Months after her mother’s demise, Shreyasi Datta still has trouble sleeping. The 26-year-old resident of Kolkata is more anxious and is terrified of phone calls, as they only seem to bring bad news. Without being able to meet friends and family, her empty house “screams of maa’s absence”. When she turned to social media, cries for oxygen were like a trigger, reminding her of her mother’s last moments when she was struggling to breathe.
Shreyasi Datta, an instructional designer at Walmart, lost her mother on 13 February to heart failure.
“Phone calls scare me. With the death toll rising, I constantly worry about my father and what I would do if anything were to happen to him. Time seems to be passing very very quickly but the days feel very long at the same time. It’s strange,” she said.
Grieving in isolation has been equally hard for 27-year-old Soham Nag, a sports writer. Clad in a full PPE suit, Nag had only managed to see his father’s body for 10 seconds, before the municipal corporation van drove away for the cremation.
Nag, a Kolkata resident, and his entire family started showing symptoms around the first week of August 2020. His father’s immunity was already compromised due to ongoing chemotherapy, and thus Covid affected him worse than the others in the family. In spite of efforts like plasma therapy and ventilation, he passed away on 17 August of a heart attack. The next few days were some of the most lonely, grief-stricken ones that Nag’s family would ever experience. There were no visits by friends or family, as the family was Covid-positive still. The last rites were conducted in a very small ceremony.
“We couldn’t even bring him home one last time. Words cannot describe that feeling,” said Nag.
We couldn’t even bring him home one last time. Words cannot describe that feeling.
Grief and grieving have taken on a different meaning in the era of the Covid-19 pandemic.
Before the pandemic, the period after death in many Indian families was largely marked by people coming over, rituals and rites. Now, with limited physical access to people, processing grief is a very lonely affair.
C.R. Satish Kumar, consultant clinical psychologist, Manipal Hospitals, says that grieving alone has chances of leading to Post Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) and long-term depression. “Physical presence plays a big role for most. People find strength when dear ones are around for support. Support makes us move forward. Not having that, can lead to long-term devastating effects, like PTSD. When the years 2020 or 2021 will come to their minds, even five years or ten years down the line, they might have panic attacks,” he said.
Ruchita Chandrashekar, Behavioural Health Researcher and Psychologist, says the manifestations of grief remain the same but are only heightened when one is grieving alone. These include a lack of appetite, headaches, immune responses slowing down, lack of focus and brain fog.
“India traditionally has a collectivistic and ritualistic culture. People have been known to derive a sense of closure when they see an end to things. Now, a feeling of not being able to say goodbye properly, might result in more grief,” said Chandrashekar. “These traditions often help in processing grief better. They bring a sense of closure. The absence of it can lead to confusion and sadness.”
A feeling of not being able to say goodbye properly, might result in more grief.
Even as she mourned the passing of her mother, Datta was petrified that the rest of her family would contract the virus from the people who were visiting to pay their respects.
The loss hit her harder when cases started rising again due to the second wave and they had to resume an isolated lifestyle. “Once the cases started rising we had to ask people to not come over. And that is when I was actually left alone to cope with this loss. Weekdays are still fine because of work. Weekends are bad. There is honestly no other word for it. The house screams of maa’s absence. And at times it gets too much to bear,” she said.
Datta had to initially take medicines for a long time to be able to sleep properly. Even though she has stopped taking the medicines now, she still has trouble falling asleep.
“I am terrified to wake up to more bad news,” she said.
I am terrified to wake up to more bad news.
Absence of physical touch
Gargi Vishnoi, a Counselling Psychologist, Fortis Healthcare, says that situations of grief feel less catastrophic when we are surrounded by people to share our grief with. Even for those choosing to be alone and processing the grief alone, Vishnoi said, the knowledge that there are people to reach out to is enough.
“People might want to be alone, but not necessarily feel lonely. Everyone processes grief differently,” she said.
