would help. Big mistake. Random trolls mocked his death; some accused me of using the tragedy to mock the government’s efforts. I retired back into my shell.
There is no straight path to combatting grief or speeding up the healing process, but following some basic rules did help. I sought a grief therapist. I avoided friends who spread toxic positivity or glazed over my pain dismissively. My pain was precious, I made sure I didn’t share it with everyone, only a selective few who could listen silently, giving me the space to mourn.
Initially, I felt too guilty to share my grief so I suppressed it. I heard of families ripped apart, of small children who lost both their parents, of a wife on a ventilator while the husband had already passed away. And I felt I have no right to be sad.
I realized I needed some private space to grieve, impossible if you have two young children and a frisky dog. I found a space to cry in private. I rolled up the windows of my car and cried. It helped.
As the year turns, I wonder if I will ever heal. His friends have started meeting at the coffee shop he visited daily. One day I will gather the courage to walk in there, hold their wrinkled hands in mine. I will reclaim my right to grieve in person, an opportunity that the virus deprived us all of. I will gather the shards of pain in my heart and break down and cry with them, but I will also laugh remembering him. And after that moment of collective grief, I will step out into the sun to celebrate all the beating hearts around me.
Bahar Dutt is an environment journalist and author who lost her father to the second wave of covid-19 in April 2021.