A 65-year-old client who has been working in therapy for a couple of years and lives alone tells me “I used to go and buy flowers every day at the Flower Market for last 30 years. Now it’s been a year since I ventured out of home. I miss going there and the conversation I would have with the girl who sat at the stall selling flowers. Even if I didn’t go for one day, she would notice it and check on my health next day when she saw me, and it felt as if my life mattered. I even had a dream where I saw her, and I was so happy in my dream. As I woke up, I didn’t know how to share this with anyone. Is it okay to miss someone who I just know by name and then dream about them?”
I realized that the client had shared a longing and a feeling of grief which I have experienced too—during the course of last one year where I have been doing virtual sessions with clients. I often find myself thinking of people who I met on a daily basis, and yet they were relationships without a name. Whether it was the cab driver who used to drop me to my clinic every day or the roadside vendor who sold vada pav just outside the clinic lane, these were people who I would often chat with, smile while passing by and wish on festive occasions. These were tiny, micro-interactions that were part of my daily life and now, when life is spent within the four walls, I recognize how they were so integral to my life. While some of these relationships may have been transactional, others were people with whom our paths crossed on a daily basis. Like the young couple who had their cottage across the clinic or the girl who came to the cab stand at the same time as me. I recognize how in those moments all these relationships provided a sense of community and allowed for human connection to happen.
I have missed seeing these people, often thought about how they would be surviving amidst the pandemic and at the same time found it hard to describe this feeling of loss. “Disenfranchised Grief”, a term that Kenneth Doka, a grief researcher, coined, explains the losses which my client and I have experienced. He describes this as “grief that people experience when they incur a loss that is not or cannot be openly acknowledged, socially sanctioned or publicly mourned”.
As a result, we find it hard to even grieve for them and are confused when we experience sadness while thinking about them. The pandemic has come with these losses where we have lost rituals, a certain meaning making and even these significant relationships. Whether it’s the girl at the flower stall or the server at the coffee shop which you regularly visited or the other taxi drivers I met at the cab stand, all of them were part of our day. In a strange way, meeting them gave our day a certainty, something to look out for and also an opportunity for random conversations. Sometimes in these random interactions, we found wisdom and even the words which we really needed to hear. We may not remember the details, yet their absence leaves us feeling empty. Possibly, for people who live alone, these relationships were a soothing balm, whereby the deep need for belongingness and connectedness was met.
Even when we exchange just a smile with someone on a daily basis, we somehow form a bond of familiarity and sometimes on a hard day that’s enough to take you through. These ties in their own way allowed us to find trust, feel safe and at the same time experience humanity in a beautiful way.
As I continue to dream about a future where we can be outdoors and a world of possibilities, I also hope that amongst other things, we all get to meet these people who by their sheer attentive presence added so much to our life and unknowingly also to our well-being.
Sonali Gupta is a Mumbai-based clinical psychologist. She is the author of the book Anxiety: Overcome It And Live Without Fear and has a YouTube channel, Mental Health with Sonali.