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Why news of a death is sometimes hidden

During the pandemic, some families have not shared death of a loved one for fear of causing greater distress to others struggling with the disease

While relatives and close friends may want to be there for us, they do not know how to provide comfort. (iStock)

When we lost my father last month, my family and I made a decision not to inform a few older relatives—those who were too frail, lived alone, or were suffering from covid themselves. It was done in good faith, to spare them the news and the resulting grief at that moment. But what we did not realize is that it complicated dealing with grief in our own home.

Also Read: Why you should address vicarious grief

Regular phone calls would be tense lest the subject of my father came up, and we had to lie and pretend everything was fine. We would avoid answering calls from certain numbers. The energy, which was already lacking, seemed to be spent on doing such things.

I slowly learnt that ours wasn’t the only family to have screened calls or held back news of a death. Many had done the same to avoid causing further grief to those who were recovering from covid-19, or traumatizing those who lived alone and did not have anyone to visit them during the restrictions. In some cases, they were reeling from grief themselves and found it hard to have the difficult conversation.

Delhi-based Priya Dhar agrees that the mind goes numb during the initial grieving period. Dhar lost her father at the end of April. She was grieving but needed to remain composed so that she and her mother could take care of her grandmother, already ailing from dementia.

Dhar and her mother were only just recovering from covid-19, and with no support, had to manage everything from cooking meals and taking and giving medication to the paperwork relating to her father’s death.

“We received a lot of phone calls, certainly. But what we needed back then was not relatives and extended family crying and cursing the universe. Somehow those calls weren’t very kind. I wished our relatives would listen to us rather than pass judgement about what could have been done better. Maybe they could have asked what they could do to help, reassure us that they would be there if we needed assistance or information—all this would have been more useful than those phone calls,” says Dhar.

Dhar is not alone in feeling this way. Prerna Kohli, clinical psychologist and founder of mental health network MindTribe.in, the pandemic has changed the grieving process for many. “The predicament (of lockdowns and restrictions) has delayed the grief process for many but finding a friend or someone who can listen will help you begin healing. While time is the best healer, grief counseling can become necessary if an individual has difficulty coping,” says Dr Kohli.

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For Kolkata’s Babai Saha, hiding the news of his maternal uncle’s death from his mother while she asked for updates about his health everyday was a struggle. His decision was based on the fact that his mother had just returned from the hospital, where she was admitted for covid-19 treatment, and her oxygen levels were still being monitored. “It is cruel to keep this from her and not let her speak to his family right now. But my only focus is to get her healthy again. We will tell her when she is stronger,” he says.

“There is concrete evidence that stress can affect immunity. Grief and stress can make an individual susceptible to severe illness; there is an increased risk of infection, disease, and heart attacks. Thus, multiple doctors are now suggesting that family members not disclose the death of a loved one to a person with severe covid-19 symptoms,” says Dr Kohli.

The downside of this is that it can cause turmoil within the family, as well as leave the individual feeling robbed of his/ her right to say their final goodbyes. “They may feel betrayed by the family. But families can support such a member through non-verbal gestures like hugs, listening, care, and patiently being there for them,” she adds.

In Uttar Pradesh, Deepika Dubey had her sister, mother and younger brother to look after when her father passed away. “Such situations make us weirdly practical. I just had to pull myself together when I saw my mother and younger brother,” says Dubey. She admits she did not want to talk about it to any relative or close friends.

“I did get unexpected sense of peace after talking to a college friend who had lost his mother when we were in the fourth year of college. He shared his experiences. He never stopped me from crying and never consoled me. He told me what he went through and I could relate to that,” she says.

Dr Sahir Jamati, head of psychology at Masina Hospital, says that close friends and relatives may want to be there for us, but do not know how to provide comfort and therefore do not call.

“Sometimes they might transfer their sense of anxiety to the grieving person, especially during the current pandemic scenario. But don’t get angry. Don’t rush to “be normal” again. There is no set time frame for grieving, there is no correct way. Don’t try to be strong all the time—if you need to cry, cry out. Ask for help. Face and deal with the grief at your own pace. Don’t isolate yourself. Yes, physical distancing is required, but reach out to friends or relatives or even help groups. Positive thoughts, happy moments will help,” says Dr Jamati.

Also Read: How do we deal with our collective grief?

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