Physical touch cannot be replaced, said Datta. “Phone calls and video calls help, but nothing can beat the feeling of being hugged or having someone next to you,” she said.
The role of social media
In February, during the initial days after losing her mother, Datta felt a mix of confusing emotions when she opened social media and saw people posting about their lives.
“Initially social media felt like an alien space. I couldn’t relate to anybody or their normal happy posts. The stories or the posts reminded me of how I would never go back to the person I was before this happened. There was a lot of confusion and anger and I didn’t know how to channel it,” she said.
Datta chose to stay off social media as much as possible. But with time, she felt differently.
“I cannot be mad at the world for the grief I feel,” she said.
On her mother’s birthday on 11 May, Datta wrote a post on Facebook, with a collection of beautiful photos. She felt like it was a homage to everyone who has lost somebody during the pandemic.
“Although the photos were related to my mother, I’m sure there are people who feel this absence in their own homes. I would never wish this on anybody, it sometimes feels good to know that I am not alone. There are people who understand my pain,” she said.
Chandrashekar, the Behavioural Health Researcher, observed that some people find it cathartic to write a post or an obituary about their loved one on social media.
“It brings a sense of collective grief when people comment mentioning their own experiences. It becomes a virtual prayer meet of sorts,” she said.
However, Chandrashekar, warned that if one is compulsively using social media, “doom scrolling” endlessly, they need to keep their phone aside for a while.
In the midst of the second wave, social media has been flooded with SOS calls for oxygen, beds and plasma. Vishnoi, the counselling psychologist, says this can be quite triggering for some.
“Someone needing plasma, someone needing oxygen isn’t positive news. It can be widely triggering and can lead to mental exhaustion,” said Vishnoi. “Some people do feel overwhelmed by this constant barrage of negative news.”
Chandrashekar advises people to allow themselves to feel everything they’re feeling.
“Give yourself the permission to cry. Sulk for three days if you want. You don’t have to look for silver linings. Treat yourself as a person, and allow yourself to feel all the emotions,” she said.
Treat yourself as a person, and allow yourself to feel all the emotions.
Chandrashekar noted that grief is not a linear process. One can feel calm on one day and things might feel different, three days on, she said. Acknowledging and accepting that is important.
Vishnoi, the Counselling Psychologist, says that even though the concept of support groups is not so common in India, the pandemic has given rise to quite a few of these groups which operate via zoom meetings and other online platforms.
“These groups enable people to share their stories, their own ordeals. So when grief becomes ubiquitous, when it’s no longer personalised, there’s a sense of community. It gives a sense of odd relief, that ‘I’m not alone in this,’”she said.
It gives a sense of odd relief, that ‘I’m not alone in this.’
Writing too is an excellent method of catharsis, Vishnoi said. “Poetry, diary entries and painting are also great ways of expressing oneself, for those unable to express themselves verbally,” she said.
Looking ahead and avoiding blame
Kumar, the consultant clinical psychologist at Manipal Hospital, emphasizes that in order to heal, people need to shift focus from the “non-controllables” to the “controllables.” “Non-controllables” are what he describes as things that are not in one’s hands, like death.
“People tend to blame themselves, that maybe they didn’t do enough, maybe they weren’t there during the last moments of their loved ones. They can be very hard on themselves. But one has to accept that these things aren’t in one’s hands or those of the doctors,” he said.
Kumar advises people to instead focus on things that they can control; things like the health of their loved ones, their own responsibilities and duties.
Closure, Kumar added, is important for people to process deaths. “A way to do this would be by sending wishes or messages in the form of prayers to the deceased. One can also write these down in a diary. This helps take the weight of emotions off our chests,” he said.
Kumar said that if after a few days, one is still having difficulty in dealing with the emotions and not being able to cope, that’s the time to reach out to a mental health professional.
If you or someone you know needs help, please call 1800-599-0019, India’s 24/7 toll-free national mental health helpline.